Audubon Society, Currier Museum team up for ‘Birds to Beasts’ exhibit

If you think that John James Audubon painted only birds, here’s some news.

After his ground-breaking publication The Birds of America (1826-38), the artist, naturalist and adventurer turned his attention to other animals, starting in the Northeast, then traveling westward, studying and painting the wildlife of frontier America.

Following his wilderness journey, he created a book of his mammal studies, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, (1845-1848).

“From Birds to Beasts: Audubon’s Last Great Adventure” is on display through Aug. 30 at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester. The exhibition follows Audubon’s travels up the Missouri River in 1843 as he documented animals that had never been seen by easterners. More than 45 original hand-colored prints will be on view, most of which come from the New Hampshire Audubon collection. This is the first time the collection has been shown at the Currier since the 1970s.

“We are thrilled to be working with the Currier Museum of Art on this project, which will raise awareness about the impact of John James Audubon as both a ground-breaking artist and naturalist,” said Michael Bartlett, New Hampshire Audubon president. “Our collaboration with the Currier Museum has been tremendously rewarding, allowing us to share this incredible collection with the public.”

Naturalist Ruth Smith of New Hampshire Audubon wrote the science labels for a selected group of the prints, and other naturalists from the organization will share their knowledge in the galleries during the course of the exhibition.

Several of Audubon’s popular bird illustrations are also included in the exhibition. Andrew Spahr, Currier curator and director of collections and exhibitions, said the birds were included not only to remind people about the birds project but also because that’s what people are most familiar with.

They provide a bit of an anchor, he said, but the show is mainly about the quadrupeds.

Visitors can browse a full-size reproduction of Quadrupeds prepared by Currier staff from high-quality digital images. The book is enormous – each page is about 22 x 28 inches.

The exhibition includes stuffed mounts of some of the animals Audubon studied. Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in Holderness lent mounts of bobcat, fisher and fox, which are on view in a special gallery space that will allow visitors to draw these animals from observation, in the same way Audubon did. And, the Currier has prepared a 32-page illustrated takeaway booklet based on the exhibition’s themes of art, nature and adventure. Families can use the booklet to learn more about New Hampshire wildlife and also how to draw what they see in nature.

Audubon painted from real specimens, some of which he hunted himself while others were obtained from other sources. He had them stuffed and then he wired them into the active poses which distinguish his work from the static images of earlier artists.

“What set Audubon apart from other naturalists of the time was the way he embedded stories in his beautiful, detailed illustrations,” Spahr said. “Audubon’s original artworks showed these creatures in their natural settings, seemingly in motion, acting in ways they did when they were alive.”

A Canada Lynx is shown crouching in a stalking position, sharp claws extended, eyes wide, ready to pounce on unseen prey. A black-footed ferret peers into a ground nest full of eggs. The viewer knows exactly what’s coming next.

Not all the action is predatory, though. Common mice polish off a hunk of cheese in someone’s kitchen. (There is an unproven rumor that it was a favorite print of Walt Disney’s and was his inspiration for Mickey Mouse.) Gray rabbits cavort on a hillside. Virginian opossum wrap their tails around a branch for balance as they nibble on berries.

Contrast Audubon’s vibrant Yellow Crowned Heron with Alexander Wilson’s flat-looking image of the same bird. Wilson, who was the premier American ornithologist before Audubon, painted birds in static profile. He mixed birds on the same page that wouldn’t be seen together, and never showed them life-sized as Audubon did.

“Another thing that shows up in a lot of the prints is the interaction between animals and humans,” Spahr said.

In American Red Fox, a fox is caught in a trap. In the background, you can see fences and farm buildings.

Perhaps it’s a farmer trying to keep the fox out of his henhouse, Spahr said, or perhaps it’s Audubon capturing it for his study purposes.

In House Wren, birds have made a home in a hat that someone left on a branch.

“There are a lot of instances where there’s some suggestion of human activity or habitation in the background,” Spahr said. “That’s one of the things that makes the images so interesting and compelling even today.”

Audubon didn’t create the images by himself.

“He would make an original watercolor,” Spahr said, “then he’d send it to the printer with written instructions as to how the animal should look, how it should be posed, and some of the details from the coloring and the observations he’s made.”

A printmaker would draw Audubon’s image on a lithographic stone, and from this the black outlines for the image were printed on paper.

A roomful of skilled colorists added the color by hand.

“Sometimes if you look closely you can see where the watercolorist wandered a little bit outside the lines,” Spahr said.

Audubon would finally approve one of the colored images, and all would then work from that master image.

However, as with anything done by hand, no two prints are exactly alike. The text label for two prints of White Footed Mouse challenges the viewer to find the differences.

Sometimes Audubon would paint a background on the original. When he didn’t, other artists – Maria Martin, Isaac Sprague or one of his sons, John Woodhouse Audubon or Victor Gifford Audubon – would sometimes paint them. Often they were sent to the printer without any background, and the artists there added it.

“Audubon would say, ‘Just put some bushes here,’ ” Spahr said.

His initial paintings Brown or Norway Rat and Gray Rabbit appear next to their finished works, in which other artists added the watermelon and ivy leaves to the former, and a grassy hillside to the latter.

Of the 150 prints in the Quadrupeds collection, he drew only half before he died in 1851. His son, John Woodhouse Audubon, completed the rest.

Audubon’s work continues to influence contemporary artists 170 years later.

The exhibition includes six large prints by Walton Ford (born in 1960) painted in Audubon’s faithfully rendered style but, unlike Audubon’s realism, depict improbable arrangements and bizarre landscapes.

Ford’s images are metaphors for social, environmental and political issues: India’s colonization, Benjamin Franklin’s debaucherous personal life, the musical upheaval created by punk rock, the consequence of mixing incompatible cultures, and the C.I.A.’s failed attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro.

Audubon’s western journey was facilitated by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Co., but with unexpected results. Audubon and fellow artist Isaac Sprague hitched a ride on one of the company’s boats and saw firsthand the results of the massive commercial hunting taking place at that time. The beaver and the otter nearly became extinct.

Audubon, in writing about his trip, referred to the fur traders as exterminators, predicted the decimation of the bison population, and became interested in conservation.

Although Audubon and his team killed many animals for scientific study and artistic accuracy, his name became associated with environmental causes. His legacy continues with the work of the Audubon Society, formed in 1898 as a result of outrage over the slaughter of millions of water birds for the millinery trade.

Just as a lot of people have no idea that Audubon painted mammals, a lot of people don’t know that the Audubon Society is about more than birds now.

“In some ways Audubon, the man, his progression through his work, kind of parallels our own history as an organization,” Smith said.

The Audubon movement was first focused on birds and bird protection, and later expanded to include all of wildlife, she said.

“Over time our mission has broadened to work on wildlife, wildlife habitat and the things that wildlife need for survival,” she said. “It’s more than birds. We still certainly focus on birds as what we call our gateway and our foundation, but we do more than that.”

“One of the reasons we were so excited to partner with the Currier,” she said, “is not because we own these prints but because Audubon’s work is a way for people to connect to the subjects of the art and get out to explore the habitats where they live.”

If you think that John James Audubon painted only birds, here’s some news.

After his ground-breaking publication The Birds of America (1826-38), the artist, naturalist and adventurer turned his attention to other animals, starting in the Northeast, then traveling westward, studying and painting the wildlife of frontier America.

Following his wilderness journey, he created a book of his mammal studies, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, (1845-1848).

“From Birds to Beasts: Audubon’s Last Great Adventure” is on display through Aug. 30 at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester. The exhibition follows Audubon’s travels up the Missouri River in 1843 as he documented animals that had never been seen by easterners. More than 45 original hand-colored prints will be on view, most of which come from the New Hampshire Audubon collection. This is the first time the collection has been shown at the Currier since the 1970s.

“We are thrilled to be working with the Currier Museum of Art on this project, which will raise awareness about the impact of John James Audubon as both a ground-breaking artist and naturalist,” said Michael Bartlett, New Hampshire Audubon president. “Our collaboration with the Currier Museum has been tremendously rewarding, allowing us to share this incredible collection with the public.”

