WHO KNEW THAT THE NATIONAL Gallery of Art possessed one of only two complete, never-bound, original sets of John James Audubon's Birds of America? The other such set reportedly is in Moscow.
A selection of the National Gallery's hand-colored etchings--some fifty marvelous works printed between 1826 and 1838--is being shown with a modicum of fanfare in the West Building's ground-floor Central Gallery through March. The last time the National hung its Audubons was in 1984, when, again, a small fraction of the set of 435 prints went up on the walls; and the last exhibition before that was in 1969. Hundreds of prints remain in drawers in the gallery's storerooms, shown only by appointment.
This is what it means to be a wealthy museum. The Audubons, explains the show's curator, Carlotta Owens, are just 435 of the gallery's trove of 90,000 works on paper. "Audubon's Dream Realized" is one of six exhibitions that opened at the National in a two-week period this fall. The birds compete with the prints of Félix Buhot, the still lifes of the Haarlem master Pieter Claesz, 15th-century woodcuts, Italian illuminated manuscripts, monumental sculpture from Renaissance Florence, and a continuing exhibition of paintings, drawings, and prints from the National's extensive holdings of Winslow Homer.
The other reason for rationing the public's exposure to the Audubons, of course, is the pictures' preservation. Watercolors fade with exposure to light, which means they must be shown sparingly, and under carefully controlled illumination. To behold the indescribably vibrant pink of Audubon's flamingo--to see his almost boringly familiar wild turkey cock spring to life in the National's etching, with its glowing ambers and saffrons and tobaccos and even a touch of gold leaf--is to feel a rush of gratitude to the caretakers who have protected these pictures so well.
Still, it is hard to fathom: The vast majority of the pictures hidden in drawers for decades?
It may be that a further reason the gallery shows no particular urgency about placing these works on view is that they are so often reproduced. There is a Birds of America to suit every pocketbook. And even the early etchings are not so exceedingly rare. Perhaps as many as 120 of the original enormous "double elephant" sets are said to survive, many of them in private hands or abroad, but many accessible to people who know where to inquire. The Library of Congress has one. True, the National's set is in especially good condition. But Audubon enthusiasts are not strictly constrained to come to Washington to track down the early prints.
The obvious contrast is with the one-of-a-kind paintings from which the etchings were made. These are the pictures Audubon painted over a period of nearly twenty years using his distinctive, self-taught blend of watercolor, graphite, pastel, oil, chalk, gouache, ink, and occasionally collage. Determined to see his paintings published--and insistent that each bird be represented life-size, even the huge herons and pelicans and raptors--Audubon carried his paintings to England, and sought out a printer of highest quality who was willing to take on the unusual task. He closely supervised the printing and coloring of the etchings, which were delivered to wealthy subscribers in batches of five over a period of more than ten years.
Audubon saw this work to completion before he died in 1851, and in 1863, his widow, Lucy, sold 435 original paintings--430 of them for The Birds of America--to the New-York Historical Society, which houses them still. The paintings have traveled only once: Some 95 of them were exhibited in nine American cities (including Washington, where the National Gallery hosted them) in 1993, on what was billed as their final tour. To see these originals today, you really do have to go to New York.
Fortunately, the New-York Historical Society, long negligent of its Audubons, is now resourceful about putting them on view, even while respecting the conservators' rule that no picture be exposed to light for more than six weeks in ten years. In the Audubon Niche on the fourth floor of the NYHS building on Central Park West, two to four of the paintings are rotated every six weeks. And every spring, starting in 2004, the NYHS mounts a six-week multimedia exhibition showcasing forty paintings, different every year, along with a variety of objects relating to Audubon's adventurous life and to the place of his work in the history of ornithological art and science.
Would that the National Gallery of Art showed a little more such missionary zeal about sharing its Birds of America. Interest in the pictures can only grow as studies of Audubon's work and life continue to proliferate. Soon to be added to an already bulging bibliography: an anthology of writings by the naturalist himself, due out in April, edited by his most brilliant biographer, Richard Rhodes.
Reviewing the Rhodes biography in these pages a year ago, Robert Finch called The Birds of America "arguably the most influential work of art this country has ever produced." He might have added that it is also a remarkable record of unspoiled American nature--Audubon began roaming the American woods the year Jefferson commissioned Lewis and Clark to explore the West--and, as such, it is a precious part of our national patrimony.
What a fitting gesture it would be if our National Gallery of Art--even amidst its embarrassment of riches--found room to mount its own permanent, rotating Audubon Niche. More than most of those 90,000 works on paper, Americans need to see these.
Claudia Anderson is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.