When John James Audubon packed his art supplies and wading boots in 1820 to fulfill his dream of finding and painting every North American bird species, he probably had no idea that his work would be coveted by both serious collectors and amateurs ornithologists nearly two centuries later. Nor did he likely imagine that the works of art he created would revolutionize wildlife illustration.
“The very idea of it was audacious,” says Rebecca Smith, head of the special collections at HistoryMiami. “One of the many challenges was just getting to where he needed to go. There were no guidebooks then, no nature photography.”
Which is why HistoryMiami’s upcoming exhibition may prove to be such a groundbreaker, for the museum as well as the art and birding communities. Smith, curator for “The Complete Audubon: The Birds of America,” believes this is the first time Audubon’s 435 life-size prints will be shown all at once, opening with the Wild Turkey (print 1) and ending with the American Dipper (print 435.)
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While the display of Audubon prints is commonplace, Smith has not found a single museum or university that has displayed every print at the same time in the same venue. HistoryMiami is the first to do so, making the exhibition what she calls “a once-in-a lifetime” opportunity.
Even HistoryMiami which has owned the rare Birds of America first edition collection since the early 1980s had not been able to manage that undertaking because of the size of both the collection and the prints themselves. But the addition of a second building in the Miami-Dade Cultural Center (the former space occupied by the Miami Art Museum, now the Perez Art Museum Miami) provided the square footage for this larger exhibition. Even so, temporary walls have been added to accommodate all the prints. The framing alone has taken days.
For Phillip M. Hudson III, chairman of the HistoryMiami Board of Trustees, the exhibit also provides an opportunity to draw attention to a museum that has slowly but steadily been earning respect and attention on both local and national levels. HistoryMiami just hosted its annual MapFair, the largest such event in the country, and has completed some uniquely South Florida exhibits, such as a guayabera exhibition that went on to tour the country, and a Cassius Clay/Sonny Liston 50th anniversary exhibit and roundtable discussion that drew boxing enthusiasts from all over.
“I hope that the people who come through the door will take away the uniqueness of the exhibit,” Hudson said. “But we also want people to know that we are here, that we have a special mission focusing on the people and places of Miami and South Florida.”
The museum has arranged these first edition prints as Audubon intended them to be seen — in their original order, Smith added. They depict 457 species in their natural environments, including images of such now-extinct birds as the Carolina Parakeet, the Passenger Pigeon and the Pinnated Grouse.
Audubon is of particular interest to Florida history buffs as well because he spent several months birding and drawing in the state — mostly getting around by boat. He wanted to return, but the Seminole Wars made the territory too dangerous. Florida birds in the collection include the Florida Scrub Jay, the Purple Gallinule, the Brown Pelican and the Roseate Spoonbill.
The hand-colored prints were made from engraved plates, measuring around 39 by 26 inches and they are spectacular in both their detail and their precision. In his original art work, Audubon did not use oil paint, the preferred medium of the artists of his day, but watercolors and pastel crayons, occasionally also drawing with pencil, charcoal, chalk and pen and ink.
Most impressive is the fact that Audubon had to do his drawings without the aid of the photography that helps modern-day wildlife artists. He developed a method that used wires and threads to hold dead birds in lifelike situation as he drew them. That has made him somewhat controversial.
“He was a hunter,” Smith said. “The only way he could get close enough to these birds was to shoot them and set them up to be painted.”
Though that technique has fallen out of favor and society has recognized that importance of preserving wildlife, “we have to judge him by the values of the time,” she added. “The mindset then was that we had unlimited natural resources and that humans were here to prevail over nature.”
The original edition of “The Birds of America” is often referred to as the double elephant folio because of its size. It was printed in the United Kingdom and took 13 years to complete, funded through a pay-as-you-go subscription that included such wealthy patrons as Charles X of France and Queen Adelaide of Britain. Fewer than 200 sets were compiled and about only 100 complete sets remain, which makes HistoryMiami’s that more precious.
In fact, HistoryMiami was able to purchase the set only because of the generosity of art collector Micky Wolfson and a good dose of serendipity. His father, the late businessman and philanthropist Mitchell Wolfson, bought the set in 1960 and had it housed at the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens in Key West. The entire set was stolen in 1977 by an art historian but then recovered three weeks later. That prompted Wolfson to move the collection to a more secure setting.
The younger Wolfson, who sat on the HistoryMiami board, donated Wometco stock in 1981 to purchase the collection for the local museum.
“The fact that it was all recovered was amazing,” Hudson said.
Added Smith: “And that we were able to bring it here was a huge step forward for us. We all thought, ‘Holy Toledo! This is big!’”
In addition to the prints, HistoryMiami will also display the seven volumes of the “Octavo Edition,” the second edition of prints. Each volume will be opened to a hand-colored lithograph, with the pages changing until all 500 lithographs are shown. Other events are planned.
For the HistoryMiami staff, the three-month exhibit has been a long time in coming.
“For a couple of years we’ve been wanting to do this, but we couldn’t find a way,” said Hudson, who admits to doing plenty of bird-watching from his Miami Beach home. “Now we finally got our chance.”
If you go
The Complete Audubon: The Birds of America
HistoryMiami, 101 W. Flagler St., Miami
Feb. 27- May 31
Hours: Monday - Saturday, 10am to 5pm; Sunday, Noon to 5pm
Admission: $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, $6 for students with ID, $6 for children 6-12. Free for members and children under 6. For more information, visit www.historymiami.org
- Members-Only Preview Day - February 26, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
- Members-Only Preview Reception - February 26, 6:30 - 8:30 p.m.
- Through the Eyes of Conservation - February 28, 11 a.m. A conversation talk on selected works.
- Conversation: All Things Audubon - March 7, 2 p.m. Discussion on the historic and artistic relevance of John James Audubon, with conservationist James Kushlan, Audubon authority, Joel Oppenheimer and History Miami curator Rebecca Smith
- Family Fun Day: Birds of America - March 14, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. An afternoon of games, stories and art activities to help connect children to nature.
- Workshop Series: Illustrating Audubon (Beginners) - April 25, 1 - 2:30 p.m. With artist Juan Travieso.
- Workshop Series: Illustrating Audubon (Advanced) - May 16, 1 - 2:30 p.m. With artist Juan Travieso.
For prices and reservations to the special programming, register at www.historymiami.org or call 305-375-1601. Pre-registration is required.