Audubon and the Art of Birds

Audubon and the Art of Birds

The Bell Museum will debut Audubon and the Art of Birds, an exhibition that explores the human fascination with birds, and showcases one of the museum’s most valuable treasures: a double-elephant folio edition of John James Audubon’s Birds of America. The rare collection of hand-colored engravings was donated to the Bell Museum in 1928.

John James Audubon (1785-1851) is one of the most enduring figures in American art and culture. His biography reads like a romantic novel. Born the illegitimate son of a French sea captain in what is now Haiti, he was raised in France during the years of revolution. As a young man he came to America to seek his fortune on the western frontier. After years of struggle and business failure, Audubon decided to devote his life on his true passion, the painting of birds. In 1820, at age 35, he set out to paint every bird in America, life-size and in color.

Today, Audubon is synonymous with birds and the conservation of nature. His images revolutionized the way we view birds and the natural world. Before Audubon, artists depicted animals either as allegorical figures, or as stiff, dead specimens. Audubon’s birds are not only technically superb, with every feather and scale delineated, they reveal birds as living, dynamic creatures whose intrinsic beauty and vitality are worthy of study and preservation. Today, artists and naturalists continue to find inspiration in his work and life, and his prints are as popular as ever.

This exhibition focuses on the masterwork of American art, science and conservation – Audubon’s the Birds of America. Organized around a series of themes, the show compares the naive drawings of early naturalists such as Mark Catesby and Alexander Wilson, to the brilliant colors of Francois Levaillant’s engravings and the lavish publications by John Gould. During the 20th Century artists such as Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Francis Lee Jaques, and Roger Tory Peterson took bird art in new directions. The human fascination with birds continues today, and the show includes works by a select group of living artists, such as Lars Jonsson and Walton Ford, whose work is inspired by Audubon’s example.

The exhibition assembles over 100 prints, drawings and paintings; including a selection of newly conserved original double-elephant folio engravings from the Birds of America, and 60 to 70 works by other artists from the 1500s to the present day. The artworks are complimented with displays of antique illustrated books, specimens and artifacts, interpretive panels, hands-on exhibits and activities on bird biology. The exhibition draws upon the collections of the Bell Museum, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Woodson Art Museum, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Academy of Natural Sciences, National Museum of Wildlife Art and individual collectors and artists.