'Birds of America' come to life in Newport

Examples of Audubon's seminal work on display at Rosecliff through November 3

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 4/26/19

"We are looking to do two exhibitions a year in this space," said Ashley Householder, Curator of Exhibitions for The Preservation Society of Newport County, of the Society's galleries on the 2nd …

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'Birds of America' come to life in Newport

Examples of Audubon's seminal work on display at Rosecliff through November 3

Posted

"We are looking to do two exhibitions a year in this space," said Ashley Householder, Curator of Exhibitions for The Preservation Society of Newport County, of the Society's galleries on the 2nd floor of Rosecliff. The space, formerly bedrooms that did not contain significant interpretive pieces or collections to contribute to Rosecliff's story, was renovated and opened as a gallery in 2015. The plan is to curate summer exhibitions in-house and bring in loaned exhibitions over the winter.

This past winter the Society presented Bill Cunninham's "Facades" exhibition, on loan from the New York Historical Society. Next winter they plan to host an exhibition on Tiffany lamps and glass.

From now until November, the Preservation Society is presenting "John James Audubon: Obsession Untamed", an exhibition featuring over 20 framed, hand colored double elephant folio-sized aquatints from Audubon's "Birds of America".

The exhibition was curated by Ms. Householder, who came to Newport from Nashville, via a degree in decorative arts from Parsons in New York, work at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and a return to New York to work for several years in arts publishing.

The exhibition came to life organically, from a combination of factors. "We try to plan things out about 5 years in advance; we look at what we have in our collection that we would like to feature and bring in a theme and a medium," said Ms. Householder. "We liked the thought of bringing in Audubon, and his colorful aquatints."

According to the Preservation Society, "Obsession Untamed explores the iconic naturalist’s pursuit of the birds of America and his singular determination in seeing his beautiful artworks published. In 1820 Audubon embarked on what would become his life’s work as “portraitist of all the birds of America.”

"In 1803 an 18-year-old Audubon was sent to his father’s estate “Mill Grove” twenty miles from Philadelphia, largely to avoid fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. This would serve as his introduction to wildlife that dominated his professional pursuits in eventually creating both Birds of America and his published work on mammals, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. In Birds of America he succeeded in originating his own artistic style—that of the living bird in action and in its natural habitat. His influence in both ornithology and natural history endure to this day."

It was largely due to Audubon's work exposing Americans to the natural beauty of birds in their habitat that spurred conservation efforts. Ironically, in order to truly study their forms and plumage, he had to kill them — hundreds of them. However, in light of the fact that his work helped end the large-scale slaughter of birds that was happening in the name of women's fashion, it was a small sacrifice in the long run.

The exhibition draws upon the Preservation Society’s collections as well as loans from private collections and institutions. In addition to the aquatints from Birds of America, feature items include exquisite ladies hats and fans illustrating the early-20th-century craze for feathers that lead to initial conservation efforts, as well as Audubon’s life mask and snuff box.

In order to reproduce his images and distribute them on a large scale, which he did between 1826 and 1838, Audubon had to have them engraved. Ultimately, he made 435 engraving plates, and the resulting prints, hand-colored, consisted of a subscription to Birds of America.

"He would send out about 5 at a time," said Ms. Householder. "At the end of the project, many people bound their collections into 4 books of about 100 pages each."

It's estimated that he produced about 200 complete sets, and that 120 still survive.

The subscription price was about $1000 in the day, roughly $27,000 today. Still a good investment, considering that the last major sale of a full, bound set came up for sale at Christie's in 2012 and sold for $7.9 million.

John James Audubon: Obsession Untamed can be seen daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Rosecliff, 548 Bellevue Ave., Newport. For tickets and more information, visit Newportmansions.org.

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