Naturalist Ruth Smith of New Hampshire Audubon wrote the science labels for a selected group of the prints, and other naturalists from the organization will share their knowledge in the galleries during the course of the exhibition.

Several of Audubon’s popular bird illustrations are also included in the exhibition. Andrew Spahr, Currier curator and director of collections and exhibitions, said the birds were included not only to remind people about the birds project but also because that’s what people are most familiar with.

They provide a bit of an anchor, he said, but the show is mainly about the quadrupeds.

Visitors can browse a full-size reproduction of Quadrupeds prepared by Currier staff from high-quality digital images. The book is enormous – each page is about 22 x 28 inches.

The exhibition includes stuffed mounts of some of the animals Audubon studied. Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in Holderness lent mounts of bobcat, fisher and fox, which are on view in a special gallery space that will allow visitors to draw these animals from observation, in the same way Audubon did. And, the Currier has prepared a 32-page illustrated takeaway booklet based on the exhibition’s themes of art, nature and adventure. Families can use the booklet to learn more about New Hampshire wildlife and also how to draw what they see in nature.

Audubon painted from real specimens, some of which he hunted himself while others were obtained from other sources. He had them stuffed and then he wired them into the active poses which distinguish his work from the static images of earlier artists.

“What set Audubon apart from other naturalists of the time was the way he embedded stories in his beautiful, detailed illustrations,” Spahr said. “Audubon’s original artworks showed these creatures in their natural settings, seemingly in motion, acting in ways they did when they were alive.”

A Canada Lynx is shown crouching in a stalking position, sharp claws extended, eyes wide, ready to pounce on unseen prey. A black-footed ferret peers into a ground nest full of eggs. The viewer knows exactly what’s coming next.

Not all the action is predatory, though. Common mice polish off a hunk of cheese in someone’s kitchen. (There is an unproven rumor that it was a favorite print of Walt Disney’s and was his inspiration for Mickey Mouse.) Gray rabbits cavort on a hillside. Virginian opossum wrap their tails around a branch for balance as they nibble on berries.

Contrast Audubon’s vibrant Yellow Crowned Heron with Alexander Wilson’s flat-looking image of the same bird. Wilson, who was the premier American ornithologist before Audubon, painted birds in static profile. He mixed birds on the same page that wouldn’t be seen together, and never showed them life-sized as Audubon did.

“Another thing that shows up in a lot of the prints is the interaction between animals and humans,” Spahr said.

In American Red Fox, a fox is caught in

If you think that John James Audubon painted only birds, here’s some news.

After his ground-breaking publication The Birds of America (1826-38), the artist, naturalist and adventurer turned his attention to other animals, starting in the Northeast, then traveling westward, studying and painting the wildlife of frontier America.

Following his wilderness journey, he created a book of his mammal studies, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, (1845-1848).

“From Birds to Beasts: Audubon’s Last Great Adventure” is on display through Aug. 30 at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester. The exhibition follows Audubon’s travels up the Missouri River in 1843 as he documented animals that had never been seen by easterners. More than 45 original hand-colored prints will be on view, most of which come from the New Hampshire Audubon collection. This is the first time the collection has been shown at the Currier since the 1970s.

“We are thrilled to be working with the Currier Museum of Art on this project, which will raise awareness about the impact of John James Audubon as both a ground-breaking artist and naturalist,” said Michael Bartlett, New Hampshire Audubon president. “Our collaboration with the Currier Museum has been tremendously rewarding, allowing us to share this incredible collection with the public.”

Naturalist Ruth Smith of New Hampshire Audubon wrote the science labels for a selected group of the prints, and other naturalists from the organization will share their knowledge in the galleries during the course of the exhibition.

Several of Audubon’s popular bird illustrations are also included in the exhibition. Andrew Spahr, Currier curator and director of collections and exhibitions, said the birds were included not only to remind people about the birds project but also because that’s what people are most familiar with.

They provide a bit of an anchor, he said, but the show is mainly about the quadrupeds.

Visitors can browse a full-size reproduction of Quadrupeds prepared by Currier staff from high-quality digital images. The book is enormous – each page is about 22 x 28 inches.

