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Fabulous Audubon illustrations take flight

Mention the name “John James Audubon” and most people will think “birds.” But as widely recognized as the artist and naturalist is, the very book that made him famous, his life’s grand opus, “Birds of America” is one of the rarest ornithological books in existence.

Now, more than 60 prints from that book can be seen in the exhibition “Taking Flight: Selected Prints From John James Audubon’s Birds of America” at the University Art Gallery in the Frick Fine Arts Building on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. Today, an opening reception for the exhibition will get under way from 5 to 7 p.m.

The prints, which feature everything from tiny hummingbirds to large flamingos – each depicted life-size among particular elements from their environs – are among the most desired works among print collectors in North America.

So rare and coveted is a complete set of all the prints in “Birds of America”- some 435 double elephant folio prints of more than 1,000 birds – that a complete, four-volume set sold at Christie’s in New York for more than $8.8 million in 2000.

Of the 180 sets of “Birds of America” that are believed to have been printed, only an estimated 120 exist. The University of Pittsburgh holds one of them, as it has since 1918 when the daughters of William McCullough Darlington, a successful Pittsburgh attorney and rare book collector, donated their father’s collection to the university.

That collection, which included more than 17,000 books, manuscripts, journals and maps on colonial American history, Pittsburgh and the surrounding region, formed the basis of the Darlington Memorial Library on the sixth floor of the Cathedral of Learning.

About 20 years ago, the Audubon book was removed from the Darlington collection and placed in Special Collections at Hillman Library. There, under tight security, it remained largely untouched until early 2000 when university librarians performed a plate-by-plate assessment of all four volumes.

Upon opening them, says Rush G. Miller, university librarian and director of the University Library System at Pitt, they discovered a number of tears, lines, stains, cigar ash and smudges.

Miller surmises that Darlington would often retire to his library with dinner guests to look at the books. “I think Mr. Darlington would take his friends into the library after dinner and hover over these things with their cigars, and some ashes fell on some of them and then got closed back in there,” he says.

The condition of the books required that all 435 prints undergo conservation. So the library system contacted University Art Gallery Director Josienne N. Piller to see if she knew of any conservators who could undertake such a project. Ultimately, they contracted with the Etherington Conservation Center in Greensboro, N.C., who had previously performed similar work on the Library of Congress’ Audubon collection, but by then Piller’s interest in the prints had been piqued.

“Soon as I knew they had these, I knew I had to have them,” Piller says as to the reason for this exhibition, which took more than a year to prepare after the prints returned from the conservators.

According to Pitt’s internal records, William Darlington had paid $400 for the complete set in 1852, a bargain considering that the original cost of obtaining a complete set through subscription was just a bit more than $1,000.

But even with the high price of Audubon’s book, Audubon himself was often plagued by financial troubles and even spent time in jail because of bad debts.

A colorful character who was known for his blunt manner and odd style of dress, Audubon (1785-1851), led a bohemian lifestyle that combined a passion for art with a passion for hunting.

In 1820, at 35, after a string of failed business Audubon began painting the original watercolors for “Birds of America.” He published them in double elephant folios (the largest format possible at that time, 40 by 27 inches) between 1827 and 1838. It was followed by a smaller, octavo-sized version produced between 1846 and 1853.

“What distinguished Audubon from other artists who had gone before him was the lifelike quality that he put in the paintings,” Piller says. “They interact with one another. It’s very, very different from the static interpretation of birds that had been the norm before that.”

For example, among the various prints on view that depict birds either gathering food among their favorite bushes or hunting their native prey is one of the now-extinct Passenger Pigeon, which once numbered into the billions on this continent alone. The pigeon print, Plate LXII, which depicts a female feeding a male, is of special note because the watercolor it is based on was painted right here in Pittsburgh when Audubon was passing through in 1824.

A full-color catalog containing a foreword by Miller and essays by Piller; Charles Aston, head of Special Collections for the University Library System; and conservator Michael Lee is available at the gallery’s front desk for $10. But if it’s Audubon’s prints you are after, Christie’s will be auctioning off a copy of Audubon’s octavo edition on Oct. 14. The estimate on this “clean tall copy,” according to Christie’s Web site, is a mere $40,000 to $60,000.

Additional Information:

Details

‘Taking Flight’

What: Selected Prints From John James Audubon’s Birds of America.

When: Through Dec. 5. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; until 8 p.m. Thursdays. Opening reception: 5 to 7 p.m. today.

Admission: Free.

Where: University Art Gallery, Frick Fine Arts Building, University of Pittsburgh, Oakland.

Details: (412) 648-2423


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