Audubon's American Birds - as large as life

Two surprises may confront you when you see plates from John James Audubon's masterpiece, "The Birds of America," in their original form.

The first is their exceptional size.

The (untrimmed) sheets of paper on which "The Birds" were printed measured 29-1/2 by 39-1/2 inches. This was known as "double elephant folio." So, for example, the plate of the two Columbia jays, shown here, is more than three feet high and two feet wide. Audubon's prints of birds are so often seen in small formats, or reproduced as book illustrations, that his determination to show the birds' true size is easily forgotten.

For that reason alone, the current display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington - of some 47 separate sheets from its collection - is a telling reminder of the magnificent ambition of this unprecedented project of the early 19th century.

"Merely to say, that each of my illustrations is of the size of nature, were too vague," Audubon commented. "Not only is every object, as a whole, of the natural size, but also every portion of each object. The compass aided me in its delineation, regulated and corrected each part.... The bill, the feet, the legs, the claws, the very feathers as they project one beyond another, have been accurately measured."

The second surprise is the high degree of sophistication, precision, and, above all, the fresh, subtle color of these original etchings. This piquant coloring was applied by hand.

"The Birds of America" was issued in 87 parts, each consisting of five plates. When it was completed in 1838, it contained 435 engravings - mostly the work of London engraver Robert Havell - of 1,065 birds belonging to 489 species.

Audubon never painted from stuffed specimens. A keen huntsman, he generally used freshly killed subjects. The prints, made from his original watercolors, show his keen sense of design and a real attempt to portray the sometimes-dramatic behavior of birds in the wild.

His aim was to include all the birds of North America. His "Columbia Jays," however, were painted from skins given to him by someone who claimed they were collected on the Columbia River in Oregon. However, the species is Mexican, and its only recorded sighting in the US was in Arizona.

The exhibition 'Audubon's Dream Realized: Selections from "The Birds of America" ' is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, until March 26.

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