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AUDUBON'S DRAWINGS MELD SCIENCE, ART

AUDUBON'S DRAWINGS MELD SCIENCE, ART
American flamingo; hand-colored engraving; with aquatint and etching on J. Whatman; 1838; 39 7/8 inches by 26 5/8 inches (sheet-size); $197,900. Photo courtesy of Christie's
Born out of love. Nurtured over time. Highly dramatic. That was John James Audubon’s wildlife artwork.

Audubon set off down the Mississippi in the 19th century with nothing but his gun, artist’s materials and an assistant. His goal was to recreate the birds of the South on paper.

Audubon’s bird prints were meant to be scientific studies. Not art. But, there was so much depth and so much detail in each one, they transcended their function.

Audubon painted almost 500 species of the 700 or so regularly occurring North American birds. In watching them move and mingle, Audubon developed a relationship with birds that allowed him to bring a depth and detail never before seen.

For someone with no formal art training, no science background and almost no money, Audubon’s work was extraordinary.

Whenever he could, Audubon painted live birds over dead ones. From the warbler eating its pokeberries to the plants and moths surrounding the Green Heron, the food and habitat in Audubon’s prints were true. So was the size and coloring of the birds.

When live birds weren’t available, Audubon painted freshly killed ones wired in such a way their shapes, textures, plumage, colors and characteristic positions were maintained. No other bird painter was doing that.

For two decades, in rain or shine, Audubon roamed the lakes and rivers of the continent in pursuit of birds (and animals).

From pastel and pencil to watercolor, gouache and glazes, Audubon combined different media to get his images just right. For the background plants and landscapes, he sometimes used assistants who accompanied him on his travels.

Audubon’s originals were then copied onto copper plates and printed. Each print was produced in black-and-white and then individually hand-colored.

Birds of America was Audubon’s greatest work. It was a four-volume set about 3 feet high and weighing 200 pounds. The 435 prints cost $1,000 when they were first issued in London in the 1830s. The completed work is known as the “double elephant folio.”

Because of the cost, only about 175 to 200 sets were bound. About 100 additional copies of each print were issued separately. Many of the bound volumes have since been cut apart for individual prints.

The authentic first editions bear the names of three engravers who copied Audubon’s original watercolors for printing. They are William H. Lizars, Robert Havell and his son Robert Havell Jr.

Each 39 1/2 inch by 26 1/2 inch sheet of paper also bears the watermark of the papermaker, J. Whatman or J. Whatman Turkey Mill, plus a date ranging from 1827 to 1838.

Birds of America is the most valuable series of plates any wildlife-print collector could hope to find. The world auction record set in 2000 at Christie’s New York stands at $8.8 million for a complete set.

On June 25, Christie’s offered one of only a few known unbound copies of Birds of America in existence. The set was originally subscribed by Queen Adelaide, wife of King William IV of England.

Eleven plates in the series were missing so the prints were offered individually. Here are some current values.

Audubon prints

Brown pelican; hand-colored engraving with aquatint and etching on J. Whatman; 1838; 26 3/4 inches by 39 5/8 inches (sheet-size); $77,675.

Tundra swan; hand-colored engraving with aquatint and etching on J. Whatman; 1838; 26 11/16 inches by 39 1/2 inches (sheet-size); $119,500.

American white pelican; hand-colored engraving with aquatint and etching on J. Whatman; 1836; 39 9/16 inches by 26 5/8 inches (sheet-size); $175,500.

Snowy owl; hand-colored engraving with aquatint and etching on J. Whatman; 1831; 39 3/8 inches by 26 1/2 inches (sheet-size); $186,700.

American flamingo; hand-colored engraving; with aquatint and etching on J. Whatman; 1838; 39 7/8 inches by 26 5/8 inches (sheet-size); $197,900.


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