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Monday, August 15, 2011

Audubon Offering of the Day: "American White Pelican" John James Audubon (1785-1851)

John James Audubon
Plate 311: “American White Pelican” from “Birds of America”
Aquatint engraving with original hand color, 39 ¾" x 27"
London, 1827-38

With justified elation, Audubon wrote, “I feel great pleasure, good Reader, in assuring you, that our White Pelican, which has hitherto been considered the same as that found in Europe is quite different. In consequence of this discovery I have honored it with the name of my beloved country, over the mighty streams of which, may this splendid bird wander free...” Audubon saw this magnificent bird as a symbol of America, and he immortalized it in this image, perhaps his most majestic and iconic masterpiece. Audubon demonstrates a remarkably sophisticated treatment of composition and plumage texture in this aquatint, minimizing landscape in order to silhouette the imposing pelican against a dramatic night sky. The American White Pelican is one of only three nocturnal scenes depicted in the "Birds of America,” and the bird’s bright white plumage stands out brilliantly from the deep-blue setting, its form emerging with heightened clarity.

The most famous of John James Audubon's splendid Birds of America have several common characteristics, even while the images themselves are startling in their individuality. Audubon was at his most successful artistically when he best combined graceful, dramatic compositions with meticulous naturalism. In other words, Audubon's most striking birds are those where he used his greatest talents as an ornithologist and as an artist -- two métiers which are generally considered highly difficult to reconcile. While all of Audubon's Birds of America hint at his equal expertise in the worlds of science and art, several images stand out as his masterpieces. They are, by extension, the crowning achievements of ornithological art (and, as many would argue, high points of American 19th century art in general). Audubon’s “American White Pelican” ranks among the artist’s most splendid full-page compositions, and is arguably the most engaging image of the 435-plate Birds of America.

The White Pelican inspired some of Audubon’s most intense and compassionate opinions on conservation, notions which placed him far ahead of his time. Having observed that the bird occupied habitats and climates ranging widely from the northwestern “fur countries” as far south as the Gulf of Mexico, he surmised that it was “on account of the constantly increasing numbers of our hostile species that these creatures are urged to proceed towards wild and uninhabited parts of the world where they find that security... necessary to enable them to rear their innocent progeny.” As one of the artist’s most poignant and desirable images, the “American White Pelican” becomes available very rarely, and this particular example is in excellent condition with full margins and bright original color.

Offered at $185,000.

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