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Friday, March 9, 2012

These Birds in Hand Are Worth Millions

John James Audubon (1785-1851)
Oil on canvas by John Syme, 1826
Currently hanging in the White House.

John James Audubon, a Haitian-born man raised in France, had a vision. One that resulted in a monumental and important work – Birds of America.

Carolina Pigeon
(now called Mourning Dove)

He had loved birds and nature as a child, and was encouraged by his father to explore and draw what he saw. He was reported to be quite charming, played the flute and violin, learned to ride and to fence, but loved roaming the woods best.

White Gerfalcons

Although his father had planned for his son to be a seaman, the young Audubon was not fond of navigation or the math required, and failed his officer’s qualification test. He also got seasick easily. His father managed to secure a fake passport and sent him to America in 1803, in order to avoid being drafted in the Napoleonic wars.

Virginian Partridge (Northern Bobwhite)
under attack by a young red-shouldered hawk.

Audubon did well in various family businesses, but really relished his time outdoors, hunting, fishing and drawing. He had a great respect for Native Americans, and spent time with local tribes learning their ways of hunting and their views on nature. He married his neighbor’s daughter, Lucy Bakewell, with whom he shared common interests. They lived in Kentucky and spent time together exploring the local countryside.

Roseate Spoonbill

In 1812, after Congress declared war with Great Britain, Audubon went to Philadelphia and became an American citizen. Upon returning to Kentucky, he found that his entire collection - over two hundred drawings - had been destroyed by rats. Despondent and downhearted, he decided to redo his work, but this time even better.

Paridae:  (clockwise from top right, in pairs)
Psaltriparus minimus, Parus atricapillus, Parus rufescens

His methods for drawing birds were based on his extensive observations from the field. He first killed the birds with fine shot, then wired them into natural poses. He painted the birds in their natural settings, often as though in the midst of motion. 

The Greater Flamingo

Working primarily with layers of watercolor and sometimes gouache, he added pastels or colored chalk for softness. Audubon drew all the birds life-size and placed smaller birds in settings with branches, flowers, fruit and berries. He grouped several species in some drawings on the same page to show contrast. His poses were contrived to reveal as much of bird anatomy as possible, achieving both scientific and artistic efficacy.

Snowy Heron or White Egret

He took his new collection of drawings to England in 1826. American printers had not been very responsive to his enthusiastic plans to publish life-size prints of hundreds of bird species made from engraved copper plates and hand-colored.  

Mallard Ducks

Birds of America consists of 435 prints printed on sheets measuring 39 by 26 inches. The printing costs were $115,640 (over $2,000,000 by today’s rates). Besides arranging for the production of his grand opus, he tirelessly promoted it.  He raised the money from advance subscriptions, oil painting commissions, exhibitions, and even the sale of animal skins from his hunts.

Blue Jays

Over fifty colorists were hired to apply each color in an assembly line. The original edition was engraved in aquatint. Robert Havell took over the project when the first ten plates of engraver W. H. Lizars were found subpar. By the 1830s, lithography replaced the aquatint process. He called the new size the double elephant folio since it was double elephant paper size.

Anna's Hummingbird

Criticized for not ordering the plates in Linnaean order (like a scientific treatise), he was more interested in providing a visual tour for the reader. King George IV was a subscriber along with others of nobility. He gave a demonstration of how he propped the birds with wire to arrange their poses. A student at the time, Charles Darwin, was at that demonstration. Darwin quotes Audubon three times in The Origin of Species and in later works.

Golden Eagle

Audubon has had a vast influence on natural history and ornithology. His high standards set the bar for future works. Among his accomplishments were the discovery of twenty-five new species and twelve subspecies. In his journals, he warned about loss of habitats and over-hunting. Birds that have become extinct, including the Carolina Parakeet, Passenger Pigeon, and Great Auk, are only known to us from his prints.  This follows in the steps of a predecessor, Ustad Mansur, the Mughal artist who most famously left us with a true depiction of a dodo bird.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker

His next work was a sequel entitled Ornithological Biographies, written with a Scottish ornithologist, William MacGillivray. Both books were published between 1827 and 1839, but separately to avoid having to provide a copy of Birds of America to the Crown libraries, as required by law for any books with text.

Ruffled Grouse

In 1839-1844, he published an octavo edition of Birds of America with an additional 65 plates. These were approximate 10-1/2 by 6-3/4 inches.  The earliest editions were bound in seven volumes, editions after 1865 in eight volumes.  This edition was first published in fascicles (parts) in an effort to make it more affordable, and therefore accessible to libraries and to more people. Each fascicle cost $1, and the entire set cost $100.  Once collected, most subscribers had them bound in volumes.

Fascicle of Part 4

The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, his final work which focused on documenting mammals, was written in collaboration with Rev. John Bachman, who supplied most of the scientific text. This was completed by his sons and son-in-law posthumously.

Snowy Owl

John Woodhouse Audubon devoted himself entirely to continuing the work of his father. They worked together on the series The Quadrapeds of North America (the “Viviparous” was dropped), but when John James became too ill to continue, John Woodhouse ended up doing most of the drawings. Because of the dangers of working closely with live animals, caged or dead ones were used as models.  Since this was more unwieldy than staging bird poses, their animal paintings were not as successful, and are rather gloomy.

Mountain Brook Minks, 1848 by John Woodhouse Audubon.
Image courtesy of National Museum of Wildlife Art

Despite being under the shadow of his father, John Woodhouse’s contributions are valuable. His brother, Victor Gifford Audubon, also continued the family tradition of wildlife painting, but is the least known of the Audubon family.

Passenger Pigeons
(now extinct)

Lucy Audubon sold all 435 of the original watercolors to the New York Historical Society, after her husband’s death. Desperate for money, she later sold all but 80 of the original copper plates to the Phelps Dodge Corporation, who melted them down and sold them for scrap.

Sotheby's Mary Engleheart shown with copy of Birds of America
auctioned December, 2010.  Photo by Pitarakis/AP.

Considered the world’s most expensive printed book, one of the 119 copies still extant was sold on January 20th of this year at Christie's.  This was the "Duke of Portland" set acquired by William Henry Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, the fourth Duke of Portland (1768-1854) some time after 1838.  Reported to be in excellent condition, it was sold to a private American collector for $7,922,500.  The highest amount paid for the four-volume set was in December of 2010 when Michael Tollemache, a London fine art dealer and bird lover, purchased one for $11.5 million.  Of the 119 remaining copies of the book, only a few are in private hands, the rest (estimated to be 108) belong to libraries, universities, and museums. 

Photograph of John James Audubon just prior to his death
by photographer Charles DeForest Fredricks

John James Audubon was a talented artist and salesman, whose exacting efforts to record the creatures he loved yielded one of the most impressive books ever made. A unique man, he envisioned his dreams and brought them to fruition. That is certainly worth millions of dollars.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.
An earlier version of this post appeared on Booktryst.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The "Miracle of the Age" - a Forerunner of Audubon

Los Borrachos or The Drunks, 1629, by Diego Velázquez.
Velázquez served as court painter for Philip IV of Spain.

Court painters were artists who were employed by members of a royal or noble family.  Sometimes they were given a fixed salary; sometimes they were employed on an exclusive basis.  In some eras and locations, this freed them from the restrictions of their local guilds.  Hans Dürer, Jan van Eyck, Francisco Goya, Hans Holbein the Younger, Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, and Diego Velázquez are some of the European artists who spent time as court painters.  Some, such as Velázquez, also served other capacities in court, such as diplomats or administrators.

The Mughal ruler Jahangir, 1617, attributed to Abu al-Hasan.
Measuring six feet tall, this is a life-size painting and sold
At Bonhams in April of  2011 for approx. $2,239,482.

In Islamic cultures, notably between the 14th and 17th centuries, rulers maintained ateliers or court workshops for artists, in particular for miniaturists, calligraphers, and other artists and craftsmen.  These became the princely courts' focus of patronage, whether Muslim or Hindu.  The Mughal emperors were keenly interested in recording their reflections on art, science, and the world around them. Jahangir, son of Akbar and father of Shah Jahan of Taj Mahal fame, was especially known for his love of nature and his writing.  He recorded detailed descriptions of wildlife in his memoirs, the Jahangirnama.

A Nilgai Ibue cow by Mansur, courtesy of Wikigallery.
A turkey cock by Mansur, 1612.

Jahangir was a keen birdwatcher and observer of animals.  Even zoologists had not discovered the gestation period of elephants until the mid-nineteenth century, but Jahangir had estimated that it was approximately eighteen months in the early seventeenth century.  He was a connoisseur of art, and his court painters, of whom he was justly very proud, have provided scholars today with accurate records of his time and reign.  One of his court painters was Ustad Mansur.

Portrait of a falcon from north India, 1619.
Image courtesy of Wikigallery.
Indian lapwing, 1600.  Image courtesy of Wikigallery.

Ustad Mansur began his career as a minor painter in the court of Akbar.  When he was painting in the court of Jahangir, he became noted for his depictions of plants and animals.  His attained such skills that Jahangir dubbed him Nadir-ul-Asar, or "Miracle of the Age".  ("Ustad" means "master.)

A chameleon, which may have acquired from traders at Goa.
Image courtesy Royal Library, Windsor.

Because of his interest in nature, and it was customary for Mughal rulers to keep zoos and gardens of exotic plants, Jahangir bought rare creatures from the Portuguese colony of Goa on the western coast of India.  One of these creatures was the dodo.  Mansur was the first artist to paint the dodo (that we have extant proof) and it is thanks to his painting that we know what it looked like.  Others have produced images of the dodo, but from skeletal remains and eyewitness account; Mansur painted his from life.

Mansur's depiction of a dodo, center, c. 1610.
The others are (clockwise from upper left):
Loriculus galgulus, Tragopan melanocephalus,
Anser indicus, and Pterocles indicus.

Mansur also was the first to paint a Siberian Crane (also known as a Snow Crane), and painted the rare Bengal Florican, or Bengal Bustard.  Both the Siberian Crane and the Bengal Florican are signed works, and can be viewed in the Kolkata Indian Museum.

A Himilayan cheer pheasant.
One of several zebras Mansur painted.

Most of Mansur's work is unsigned, which is a hallmark of Mughal painting - the genre did not celebrate the individual fame of the artist.  In the Jahangirnama it states that on a trip to the Kashmir Valley, Mansur painted over a hundred flowers.

This tulip painting is the only signed flower painting.
It states:  "Jahangirshahi, the work of the slave of the
Presence-Chamber, Mansur Naqqash, c. 1610."
Image courtesy of this site. 
This painting, Squirrels in a Plane Tree, has been
attributed to Abu al-Hasan, a student of Mansur, but
since its title reads "Nadir al-Asr" it may likely be a
collaboration between the two.  Since the subjects
are European squirrels, the artist either accompanied
Jahangir to Europe, or these squirrels were brought to
India.  Image courtesy of the British Library.

Mansur's talents were well-adapted for scientific documentation, and his works are valuable for their accuracy.  Although unsigned, some have been attributable because of Jahangir's written praise for his work.  His studies of nature are unsurpassed today, and his reputation as a stellar artist has grown.  He remains today Nadir-ul-Asar.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Marriage of Painting, Writing, and Music: Illuminated Choir Manuscripts

Initial C:  Monks Singing.  MS. 24, Leaf 3V.
Unknown artist, Italian, circa 1420.
Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment.
18-5/16" x 13-5/8"

Picture a dimly lit church.  The scent of incense is in the air, and you hear the sound of chanting. Choristers are clustered in a corner, performing a call and response with one of the monks.  In front of them is a lectern, and on top of it is a huge book.  It is big enough that they all can read it at the same time.  Now swing around behind them and look at the book.  It has large notes, and shows the words to be sung.  It most likely has illuminated drawings on it, and if it is an especially fine specimen, it will have a large illuminated initial.

Close-up of monks from above image.

Choirs were an integral part of medieval worship.  Since books were very expensive then it wasn’t possible for each member of the choir to have their own.  So very large books were made, some beautifully embellished with initials, drawings, borders, and other decorations.  The entire choir was able to read and sing from the one book.

Initial R:  The Resurrection.  MS. LUDWIG VI, FOL. 16
Antonio da Monza, Italian, late 1400s or early 1500s
Tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment.
25-1/4" x 17-1/8"

The books were made by hand, written by a scribe or calligrapher on parchment or vellum.  Their production usually required a team of craftsmen working under a master.  Some were made in scriptoriums, others in artisan workshops.  An illuminator was an artist who decorated the book.  A binder then sewed the sheets together into a book and placed them within a cover.  The production of a book was commissioned and financed by a patron, sometimes the head of a monastery or cathedral.

Initial C:  The Creation of the World.  MS. 24, LEAF 5
Artist unknown, Italian, circa 1420, tempera colors,
gold leaf, and ink on parchment.  18-5/16" x 13-5/8"

Musical chants were an important part of ritual ceremonies.  One of these was the Mass, a public ceremony that included the blessing of wine and bread to be consumed.  Missals, which contained the spoken prayers and chants that priests performed during Mass, were small and portable.  Graduals, containing music and text sung during the year for Mass, became larger as choirs grew in size.

Initial A:  A man singing.  MS. LUDWIG VI 2, FOL. 128V
Artist unknown, Italian, circa 1460-1480.
Tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment.
23-3/4" x 17-5/16"

The Divine Office is a cycle of prayers that are recited each day at prescribed hours.  One of the books used for these is an antiphon.  An antiphon is usually in Gregorian chant, and is a response by a choir or congregation to a text, most often a psalm.  Antiphons are still integral in Greek Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches.

Initial A:  Christ in Majesty.  MS. LUDWIG VI, FOL. 2
Master of Gerona, Italian, 1275-1299.  22-15/16" x 15-13/16"
From an antiphonal; sung on the first Sunday in Advent.

Depending on the age of the book, the musical notation may be in neumes or in square notation.  Neumes are a series of ascending and descending dots and lines.  A neume was a symbol that could signify two to four notes.  Readers could get a sense of the melody and how long each word should be sung with this notation.

From a page of the Stammheim Missal, German, circa 1170s.

The word neumes comes from the Greek word for gestures.  They were placed without staffs.   Since most singers knew the songs by heart, the neumes served as a reminder of the rises and falls of the melody being sung.  So in essence they were a type of shorthand or mnemonic for the melody of a chant.

From a page of a gradual, Italian, circa late 1400s or early 1500s.

Square notation used a four-line staff with clef notes.  Groups of ascending notes were squares, stacked, and read from bottom to top.  Descending notes (sometimes diamonds) were read from left to right.  Square notation became the standard, and is the precursor to the modern notation used today.

Initial E:  The Prophet Isaiah.  MS. 97, leaf 3V;
Bohemian, circa 1405.  Tempera colors, gold leaf,
and gold paint on parchment.  22-3/8" x 15-13/16"

Many of these religious volumes are difficult to read today, due to the lettering style and the abbreviations.  Although printed books were introduced in the mid-fifteenth century, the production of handmade books continued for approximately another century.

Illuminator known as the Master of Gerona.  MS. LUDWIG VI 6.
Italian, late 1200s.  Tempera colors, gold leaf, and
ink on parchment.  22-15/16" x 15-13/16"

The illuminated initial usually came at the beginning of a passage or a paragraph.  These letters were both a source of beauty and served to help the choir to find their place.  (Remember those churches were  dimly lit.)  It was common for a “V” to be written as a “U”, and vice versa.

Close-up from a page from a gradual illuminated by Antonio da Monza.
Italian, late 1400s or early 1500s.  MS. LUDWIG VI 3.
Tempura colors, gold leaf and ink on parchment.  25-5/16" x 17-1/8".

These beautiful volumes were made and used in Europe beginning around 500 C.E., and in some areas their use continued into the early part of the 20th century.  They serve as historical documents revealing to us the songs that were sung, the production methods of books, and many of the illustrations provide a glimpse into the life of their respective eras.  We cannot hear their voices, but we can imagine...

All images courtesy of the Getty:  © 2010 The J. Paul Getty Trust. 
All rights reserved.
 An earlier version of this post was published on Booktryst.