The Magazine

A Way to See the Birds

Is it possible to improve upon Audubon?

Mar 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 26 • By CHRISTOPH IRMSCHER
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For the better part of a week I lugged The Birds of America around with me as I went to campus. Colleagues, students, and strangers looked at me with a mixture of interest and concern as I waddled past them. In the Lilly Library at Indiana University, where I do most of my work, I propped up the new edition next to our original volume of Bien prints—which is, yes, even bigger. Over two days, I took up an entire table in the Reading Room, making no new friends in the process. 

Chromolithograph of Audubon’s mallards

Chromolithograph of Audubon’s mallards

Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Seymour R. Husted Jr.

As I was struggling to open doors and push elevator buttons while holding onto my birds, it occurred to me what a sorry sight I would have made to the keen eyes of the great John James Audubon himself, who regularly carried even larger portfolios into the field with him, in addition to his shotgun and paintbox and who knows what else slung over his shoulder or tucked away under his arm. 

Joel Oppenheimer’s tome is a reprint of a reprint. What is known as the “Bien edition” of Audubon’s Birds of America—after the German immigrant and printer Julius Bien, who undertook the printing—was an attempt to re-create one of the most expensive books in history as a series of color lithographs, rather than aquatint engravings, the complicated, time-consuming, and thoroughly impractical technology used for making the very first edition of Birds of America

Audubon’s work, published in installments between 1827 and 1838, was a tribute to the beauty and resilience of American birds, which he painted in lifesize, in poses and against habitats taken from his own observations in the field. It also documented, for all who cared to see, the uncompromising capacity of the human imagination to overcome all obstacles. No ornithological artist since has been able to match the power of those 435 plates, printed, for the most part, by Robert Havell Jr. on the largest sheets of paper that had ever been used for such a purpose, big enough to portray even the Whooping Crane and the American Flamingo—provided they kept their heads down.

Havell’s process remained the same throughout the long collaboration:  Audubon would provide him with a watercolor that Havell would then trace onto a large copper plate. That plate was then treated with a combination of methods, from traditional etching to the aquatint engraving. The latter technique required coating the plate with a resin-like substance, heating it, and then immersing it in an acid bath in order to produce a fine mesh of little holes that, when filled with ink, would create larger areas of tone in the print. 

Once they had been hand-colored in his shop, Havell’s prints seemed so vibrant that they surpassed Audubon’s watercolors. Never had dead birds looked so real, so three-dimensional, so full of life on paper! No wonder it took Audubon and Havell 11 years to finish what has since become the world’s most expensive and sought-after set of printed volumes.  

When they were done, Audubon was exhausted. He did manage to produce a smaller, highly successful octavo-sized version of his Birds, which re-created the larger images as hand-colored lithographs, a new and more efficient technique that used inked slabs of stone rather than pricey copper. But as his mind began to darken with what we would probably now call Alzheimer’s disease, Audubon, lost in his “little fancies,” was unable to carry on with the work on American mammals he had begun.  

It is sometimes said that greatness skips a generation, if it doesn’t leave a family altogether. John Woodhouse Audubon, Audubon’s painter-son who, with his brother Gifford, completed his father’s Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, is usually viewed with respectful condescension, or outright pity. A spectacularly unsuccessful western expedition that John undertook in 1850 yielded neither gold nor usable natural history sketches (most of his paintings were lost at sea). This did not help secure his posthumous reputation. 

The differences between his and his father’s plates are immediately evident, even to the untrained eye: John’s hares, deer, and marmots look anxious and angular, placed as if they were props into a landscape that seems frozen in some permanent late winter or early spring—the ground hard, the brownish grass stiff, the animals’ coarse fur bristling with the lingering cold.  

One of John’s most enduring achievements might well have been asking Julius Bien to redo the plates of Birds of America as less expensive chromolithographs—no hand-coloring needed. John envisioned this as a way of replenishing the family’s gapingly empty coffers as well as keeping alive, in all its outrageous, oversized splendor, his father’s legacy. But this was a bad time for grand projects: The Civil War brought Bien’s work to an abrupt and inglorious end. Only one volume of plates was ever published, by Roe Lockwood & Son in New York.

As I was sitting in the Lilly Library, with a librarian at my side to help me turn the pages, I found myself fully absorbed in the shimmering, strange world that John had asked Bien to re-create. The sheer sensuousness of Bien’s chromolithographs came as a bit of a surprise: The eye of the red-tailed hawk sparkles with determined fury; the blue jay’s plumage is an intense, vibrant blue that is translucent as the wings of butterflies; the reeds—green, yellow, and brown—among which Audubon’s ducks spend their lives rustle as the eye travels along the page. Colors like orange and pink, subtly applied to the sunrises or sunsets featured in the backgrounds of plates, evoke a world still governed by the rhythms of nature and not those of human beings. 

