THE ELUSIVE Bachman's warbler has been sighted. What Audubon called "the feathered tribes" have descended on the Corcoran Gallery -- in the form of 30 plates from his third edition of "The Birds of America."
The plates are huge -- "double elephant" size. John James Audubon chose the format so he could make everything life-size down to the paw-paw branches. But he ran into problems on the gawky pink flamingo -- the bird had to almost be folded to fit, its neck craned into a hairpin curve. Still, this was acceptable: "For believe me," wrote Audubon, "nothing can be more transient or varied than the attitude or positions of birds."
The prints are large and powerful and you can tell he really loved his feathered friends: He studied them, caught them, glorified them, and sometimes ate them. From specimens and from life, he painted eider ducks ("I have represented three of these birds in a state of irritation," he wrote), the tawny and russet wild turkey, the now-endangered (but perhaps rebounding) brown pelican and that silly looking penguin-duck, the now-extinct great auk.
These birds are to be distinguished from the flock that appeared at the National Gallery three years ago. The gallery showed selections from Audubon's first edition -- 435 hand-colored engravings done by Robert Havell Jr. from 1827 to 1838. (The National owns one of the two existing unbound folios.)
The Corcoran's edition was begun in 1859, in chromolithography, then a new process. The ornithologist's son, John Woodhouse Audubon, asked Julius Bien, a German-born printmaker living in New York, to take on the new edition. Bien used as many as 30 different stones, combining only six colors.
This edition doesn't have quite the snap of the first -- and sometimes the stones were out of register, producing ghost images. But it will definitely do, and it's exceedingly rare. The job was left unfinished, with only 106 plates completed. Financial improprieties, John Woodhouse's death and the Civil War intervened.
AUDUBON BY BIEN -- Through August 17 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.