Friday, September 11, 2015

Audubon’s Paper Menageries: Birds and Quadrupeds

Places to go! Things to do!

If you love art, and you love nature, here’s something you don’t want to miss: An exhibition, at the State Historical Society of Missouri, of several of John James Audubon’s famous, hand-colored engravings and lithographs depicting American birds and mammals.

The State Historical Society (SHS) owns lots of wonderful art pertaining to Missouri the state, and Missouri the territory (that is, the western U.S.). I’ve told you about their collection of Charles W. Schwartz’s artwork before.

They also possess several of the engravings and lithographs that constitute Audubon’s incredible, huge books Birds of America (printed between 1827 and 1838), and The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (printed 1845–1848). (Viviparous quadrupeds means “live-bearing four-footed creatures,” that is, the mammals.) (Such as the opossum!)

If you don’t know who Audubon was, or if you want to learn more about him, click here.

Sue and I were pleased to attend the “Curator’s Walk-Through” of the exhibit, led by Dr. Joan Stack, curator of art collections, on August 29. Her presentations are always first-rate, exemplifying the best of the cultural opportunities that college-town life offers.

Her talk, like the exhibit itself, started with Audubon’s image of the eastern bluebird, which is the official bird of Missouri. She pointed out something I have always sensed, but never fully understood, about Audubon’s bird images: Many times, birds are shown offering food to each other, and these poses have a famous artistic predecessor.

For example, in the case of the eastern bluebird, a female is offering a caterpillar to her fledgling.

Stack pointed out that this image recalls Michelangelo’s famous Creation of Adam fresco painting in the Sistine Chapel. One wonders if Audubon had this image in mind as he created his art. . . . Or if Michelangelo had contemplated birds feeding their young as he composed his fresco.

Anyway, those are the kinds of connections that a good lecture inspires, and I love it. During the talk, there were many more interesting, and compelling observations.

Details were pointed out.

History was discussed.

And technical matters were explained.

We’ve all seen Audubon’s prints reproduced in books, but it’s not common to get to see some of the actual prints themselves. Take this opportunity to stand in front of these enormous (life-size, in many cases), incredibly detailed artworks. Plus some major artworks by George Caleb Bingham and Thomas Hart Benton.

Did I mention it’s free to go there and enjoy all this great art?

(Of course, if you’re inclined to do so, however, memberships to the State Historical Society of Missouri are only $30 and include all sorts of perks, including the highly respected quarterly Missouri Historical Review as well as the Missouri Times, not to mention the good feeling you have for supporting the SHS and its vast collections of genealogical resources, photos, city and county histories, manuscripts, and newspapers.)

The Audubon exhibit runs until November 28.

The State Historical Society Gallery in Columbia is located on the University of Missouri campus, on the ground floor of Ellis Library, Hitt Street at Lowry Mall. Detailed directions and parking suggestions are available here.

By the way, the State Historical Society of Missouri is planning a major expansion, and relocation, in the coming few years. This move is long overdue for an organization that has enriched Missouri for more than a century, and it will include a larger gallery for its many valuable paintings, illustrations, maps, and other graphic treasures.

. . . Including artwork of opossums.

Note: Except for two images of opossums, and the photo of Dr. Stack, all the pictures in this post were recklessly, unconscionably photographed from my copy of a modern-printed, downsized reproduction of Audubon’s Birds of America. These are only lame representations of some of the same plates that are on display in the exhibit. The artwork you’ll see at the SHS looks much, much better!!!


J. Stack said...

Thanks so much for your sensitive and incitement review of the exhibition "Audubon's Menageries!" Its good to know that other people appreciate these great cultural treasures as much as I do!

Julianna Schroeder said...

Thank you, Dr. Stack, for commenting on my post! I'm so glad that the State Historical Society of Missouri includes art and other graphic materials among its treasures, and I'm looking forward to you having more space, soon, in which to share it with the public!

Best regards,

PS Don't worry, we all know you meant "insightful"--(er, I hope you did, anyway)--doggone autocorrect!!