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Original Audubon Watercolors

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Our guide at the New-York Historical Society would be curator Roberta Olson, whose enthusiasm for and knowledge of the art of Audubon is unequaled. She's been over every print and painting with a magnifying glass, and in speaking of Audubon, brings him to glorious life.

First to come was a double elephant folio of Audubon prints, carefully opened by the curator to the flamingo page. Now these are not original watercolors, but engravings that were done from Audubon's original watercolors and hand-colored in a limited edition for collectors.  I couldn’t believe how vivid the colors were, how huge the image was. Audubon painted every bird life-size, so putting an American flamingo on even a double elephant folio sized page was a challenge. He folded and crimped the bird, and yet gave it life and motion. The back foot is lifted as if it’s in mid-step. Across the top of the page are some line drawing studies of the bill structure. And behind the bird range some other flamingos. Looking at them, it was clear to me that Audubon did not draw them. Their proportions were badly off, as were their stances--in sharp contrast to the exquisite foreground bird. Perhaps they were added by engraver Robert Havell, who, though he was terrific at what he did, was nobody's  bird artist.    (My mom used to describe certain people, the kind whose elevator doesn't go all the way to the top, as "nobody's brain.")

I was curious about why the Picturing America project chose Audubon’s flamingo as its iconic American image. (The filmmaker wasn’t consulted about the selection). Audubon observed flamingos in the Florida Keys in 1832, and was wild to paint them. He badgered his friend Bachman (he of Bachman’s warbler fame) to send him specimens, but didn’t get his wish until 1838. What torture, to hold onto that vision for six years! He had to have the specimen shipped from Cuba, and painted it in London. From the way the primaries fold beneath the secondaries, and the way the wing stands outside the body plumage rather than tucking into it, it appears to me that he was forced to work from a dried skin, but he nevertheless imbued it with life. Compare the way the wings are almost hidden by the ornamental scapular feathers of these living birds, and how you can't see the black primaries, with the stiff, dried-looking wing on Audubon's painting. He'd certainly have gotten that right if he'd been able to see a live flamingo up close.

 Caribbean flamingos, Columbus Zoo, November 2009

 When I think of Audubon, many other images spring to mind—his lively ivory-billed woodpeckers; his Carolina parakeets in cocklebur.  His yellow-breasted chats, his wood ducks. Ah well, They’re all magnificent. The selection process may have been simple: The flamingo, though it barely and accidentally incurs into southernmost Florida every once in a blue moon, is big, impressive, and bright pink.
 Wild flamingos, Celestun, Yucatan, Mexico.

And now, curator Roberta Olson revealed what was in the tantalizing black portfolios on the tables in the viewing room. She pulled out Audubon’s original watercolor for the American flamingo. Innocent of background, the bird stood alone on the off-white paper. Audubon had painted egg white over the salmon- pink (quite a different and truer plumage color than shown in the elephant folio print), and over time that glaze had bubbled up and oxidized into brownish drips and crackles. This is one of the few originals that doesn’t look as nice as the print.

But there were more original watercolors. My heart started to race. Roberta, with flourish and an air of a magician, pulled out the house wrens next. There they were, nesting in their felt hat. Roberta showed me where Audubon had let the watercolors mingle and leave little tidelines with water to create texture on the hat. The wrens’ droppings were doubtless once bright white, but the lead in the white paint had oxidized to bluish gray. I’d always wondered about that.  At this point I was still very shy about pulling out my camera. I was almost afraid to breathe on the paintings. I couldn’t believe I was looking at the watercolor paper (Whatman, still made today) that Audubon painted on; that the heel of his hand had rested on it as he moved the brush.


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Great stuff Julie, I love Audubon! Wonderful opportunity, congratulations!

Flamingos (specifically Pincus Flamingus Plastica) remain a favorite yardbird even far north of Florida...;-)

There are other "wild" flamingos further north than the Florida Keys in Florida, although their origin is "unknown". I've seen as many as 14 at one time just south of Lake Okeechobee in flooded sugarcane fields of all places. here's a link to a photo of one that spent a week at STA-5 (one of Florida's best kept secrets as far as birding goes) a few years ago:

Posted by Vincent Lucas October 29, 2010 at 3:34 AM

Very interesting, thanks for sharing Julie. I’ve always enjoyed viewing his prints in art books and the University of Pittsburgh’s online collection ( I picked up an old binder at a yard sale years ago with 50 or so print plates of various birds he had painted. It was old and worn but definitely worth holding on to.

I have seen those flamingo prints and wondered why the bird was in such an strange pose--you've explained it--of course, to fit it in the book. Thanks--hart

Northwestern Mutual started giving away large Audubon "prints" in the 1940s. Today, relatives find these prints and think they have original Audubon prints.

Even as a retiree, my husband looks forward to receiving his annual Audubon wall and desk calendars. It must have been thrilling to see the real prints.

Lucky duck! Wonderful following along on your Audubon adventure. Carolyn, I know just the prints you are talking about; my grandmother had quite a collection of them.

What a treat to be able to see Adubon's originals up close and personal! I honestly never understood what the fuss was about his work until I saw a presentation put on by the Detroit Adubon Society. As images of his work were projected on the big screen I realized what my problem was.

Most of my exposure to his work had been to the prints/engravings, which never looked quite right to me. But seeing images of his original works, from which the engraver had made the prints, made me realize my error. The originals were STUNNING, and captured these animals in a way that the engravings, clunky and awkward as they were, could never duplicate. Adubon was indeed a master, and, you are right to say, unmatched.

Marie, I have been writing on that very topic for the closing posts of this series. I'm glad you brought it up. I think a lot of people have, for whatever reason, a knee-jerk negative reaction to Audubon. Overexposure? (If it's that popular, how can it be so good?) The print process? (Oh, well, they're just reproductions...) You may have touched on some of it. I wouldn't characterize the prints as either clunky or awkward, but the lithographic process does have a way of freezing motion and life with those thin black lines.

As an artist, I find it an uphill battle to differentiate,for even some of my most informed contacts, between an original painting and a print. So many people use the word "original" and "print" interchangeably. And then people start talking about an "original Audubon print," meaning, I guess, one that was hand-colored by his team rather than photographically reproduced. And the distinction between an original painting and a print only becomes blurrier.

So I've had to be careful in writing these to try to convey that I'm looking at Audubon's PAINTINGS here, not prints; that Audubon's pencil and brush made every mark on these pages.

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