MIAMI – When John James Audubon set out to survey the birds of the United States in the early 1800s, people believed the young country's natural resources were infinite.
A new HistoryMiami exhibit showing every image printed for Audubon's masterpiece, "The Birds of America," evokes the same feeling of fresh abundance as hundreds of birds swoop, feed and preen across the gallery's rainbow-hued walls. It's believed to be the first exhibition of the entire 435-page portfolio at once.
Printed from 1826 through 1838, the museum's portfolio was one of roughly 180 published. With little formal artistic or scientific training, Audubon revolutionized nature art by illustrating birds in their natural habitat. "The Birds of America" remains a standard for modern wildlife imagery.
"He had a great sense of composition. He also really was one of the first American artists to introduce the concept of landscape and figure in the some composition, showing living entities in their natural environment," said Joel Oppenheimer, an Audubon print specialist.
HistoryMiami displays "The Birds of America" in the order they were printed, starting with a wild turkey, its blue head cocked over golden and speckled feathers as it struts through a dense woodland scene.
Benjamin Franklin advocated for the turkey as the national bird, instead of the bald eagle, and Audubon apparently agreed with him, said Rebecca Smith, the museum's head of special collections and the exhibit's curator.
Audubon was born in Haiti, then a French colony, and he began studying and drawing birds after arriving in the U.S. in 1803. He became a naturalized citizen in 1812.
"He wanted to pick, as his first bird, something very American. He was proud of being a U.S. citizen," Smith said.
On another 39-inch-by-49-inch print, a bright blue-and-pink passenger pigeon courts its drab-colored mate by sharing food with its black beak. Once the most abundant bird in North America — migrating flocks would take hours to pass overhead — it was driven to extinction by the early 1900s by overhunting and habitat destruction.
It's one of six birds in Audubon's portfolio now extinct. That number rises to seven if the bold-eyed, black-and-white ivory-billed woodpeckers in a nearby print also are extinct; no sightings of the birds in their original southeastern U.S. habitat have been confirmed since the 1940s.
In Audubon's lifetime, no one understood how vulnerable wildlife would be to hunting and habitat loss, Smith said.
"There was a sense of the infinite at the time. There was no understanding there was a finite number of birds and that you could end wildlife, period," she said.
"The Birds of America" inspired the founders of the National Audubon Society in 1905 to name their conservation efforts in his honor, but Audubon didn't paint as part of an environmental movement.
While modern scientific standards were still developing, Audubon shot and sometimes ate many of his subjects while he worked in the field. He also painted from taxidermy models obtained from other explorers, including a flamingo drawn from a specimen in London where he worked with engravers to publish the portfolio.
Bright pink from its beak to its claws, Audubon's flamingo is contorted so its long neck and legs fit on the page. His notes from two expeditions to Florida describe his shock at seeing flocks of flamingos take flight, but he never got close enough to bag one himself.
Audubon's portfolio still holds scientific value as a wildlife record of his era, though some details from his images or field notes have proven wrong. For example, a volcano probably inserted by the engravers rises absurdly behind two reddish egrets he observed in the flat islands of the Florida Keys.
"The Complete Audubon: The Birds of America" runs through May 31 at HistoryMiami.
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