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Audubon Stars at Museum
by Jake Highton
Jan 09, 2011 | 713 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Nevada Museum of Art has been turned over to the birds the last two months.

But not any birds. Audubon birds. Audubon: the most famous name in bird lore.

The Reno exhibit, ending Feb. 13, features 50 life-sized Audubon watercolors from the first edition of the New York Historical Society collection.

The painting on the cover of the NMA booklet for the show is the flaming red American flamingo. It is elegant and graceful with its curling, S-shaped neck. A beauty.

But to me the best Audubon painting in the exhibit shows three ivory-billed woodpeckers. Indeed, I would argue that the “portrait” of the ivory-bills is the best of all Audubon paintings.

It’s a magnificent picture. The ivory-bills are on dead branches, chiseling off bark. The picture is so “alive” that two birds are about to jab their huge bills at a beetle.

The ivory bill, alas, is extinct. Its habitat vanished with the draining of swamps in the deep woods of the South. Two other extinct species in the exhibit are the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon.

The parakeet was hunted to extinction. But the real ecological tragedy is the passenger pigeon, in Audubon’s day the most abundant bird in the world. It was so numerous that flocks darkened the skies.

“The light of the noonday sun was obscured as by an eclipse,” Audubon wrote.

But the passenger pigeon also was hunted to extinction.

Most of the birds exhibited at the NMA are shorebirds, hawks and owls. They are the largest birds and hence most dramatically illustrated.

The fish hawk (osprey) flies with a trout grasped in its talons. Two anhingas, called the snake bird or black-bellied darter in Audubon’s time, perch on the qui vive. Slim, alert, bills pointed skyward.

“With the quickness of thought they disappear beneath the surface,” Audubon wrote.  “Astonishingly, they surface many hundreds of yards distant.”

One of the great attributes of the Audubon paintings: birds in their natural setting. Two long-billed curlews are pictured amid reeds with a marsh in the background. Another beautiful composition: two reddish egrets stand near marsh foliage.

But some birds are twisted unnaturally or their necks awry. Another problem is that the scenery sometimes overshadows the birds. The black-billed cuckoo is almost obscured amid magnolia blooms and leaves.

But those are quibbles about a fine exhibit.

Audubon shows two red-shoulderer hawks perched on a branch, one with his piercing eyes on the alert for prey, the other with its head cocked alertly. Every birder has seen such images.

The paintings are computer-generated digital prints of originals. The images are so finely wrought that Audubon’s fingerprints can be seen on one picture.

The Digital Age enhances the exhibit. Visitors can dial a number and hear, for instance, the croak of the raven,  the “chi-ca’go, chi-ca’go” of the California quail and the liquid gurgling “o-ka-lay” of the red-wing blackbird.

Audubon was a self-taught artist and naturalist. A genius.

So naturally he had run-ins with the Establishment as the Impressionists did in France. The Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences rejected Audubon’s work. He was blackballed by the academy. This forced him to go to Europe for financing.

The handsome Audubon was a sometimes philanderer but always an incorrigible liar.

He claimed his father fought at Valley Forge which was not a battle site. He falsely claimed he had studied under the great French painter David. He falsely claimed he had hunted with Daniel Boone. His rivoting account of a rattlesnake strangling a squirrel was a fabrication.

Audubon, who had to shoot birds to mount them for painting, also shot more birds than necessary. His excited descriptions of bird slaughter reveal a dark side.

“Sometimes his journals have an almost drunken violence and read like an ad for the National Rifle Association,” Adam Gopnik wrote in a 1991 New Yorker article.

But none of those faults matters. What matters is his historic contribution to America.

The enduring monument of John James Audubon is “The Birds of America,” illustrations of 435 species published in 1838. The birds were printed on double-elephant pages, two feet wide and more than a yard high. The book dwarfed coffee tables.

Audubon’s name lives on in the National Audubon Society. The organization is devoted to habitat preservation, scientific study and the pure pleasure of bird-watching.

The NMA exhibit is not worth the $10.3 million for which Sotheby’s of London just auctioned an original copy of “The Birds of America.” But it is typical of the wonderful exhibits that the NMA brings to Reno.

Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. Contact him at
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