In his groundbreaking work The Birds of North America, John James Audubon brought together the art world and the outdoors in a new way. It served as both a scientific record of North American bird species and a landmark in how to represent wildlife in art.
What’s less well known is the massive project Audubon took on after The Birds of North America.
That project is the focus of new exhibit at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester. It’s called From Birds To Beasts: Audubon’s Last Great Adventure. The exhibit opened this weekend.
“In 1843 he traveled all the way to the border of what’s now North Dakota and Montana,” says Currier’s Director of Exhibitions and Collections, Andrew Spahr. “This gave him an opportunity to observe the Western species in their natural habitat. So people can see what Audubon saw in his time. And if you just imagine what some of these species like the banded armadillo or the bison or the collared peccary must have looked like to Easterners in the 1840s or 1850s, it was probably quite a startling discovery.”
These images may be startling, or at least pleasantly surprising, to those who only know Aubudon’s birds. The three volume set of animal lithographs, published in 1854, was another landmark – the largest color publication entirely produced in North America. But Ruth Smith of New Hampshire Audubon says this collection hasn’t been as well remembered as the birds.
“It was the last thing he did,” Smith explains, “and he didn’t really finish the work; his sons helped him with a good bit of that as well. But it’s equally as amazing, in terms of their lifelike posing and putting them in their habitat, which is one of the things that made Audubon unique among his peers.”
This is the first time New Hampshire Audubon has publicly shown its collection of these images in New Hampshire. It has about two-thirds of the roughly 150 prints. Smith says this collection began to form in the 1970s, thanks to a family in southwestern New Hampshire.
“They had this collection of prints and decided that it was a great thing to share,” Smith says. “Our president at the time, Tudor Richards, gladly accepted the donation, and felt like it would be nice to augment the collection with local species.”
The exhibit highlights both local species and Western animals. The Currier’s Andrew Spahr says, like the art in The Birds of North America, these prints show animals in their habitats. But he says it also shows how the expanding American frontier had started to change some of those habitats.
“In this image here of a red fox,” Spahr says, “we see the fox caught in a leghold trap. And if we look in the background, we can see fields and buildings, suggesting farms. Perhaps the animal’s been trapped or captured by a farmer trying to protect or guard his chicken coop.
“In the print of the gray fox, we see a fox chasing a feather that’s drifting out of the sky. And again, in the background, there’s a small farm scene, suggesting that perhaps that fox has successfully raided the chicken coop.”
Just the name New Hampshire Audubon shows the man’s lasting influence on naturalists. But the exhibition also highlights his artistic influence as well. Assistant Curator Samantha Cataldo shows off a series of six prints by an artist called Walton Ford. She says Ford’s work both pays tribute to Audubon’s iconic style and subverts it, with cultural references to pop culture, punk rock, even Fidel Castro.
“You have this Cuban red macaw, now extinct, surrounded by these different traps that people would have used to try to catch it in the 19th Century.” Cataldo explains. “The text that’s written on that is an excerpt from CIA documents with these very funny ways that they were trying to assassinate Castro.
“The red macaw has this sly, cunning look on his face, because he’s managed to be elusive and run away from all of their traps.”
Andrew Spahr says the exhibit is a chance to talk about the man sides of John James Audubon. And both Spahr and Ruth Smith say they hope seeing Audubon’s art will inspire visitors to get outdoors, to see some wildlife – and maybe even trying to draw some of what they see.
“I like to say that this is sort of a window into what’s outside the window,” Smith says. “You don’t want to be up close and personal with bears as you can with the artwork, but it’s nice to know that these animals exist in New Hampshire. We can see their signs and their activity and know that we share this great state with many of the species that are depicted in the art.”
From Birds To Beasts: Audubon’s Last Great Adventure runs through August 30th at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester.