The Hippo


Jul 4, 2020








John James Audubon, “Canada Lynx (Lynx),” 1845- 48, hand-colored lithograph. Courtesy of NH Audubon, Concord.

Upcoming events

Here are just a handful of upcoming events related to the show.
Currier After Hours: Thursday, June 4, from 6 to 9 p.m.; talk with local Audubon naturalists, tour the show, listen to music, join Ben Kilham for informal talk about first-hand experience raising cubs and observing black bears.
Creative Studio, Animal Masks: Saturday, June 13, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., free admission for New Hampshire residents 10 a.m. to noon.
ARTalk, Robin Starr: Sunday, June 14, at 2 p.m.; hear about Audubon’s motivation for creating prints of animals from Starr, who’s director of American & European works of art and an art auctioneer.
Ecological Change Since Audubon: Thursday, June 18, at 6:30 p.m.; discussion by naturalists, biologists and environmentalists.
Storytime in the Gallery, Frederick: Monday, June 22, at 11:30 a.m.; gallery member reads Frederick by Leo Lionni, recommended for kids ages 2 to 5.
See “From Birds to Beasts: Audubon’s Last Great Adventure”
Where: Currier Museum of Art, 150 Ash St., Manchester
When: On view now through Aug. 30
Admission: $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, $9 for students, $5 for youth, free for kids younger than 13
Contact:, 669-6144,

Artistic adventure
Currier show chronicles the making of Audubon’s prints

By Kelly Sennott

Placed at the very start of the Currier Museum of Art’s newest exhibition is a portrait of John James Audubon. He’s slouched in a chair, a gun in his hand, ready to take on anything, from buffalo and bears to the publishing world and American West.

If there wasn’t a gun in his hand at any given moment, it was likely there was a pencil or paintbrush instead. Audubon is most known for his bird and animal prints, which decorate the Currier’s current show, “From Birds to Beasts: Audubon’s Last Great Adventure,” on view now through Aug. 30. When printed in mass quantities in the mid-1800s, they were revolutionary from a naturalist and historical perspective — never before had these creatures been so accurately rendered — but just as notable is the real frontier adventure Audubon took to create them.
First of their kind
Before Audubon, naturalists drew and painted boring, sometimes inaccurate work. Alexander Wilson — born 20 years before Audubon, and who has a few prints in the show — for example, drew birds that were static, sometimes alongside plants and animals that didn’t even live in the same habitat.
Audubon, on the other hand, painted birds their actual size, and he put them in more natural poses. Within their frames, they crouch, fly and hunt, and they do so in landscapes similar to those they’d actually live in.
These large-scale bird prints were mass-produced within his first and most popular book, The Birds of America, created from  1826 to 1838. Mind you, this was before color printers, and so each and every black and white image needed to be filled with color by hand, which was done by a whole production team. When finished, they were shipped to Audubon subscribers individually or in large volumes, sort of like coffee table books — except they were about as large as a coffee table.
The adventure
The real adventure began in 1843, when Audubon decided to journey out west to capture what was missing from his collection — mammals. He traveled to St. Louis via carriage, and then 1,400 miles up the Missouri River via Omega, a steamship operated by the American Fur Company, to the North Dakota/Montana border. He sketched elk, foxes, wolves and badgers.
Along one wall in the museum is a map detailing this expedition.
“It was a real frontier trip in rough conditions,” curator Andrew Spahr said, gesturing to the map. “They were camping, and so this, for him, was a real adventure. But he was used to this because he was a real frontiersman to begin with.”
When he wasn’t sketching the animals alive, he was hunting (after all, he had to eat) and preserving the animal pelts. He had taxidermists send mounds, but he was also a skilled taxidermist himself. He returned to New York City in the fall of 1843, but he died in 1851 having only been able to draw about half of the 150 paintings that would eventually become The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. His son John Woodhouse Audubon completed the remainder for the book.
Not just for scientists
“For over 50 years, Audubon’s Quadrupeds of North America was the scientific reference on North American mammals,” Spahr said. “It was considered a national accomplishment from the day it was first produced.”
Scientists and naturalists used these prints as reference, but wealthy subscribers also bought them for entertainment and status. There weren’t TVs or computers in the mid-1800s, and this book was the largest and most elaborate color-printed book in the United States, Spahr said. It was just as much a publishing feat as it was a scientific breakthrough. Subscribers sifted through the images — probably oftentimes by candlelight — and they marveled at images like bison or armadillo or bear that, most likely, they’d never seen before. They lived Audubon’s adventures on the page. 
“If  you couldn’t afford beautiful paintings, this was one way you could have beautiful artworks in your home,” Spahr said.
Contemporary connections
Toward the show’s end you’ll find six bird prints by contemporary artist Walton Ford, who was inspired by Audubon. The images were created over seven years and printed at Wingate Studio in Hinsdale.
“Walton Ford had Audubon’s birds portfolio and the mammals portfolio, and he would look through them and be inspired by them,” Cataldo said. But when you walk up to his six bird prints in the show, “Even if you don’t read the label, you’ll realize it’s a little different from what you’ve been looking at.”
The birds themselves are bright, accurate prints, but the difference is in their faces and their surroundings. They possess sly, personified expressions, and their environments are embedded in symbolism. 
One example is “Benjamin’s Emblem,” painted in 2000, which shows a wild turkey pinning down a now-extinct Carolina parakeet. The bird’s eyes are villainous, and surrounding it is a burning countryside and Ben Franklin’s 13 virtues written in cursive. The image was inspired by a letter Franklin wrote to his wife in disbelief that the bald eagle was chosen as the national bird. 
“The bald eagle, he said, is not a moral bird. He thought the turkey was more American,” Cataldo said.
But, as the artist demonstrates, even great birds and great men are capable of bad behavior, including Franklin, whose “conduct in his personal life was, at times, debaucherous,” as quoted from the painting’s side text.
Another print depicts a sly-looking red macaw (also extinct) called “La Historia Me Absolvera,” created in 1999 and titled after the last line of a 1953 Fidel Castro speech. Surrounding the bird are 18th-century traps and also text from C.I.A. records documenting the various failed attempts to assassinate Castro. (One example: giving him a diving suit with fungus to cause chronic skin disease.)
“He personifies the birds. They have emotions, and they become little allegories and players within a story,” Cataldo said. “I think the text is what gives [the prints] these multiple layers.”
The show was put together partially to commemorate the New Hampshire Audubon’s centennial year, partially to pay tribute to this revolutionary artist, but curators grabbed onto the idea mostly because it was something they knew visitors would enjoy, Spahr said.
Also decorating the show are stuffed bobcat, fisher and fox mounts, lent by the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, which are located by an interactive artist station at which  visitors can draw the animals just as Audubon used to. The rest of the summer, visitors can also participate in accompanying events, held by the Currier, New Hampshire Audubon and Squam Lakes Natural Science Center. 
As seen in the June 4, 2015 issue of the Hippo.

®2020 Hippo Press. site by wedu