The exhibition includes stuffed mounts of some of the animals Audubon studied. Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in Holderness lent mounts of bobcat, fisher and fox, which are on view in a special gallery space that will allow visitors to draw these animals from observation, in the same way Audubon did. And, the Currier has prepared a 32-page illustrated takeaway booklet based on the exhibition’s themes of art, nature and adventure. Families can use the booklet to learn more about New Hampshire wildlife and also how to draw what they see in nature.

Audubon painted from real specimens, some of which he hunted himself while others were obtained from other sources. He had them stuffed and then he wired them into the active poses which distinguish his work from the static images of earlier artists.

“What set Audubon apart from other naturalists of the time was the way he embedded stories in his beautiful, detailed illustrations,” Spahr said. “Audubon’s original artworks showed these creatures in their natural settings, seemingly in motion, acting in ways they did when they were alive.”

A Canada Lynx is shown crouching in a stalking position, sharp claws extended, eyes wide, ready to pounce on unseen prey. A black-footed ferret peers into a ground nest full of eggs. The viewer knows exactly what’s coming next.

Not all the action is predatory, though. Common mice polish off a hunk of cheese in someone’s kitchen. (There is an unproven rumor that it was a favorite print of Walt Disney’s and was his inspiration for Mickey Mouse.) Gray rabbits cavort on a hillside. Virginian opossum wrap their tails around a branch for balance as they nibble on berries.

Audubon didn’t create the images by himself.

“He would make an original watercolor,” Spahr said, “then he’d send it to the printer with written instructions as to how the animal should look, how it should be posed, and some of the details from the coloring and the observations he’s made.”

A printmaker would draw Audubon’s image on a lithographic stone, and from this the black outlines for the image were printed on paper.

A roomful of skilled colorists added the color by hand.

“Sometimes if you look closely you can see where the watercolorist wandered a little bit outside the lines,” Spahr said.

Audubon would finally approve one of the colored images, and all would then work from that master image.

However, as with anything done by hand, no two prints are exactly alike.

The text label for two prints of White Footed Mouse challenges the viewer to find the differences.

Sometimes Audubon would paint a background on the original. When he didn’t, other artists – Maria Martin, Isaac Sprague or one of his sons, John Woodhouse Audubon or Victor Gifford Audubon – would sometimes paint them. Often they were sent to the printer without any background, and the artists there added it.

“Audubon would say, ‘Just put some bushes here,’ ” Spahr said.

His initial paintings Brown or Norway Rat and Gray Rabbit appear next to their finished works, in which other artists added the watermelon and ivy leaves to the former, and a grassy hillside to the latter.

Of the 150 prints in the Quadrupeds collection, he drew only half before he died in 1851. His son, John Woodhouse Audubon, completed the rest.

Audubon’s western journey was facilitated by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Co., but with unexpected results. Audubon and fellow artist Isaac Sprague hitched a ride on one of the company’s boats and saw firsthand the results of the massive commercial hunting taking place at that time. The beaver and the otter nearly became extinct.

Audubon, in writing about his trip, referred to the fur traders as exterminators, predicted the decimation of the bison population, and became interested in conservation.

Although Audubon and his team killed many animals for scientific study and artistic accuracy, his name became associated with environmental causes.

His legacy continues with the work of the Audubon Society, formed in 1898 as a result of outrage over the slaughter of millions of water birds for the millinery trade.

Just as a lot of people have no idea that Audubon painted mammals, a lot of people don’t know that the Audubon Society is about more than birds now.

“In some ways Audubon, the man, his progression through his work, kind of parallels our own history as an organization,” Smith said.

The Audubon movement was first focused on birds and bird protection, and later expanded to include all of wildlife, she said.

“Over time our mission has broadened to work on wildlife, wildlife habitat and the things that wildlife need for survival,” she said. “It’s more than birds. We still certainly focus on birds as what we call our gateway and our foundation, but we do more than that.”

“One of the reasons we were so excited to partner with the Currier,” she said, “is not because we own these prints but because Audubon’s work is a way for people to connect to the subjects of the art and get out to explore the habitats where they live.”




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