'Audubon's Fifty Best' display opens today

March 03, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

The celebrated birds flew from Chicago to Dulles International Airport in Virginia and arrived via truck in seven large crates.

They are perched in the Kerstein and Bowman galleries ready to greet visitors to an exhibition opening today at Washington County Museum of Fine Arts.

"Audubon's Fifty Best," a display of ornithological prints, is one of just 150 sets produced by Oppenheimer Editions of Chicago from the Field Museum of Chicago's copy of artist John James Audubon's "The Birds of America."

Not all sets of Audubon prints published from the original engravings made in the 1820s and 1830s are of the same quality. The quality and color of the engravings varied greatly, says Jean Woods, museum director. They were hand-colored by different people.


"There might have been as many as six women sitting around coloring the engravings," Woods says. She has seen different sets of original prints and says the difference in brightness and quality is amazing.

The Field Museum's copy is regarded by experts as one of the finest Audubon folios in the world. The 50 prints on display in the Hagerstown museum, made in the most up-to-date process, capture the quality of the Field Museum prints.

State-of-the-art digital imaging technology has captured the artist's colors, crispness and original engraved lines.

"We haven't shown prints of this digital imagery before," says Woods, museum director.

The exhibition includes plate one, "Wild Turkey, Male," perhaps the most famous of Audubon's birds, Woods says. Also on display are "Canvas backed Ducks" with a view of Baltimore and "Long-billed Curlew," with the Charleston, S.C., harbor in the background. The two are unusual; although Audubon painted the birds in their natural habitats, identifiable locations were not typically included.

The birds, more than 1,000 on the 435 pages, were painted life-size. Large birds, such as the Roseate Spoonbill and American Flamingo, were depicted bending over so they could fit on the page. Standing flamingos are shown in the background.

Audubon, born in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) in 1785, was the son of a French sea captain/plantation owner. His Creole mother died soon after his birth, and the young Audubon was raised in France, interested in birds, nature, drawing and music, according to the National Audubon Web site,

When he was 18, he was sent to the family estate near Philadelphia. He is credited with conducting the first bird-banding experiment in North America.

He married Lucy Bakewell in 1808, and the young couple settled in Kentucky. Audubon was involved in several unsuccessful business ventures and declared bankruptcy and spent some time in a debtor's prison.

By the time he was 34, Audubon dedicated his life to studying and drawing birds and animals, their behavior and habitats.

He traveled much of the next 29 years sketching and collecting specimens for his watercolors of every bird species on the continent.

He sailed to England in 1826, and his work, though not successful in America, was acclaimed in Britain and France. The project of printing his work began in Scotland, but in 1827, Audubon took the work to London, where he worked with engraver Robert Havell Jr., his most important collaborator, Woods wrote.

At least 200 sets of prints were produced, and of these only 100 are intact, found in libraries and museum collections worldwide. Prices range from $900 to $125,000, according to, the Kenyon-Oppenheimer Web site.

The prints on display are "double elephant folio," the name for the page size - 26 by 39 inches. The images are printed on 100-percent rag, acid-free archival paper, similar to the Whatman paper of the originals.

About three and a half years ago, Oppenheimer Editions, the publishing arm of the company that also owns the Kenyon Oppenheimer Gallery in Chicago, specializing in natural history art, set about reproducing Audubon's 50 best, says Joel Oppenheimer, president.

Oppenheimer wanted to make a set of "phenomenal prints that are not identical but extraordinarily close" to the Field Museum's set, he says. The technology that made the prints possible has been evolving for about 10 years, but it's within the last couple of years that it's come into its own, Oppenheimer says.

But the technology is only a tool, he adds. His company has gone to great lengths - making proof after proof, comparing them to the Field prints, making minute changes. That's why it took three years to complete the project, he says.

"Audubon's Fifty Best" is a limited edition of only 150 sets, Oppenheimer says. They are available for sale for a price of between $1,500 and $4,000 each, but that cost will rise as the supply decreases.

Oppenheimer loaned the prints to the Washington County Museum at Woods' request.

Everyone loves Audubon, Woods says, because he's part of the beauty of America.

If you go...

"Audubon's Fifty Best"

Today through Sunday, April 27

Washington County Museum of Fine Arts

91 Key Street, City Park


Museum hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

A public reception opens the Audubon exhibit today from 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.

For information, call 301-739-5727 or go to on the Web.

The Herald-Mail Articles