Audubon and Birds Take Flight at Berkshire Museum

John James Audubon (After), Canada Goose. Hand-colored engraving with etching and aquatint, by R. Havell, c. 1833. Collection of Shelburne Museum.

(PITTSFIELD, Mass.) – Berkshire Museum will present the major new exhibition, Taking Flight: Audubon and the World of Birds, from Saturday, January 21 through June 17, 2012, showcasing the masterful wildlife art of John James Audubon and exploring the fascinating realm of birds, from the tiniest hummingbird to the flightless ostrich. The exhibition, curated by Maria Mingalone, the museum’s director of interpretation, centers on John James Audubon and his passion for birds, which drove him to create The Birds of America, a revolutionary work of science and art that launched Audubon’s reputation as the world’s most renowned wildlife artist.

A full day of activities and presentations, including lectures, demonstrations, and family fun, are planned for Saturday, January 21, culminating in the official opening reception, free and open to the public, from 5 to 7 p.m.

More than thirty original hand-colored, life-size prints of birds from The Birds of America, engraved by Robert Havell Sr. and Robert Havell Jr. from Audubon’s original watercolors, are on loan from the Shelburne Museum, National Audubon Society, Arader Galleries, the Chapin Library at Williams College, and individual lenders. The prints, paired with almost as many bird specimens from the Museum’s collection, as well as loans from Harvard University, comprise the centerpiece of the exhibition. Rare Audubon watercolors and works by Audubon’s contemporaries, such as Alexander Wilson, also will be on view.

Visitors will learn how Audubon’s obsession drove him to extremes to produce the watercolors for the engravings that revolutionized the art of the naturalist, raising it to the level of fine art, and they will follow Audubon’s rugged wilderness journey as he painstakingly researched every bird species in North America for The Birds of America. The Birds of America, the four-volume set made up of the meticulous engravings, is now the most valuable book in the world; one recently sold at auction for $11.5 million.

John James Audubon (After), Ruffed Grouse. Hand-colored engraving with etching and aquatint, by R. Havell. Collection of Shelburne Museum

“Taking Flight presents the complicated story and the innovative, boundary-breaking artistry of the French-born naturalist and artist John James Audubon,” says Mingalone, the curator of Taking Flight. “Audubon was instrumental in changing the way birds were studied in the United States, and anywhere in the world for that matter, in the early nineteenth century.  He gave the art of the naturalist a fresh context.”

“His work was such genius it was collected by kings. We have combined the compelling story of Audubon’s masterwork with an inventive look at birds and their unique place in the natural world. Birds of North America, because of Audubon’s legacy, were the most well-documented and understood birds worldwide. Visitors will find an interesting story that is uplifting from a visual arts standpoint as well as one that digs deeply into the unique and fascinating life of birds, and man’s relationship to them.”

The science of feathers and flight, the many different bird habitats, the highly-evolved senses of birds, bird intelligence, and bird behavior are all explored in a series of galleries containing a wide array of photographs and video, art, objects, specimens and samples of birds, eggs, and nests.

On earth since the dinosaur, birds – the fascinating creatures that flock, roost, migrate, sing, fly, and have adapted to some of the most extreme habitats on earth – have always sparked human imagination. They figure prominently in the arts, literature, mythology, science, and popular culture. In uncovering surprising facts about our feathered friends that will awe and inspire, visitors to Taking Flight: Audubon and the World of Birds will come to appreciate the diversity and wonder of birds, the resilient and beautiful creatures that have taken flight in our hearts and imaginations for millennia.

John James Audubon (After), Black-Throated Diver. Hand-colored engraving with etching and aquatint, c. 1834. Collection of Shelburne Museum

“Taking Flight plunges the viewer into the cultural and natural histories of birds through the extraordinary story of John James Audubon’s pioneering work to illustrate what he observed in nature,” says Van W. Shields, executive director of Berkshire Museum.  “Along the way, visitors will enjoy a rare opportunity to view his pioneering art and explore various aspects of the world of birds in the unique exhibition environment that the Berkshire Museum is known for.”

The Opening Day Celebration on Saturday, January 21, 2012, begins with family-friendly activities from 10 a.m. to noon: create drawings and watercolors at the Audubon Art Station, decorate a Bowerbird house, and participate in the Brainy Bird Quiz Show. Activities are free with museum admission, all materials provided, first-come, first-served while supplies last.

Two presentations focused on John James Audubon will be offered in the afternoon. At 2 p.m., Nancy Powell, curator of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove in Audubon, Pennsylvania, will present Days of Their Lives: the Life & Art of John James & Lucy Audubon, when she will discuss the lives of this erratic genius and his steadfast wife, as well as delve into the finer points of how to identify an original Audubon print.

At 4 p.m., Mill Grove & Audubon: Where It All Began, will be presented by Jean Bochnowski, director of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Audubon’s first home in America.  The talk will describe Audubon’s extraordinary career that ultimately inspired one of the earliest bird and wildlife protection movements in the country, the National Audubon Society.

From 5-7 p.m. the public is invited to a free Opening Reception for Taking Flight: Audubon and the World of Birds.

John James Audubon (1785-1851) was an adventurer who spent much of his life traveling across the continent observing and documenting birds in exacting detail.  Audubon painted nearly 500 of the approximately 700 major species in North America, creating life-size portraits of birds in dramatic, live action poses.  His masterwork, Birds of America, is considered one of the finest examples of wildlife art, as well as a major contribution to our understanding of bird anatomy and behavior.  Audubon’s The Birds of America consists of 435 hand-colored engravings, each plate measuring approximately 26 by 37 inches.  The page size is commonly referred to as double elephant folio, which enabled Audubon to depict even the largest North American birds life-size.  The entire masterpiece took the thirteen years between 1826 and 1839 to complete.

A complete roster of programming and educational offerings will be available during the run of Taking Flight: Audubon and the World of Birds.

Berkshire Museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m.  For more information, visit Berkshire Museum or call 413.443.7171. Museum admission is $13 for adults and $6 for children. Members and children aged three and under enjoy free admission.

The Museum is located at 39 South Street on Route 7 in downtown Pittsfield.  Berkshire Museum is the first public museum in Berkshire County, established by Zenas Crane in 1903 as a museum of art and natural history.  Little Cinema is now open year-round.  Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation, Aquarium, Alexander Calder Gallery, and other exhibits are ongoing.




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