There are 1,065 birds in John James Audubon's "The Birds of America," that 19th-century encyclopedic tour de force. Their images appear on 435 separate sheets. It took a team of 50 to etch and print and paint by hand those sharply detailed pages, most of which were early on trimmed and pierced with needles and sewn into big books.
Only two whole sets survive whose loose, undamaged sheets were never trimmed for binding, and still look the way they did when they first came from the print shop. One of these "double-elephant" folios (the printer's term suggests the pachydermic size of its 40-inch-high pages) has been, since 1945, in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art.
The Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, the one shown on the dollar bill, is more than a mere painting. The mighty Lincoln statue, too, is more than a mere sculpture. The same fate has befallen Audubon's great bird book. It's more than just a work of art. It's become a national monument. It's part of who we are.
Usually its feathered stars stay, unframed, in drawers, though every now and then the gallery does display them. "Audubon's Dream Realized: Selections From 'The Birds of America,' " now in the West Building, is a show of 50. Its prints, says Carlotta Owens, the curator who chose them, "include most of the images that people ask to see when they're not out on the walls."
The passenger pigeon (now extinct), and the ivory-billed woodpecker (which was thought extinct, but apparently isn't) are among the birds on view. The fish-eating bald eagle, emblem of the nation, has also been selected, as has the Baltimore oriole, the California condor, the raven and the mockingbird and, of course, the wild turkey (in an image touched with gold).
Not everyone will love these birds. They look a little stiff, perhaps. (Most have just been shot.) They also look generic instead of individual. And their beadiness of eye is frequently reptilian. But none of this much matters. What somehow matters more is the undeniable patriotic aura that shimmers round this art.
Birds, of course, are emblems -- the eagle on the flagpole, the dove of peace, the hawk. These, too, have become symbols -- of America's New Eden, that place of natural wonders, where daring pioneers live in close proximity to God's amazing handiwork, and make amazing art.
Like "Dumbo" by Walt Disney, or the faces on Mount Rushmore carved by Gutzon Borglum, or Andy Warhol's can of soup, Audubon's big birds have become part of America's patrimony. Hanging them is easy. Striking in their impact, they're also tastefully descriptive. They're as much at ease with modern furniture as they are with antiques. These nationalist embellishments decorate hotel rooms, and the offices of lawyers, and steak houses, and classrooms. They've been endlessly reproduced.
All patriotic viewers who haven't seen them should.
In the hokum of their marketing, in their muscular graphic oomph, in their hugeness of ambition and their hunger for top dollar, Audubon's big etchings are as American as can be.
And as British. And as French.
Though the artist is remembered as notably American, he wasn't wholly ours. J.J. Audubon was born Jean Rabine in Haiti in 1785. Until he was 18 the painter lived in France, and it was surely in that rich, cultivated country -- not while tramping across our trackless woods, or wading through our swamps -- that he first absorbed the stylish scrolls and luxurious arabesques and ripe rococo curls that activate his art.
His birds may be American, but these prints aren't. They were made in London. Audubon supplied the detailed watercolor drawings on which his prints were based, but skillful English craftsmen, led by London's Robert Havell (1793-1878), etched their copper plates, and put them through the press, and applied their watercolor hues. Publication, which began in 1826, was completed in 1838.
Europe offered Audubon something else he sorely needed -- competitive buyers rich enough to afford his costly art.
"It is not the naturalist I wish to please," he wrote in 1826, "it is the wealthy part of the community."
In this he well succeeded. King George IV of England, King Charles X of France, the Duchess of Clarence and Charles Bonaparte, who one day would become King Louis Philippe of France, were among his subscribers. A full set of "The Birds" cost $1,000, and a rich man's private library grand enough to house it -- a library with leather chairs and 40-inch-high bookshelves and long well-ordered rows of rich morocco bindings -- cost even more than that.
Audubon knew just how to hook his wealthy customers. Once he got to England he became the Noble Savage, the artist as a natural, the diamond in the rough. He called himself "The American Woodsman." He claimed he'd hunted with Daniel Boone. He came on like Natty Bumppo from "The Last of the Mohicans." In London, Audubon strode into grand drawing rooms with fringes on his buckskins, and bear grease in his hair.
His pictures are displayed against bare walls at the National Gallery. The drawing rooms where Audubon showed them off were different. There the table legs and candlesticks were carved with smooth acanthus leaves. Underfoot were figured carpets. Everywhere one turned one saw curlicues and swirls and swooping arabesques. All beauty is dependent on the beauty of the S-curve, so England's William Hogarth had taught his nation's aestheticians. Audubon's compositions -- those glimpses of the New World designed to reassure the Old -- rely upon it, too.
Audubon, the artist, was a pretty good ecologist. His birds don't perch in bell jars. His pictures show the foods they eat (catfish, baby alligators, many sorts of moths) and the branches they inhabit, and glimpses of the landscapes through which he'd watched them fly.
To give the man due credit, he was a great graphic designer. His birds don't really move; they swoop or tumble. He never shows them blurred. Their energy derives from the power of their outlines, and from the unexpected ways they've been fit onto the page.
Otherwise they're static. Their floating feathers do not float, they look glued to the paper. Audubon's birds feel pinioned, too. Instead of lively flying things, they tend to look like corpses pinned to boards with nails, or held in place by metal wires -- which shouldn't be surprising for that's just what they are.
Audubon's Dream Realized: Selections From 'The Birds of America' will be on display in the National Gallery's West Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW, through March 26. The 50 prints on view have been chosen from a folio that Mrs. Walter B. James presented to the gallery 60 years ago. An Audubon oil painting, "Osprey and Weakfish" (1829 or later), a recent gift of Richard Mellon Scaife, is also on display. General Dynamics sponsored this exhibit. The gallery is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is free. Go to www.nga.gov or call 202-737-4215 for more information.