Audubon exhibit takes flight at Biggs Museum

A hand-colored lithograph of the northern hare (lepus americanus) done in 1843 by John James Audubon sits above “Unrequited (Variation in Peach)” made of resin-infused refractory material, paint and steel base by Beth Cavener. Like Mr. Audubon, Ms. Cavener embraces the scientific study of anatomy but differs in that she purposefully personifies her subjects with human-like qualities. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Art should be polarizing and vulnerable, which are traits that well-known artist and naturalist John James Audubon demonstrated throughout his works.

“Most people know about Audubon,” said Charles Guerin, executive director of the Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover.

“They know about the birds, but that’s as far as it goes. Very few people understand that he was a naturalist beyond just the birds.”

Some of Mr. Audubon’s pieces are now on display at the Biggs Museum in the exhibition titled “Audubon: Then and Now”. It includes more than 50 original etchings and lithographs by Mr. Audubon along with other pieces inspired by the famed naturalist. It will run until Nov. 25.

Ann Chahbandour’s “Beyond Audobon, Osprey,” right, is gouache on paper. It sits among many the pieces in the Biggs’ “Audbon: Then and Now” exhibit. It will run until Nov. 25.

“We borrowed 25 images, original engravings by Audubon from Winterthur Museum and then we borrowed another 25 mammal prints from the publication called “The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America” that came from the Huntsville Museum of Art in Huntsville, Alabama,” said Ryan Grover, curator of the Biggs Museum.”

“This is one of the bigger and more important shows that we’ll do. He has such high-quality works and to find a show where you have so many pieces — you just don’t see that very often.”

In 1826 when Mr. Audubon turned 41, his wife encouraged him to travel to England to find innovative ways to reproduce over 300 watercolor bird studies into one of the most important projects in art history. He had been studying rare and beautiful birds across the North American landscape for over a decade and had amassed an enormous library of original images and field notes.

These images formed his iconic “Birds of America” tome totaling over 400 life-size studies of his avian obsessions. In a few years, Mr. Audubon also began the equally ambitious project of recording mammals as well in “The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.”

Local artist Kevin Fleming’s photograph “Great Blue Herons Battle for White Perch” is part of the Biggs Museum’s “Audubon: Then and Now.”

The best-known accomplishments of the painter, printmaker, publisher and naturalist were immediately popular on two continents, influencing artists and designers throughout America and the United Kingdom.

“It’s one of our best exhibitions to date,” said Mr. Guerin.

“Many of the original Audubon prints in this show have not been on view in our area for several decades. It’s an exciting time for us and we really hope people come and visit something that they’ve never seen in Delaware before.”

Mr. Guerin said the exhibition took two years to put together.

“It took us while,” Mr. Guerin said. “We had to come up with the idea and then we had to find the material. We then talked to institutions all over the Mid-Atlantic and as far as Denver and Colorado Springs looking for an institution that had a big collection of the birds that would lend to us.”

“We found Winterthur and all of their engravings were all unframed in drawers and Ryan and I went through them and picked 25 of them. Then from there everything else started to fall in place.”

The creation of Mr. Audubon’s images has remained a constant influence upon science, natural preservation and the visual arts to this day. Artists continue to draw upon his aesthetics and the romantic impression of his artistic process with a wide variety of works, from photography to painting to sculpture.

This hand-colored engraving by John James Audubon of the roseate spoonbill (platalea ajaja) is on loan to the Biggs Museum of American Art from the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington. Mr. Audubon’s depiction of birds with brightly colored plumage are among the most popular collected today and during the artist’s lifetime. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The works will be displayed alongside others by contemporary artists from America and the United Kingdom who have been influenced by Audubon’s monumental animal studies.

“The works of the exhibiting, contemporary artists were selected for their fresh and unique perspectives on the tradition of naturalist artworks,” said Mr. Guerin.

“We set out to find artists that we felt connected with Audubon, whether that was from an image, or philosophical standpoint. Once we contacted those artists we were able to bring everything together.”

Mr. Grover said the reception has been great so far.

Biggs Museum Executive Director Charles Guerin, right, talks about the Audubon exhibit as Delaware Secretary of State Jeffrey Bullock, center, and Biggs Curator Ryan Grover looks at pieces on Wednesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“We’re grateful that everything came in one piece,” Mr. Grover said. “People are really responding to it well. I get the next few months to kind of mellow out and take it all in. We’re really delighted to have this in the community and we hope people take advantage of it.”

Mr. Guerin shared the same sentiment.

“I haven’t seen an exhibition like this at any place combining a grouping of his pieces and contemporary artists together at one place,” said Mr. Guerin. “It’s pretty remarkable.”

Arshon Howard is a freelance writer living in Dover.

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