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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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.