While Bien occasionally resorted to some hand-coloring, as Oppenheimer notes in his introduction, for the most part, these orgies of color are the product of nothing but slabs of limestone being applied to paper.

John Woodhouse Audubon felt moved to add pictorial details that were not in his father’s originals: In the most startling of these reworked images (the portrait of the bald eagle), small sailboats drift in the background on a remarkably blue lake or river. He also added some greenery in the foreground: Gone is the stark Alpine sublimity of the earlier plate, intended, perhaps, for European subscribers. But the quaint setting—which looks as if it had been inspired by a second-generation Hudson River School painter—enhances rather than diminishes the eagle’s power: A fierce, demonic bird-god claws its sacrificial catfish while people elsewhere go about their ordinary business. And by placing his father’s fierce black vultures, and the deer’s head on which they are about to feast, in a park-like setting, complete with well-cut lawns and a meandering river in the background, John moves that horrid scene so much closer to the viewer’s world.

We owe Joel Oppenheimer, one of the nation’s leading collectors of natural history books, a debt of gratitude for bringing Bien’s work back to life, in digital reproductions taken from his own set of plates. His well-informed introduction, and useful notes on the paper used by Bien, complement this attractive edition. 

In comparison with the Lilly’s earlier volume, however, many of Oppenheimer’s plates seem autumnal, faded, as if dusk were about to settle on Audubon’s avian world. I was not ready for the plate featuring the belted kingfishers: The birds are mostly gray and pale in Oppenheimer’s reproduction, whereas in the Lilly volume—a mix, it seems, of first edition and second edition plates, with some unnumbered plates that might be proof sheets thrown in—the birds’ plumage retains its funky mixture of light blue, white, black, and brown. The buildings of Key West in the background of the great white heron plate have clearly defined outlines in the Lilly version, whereas in Oppenheimer’s edition, they seem indistinct, forming a proto-Impressionist, washed-out cityscape rather than the postcard-precision view I had expected to find. 

Much of this might be due to the different set of plates Oppenheimer used. And, mind you, a print, no matter how well executed, is never the real thing. A horribly defaced page in the Lilly Library copy contains a poignant reminder of that simple fact: Someone (a child, one hopes) had taken, perhaps early in the volume’s history, a brush to Audubon’s resplendent great white heron and painted over the bird’s translucent white plumage, almost obliterating it with a dull brown wash, the color of moist sand. Was this, perhaps, an act of rebellion against the endless process by which something living is replaced by its near-perfect facsimile? 

From a collector’s point of view, the defacement is a disaster; from another perspective, Lilly’s great white heron plate, precisely because it is no longer clean, tells us that something is indeed lost when a living bird becomes a dead specimen, and the dead specimen a watercolor sketch, and the sketch a hand-colored, lifesized engraving, and the engraving a lithograph, and the lithograph a digitally reproduced image in a handsome, expensive book that we proudly display on our coffee table. 

Such substitutions are, of course, inevitable whenever we try to make a faithful copy of anything. A picture of a bird is not a bird, just as a son is not his father, however much he might resemble him. John Woodhouse Audubon knew this, and it seems touching that he nevertheless tried to continue what his father had done—in a style that was, if not quite like his father’s, at least not unlike it—for as long as he could. On February 21, 1862, he succumbed to what had begun as a heavy cold. Aged only 49, he died, as his daughter noted, almost at the same hour as his father had, a little more than a decade earlier.  

Julius Bien, by contrast, had many years left to live, although he was never to undertake a project of similar artistic importance. Oppenheimer’s gorgeous edition is a welcome tribute to the talents of both men; but I can’t help but wonder if it might not be worth taking another look at John Woodhouse Audubon’s own work. For, once you have seen his images of American quadrupeds, it is (as Edmund Wilson realized) hard to forget them. The experience of loss is inscribed into the hard little eyes of his emaciated minks and squirrels as they cower next to their burrows or cling to dead tree limbs, occasionally against a background of distant log cabins, fences, and other markers of an encroaching human civilization. 

These are humans who will not think twice about killing animals, but who also know, in their better moments, how to turn them into beautiful books. 

Christoph Irmscher, provost professor of English at Indiana University, is the author, most recently, of Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science.