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National Gallery Presents a Flock of Audubon Works

The flamingo in the picture is one fetching mama: cool, mysterious, exquisitely elegant — with plumage the color of hot pink Bazooka Bubble Gum. Then there’s the great American cock, who struts his gold and orange stuff across the page, chest puffed out, with all the aplomb of an early 19th-century poohbah. And don’t miss the cunning duo of snowy owls, lighting up an overcast night sky in one image like a pair of luminescent half moons.

These feathered friends are among the dozens of John James Audubon’s splendidly rendered American birds, which this week have come to nest in the National Gallery of Art’s West Building.

The National Gallery, which is now showing a selection of hand-colored etchings based on Audubon’s life-size watercolors from his seminal 1838 publication “Birds of America” (the gallery owns one of two complete sets of the etchings in their original, unbound state), organized the show in conjunction with its recent acquisition of “Osprey and Weakfish,” a rare Audubon oil painting gifted by Richard Mellon Scaife. (Less than 70 oil paintings are attributed to Audubon.)

The resulting artistic aviary will delight both bird fanciers and average Joes alike. For if Audubon’s birds were sometimes accused of being too anthropomorphic — these express a range of human emotion — it’s all for the best, because these are birds you can really relate to.

Case in point: “Golden-eye Duck,” an 1836 depiction of a pair of birds, captured at the exact moment one has been shot. The look of fright is palpable in the eyes of the unscathed duck as it watches its downed companion tumble toward the earth. (The picture likely served as the model for Winslow Homer’s “Right and Left,” painted more than 70 years later and now on display in the East Building as part of the gallery’s Homer exhibit.)

And just like humanity, not everything these birds do is nice.

One of Audubon’s more graphic images features a pair of great footed hawks devouring two dead birds — entrails exposed — as blood drips from the beak of one of the scavengers. A lone feather floating above the feeding frenzy adds a poignant element to the otherwise sparse scene.

Given the National Audubon Society’s stated mission “to conserve and restore natural ecosystems” with a focus on birds, Audubon’s own creative process appears counterintuitive in retrospect — though the artist, whose name is now virtually synonymous with the modern field guide, apparently had a late-in-life conversion to a conservationist mentality.

After all, “a good day” for Audubon, who over a 20-year period undertook several hunting expeditions in search of specimens for his book, was killing 100 birds. Audubon, a former chalk artist and taxidermist, then posed his felled prey in various dramatic positions with the aid of wires inserted into the corpses. (When he was unable to collect birds in person, Audubon sometimes had them shipped to his location. The flamingo on view is based on a bird that Audubon had sent to him from Cuba in a barrel of whisky.)

But Audubon’s artistic methods weren’t without scientific benefit.

Audubon, who also penned “Ornithological Biography,” a chronicle of his avian subjects’ characteristics and his experiences hunting these birds, got to know his victims intimately, said the exhibit’s curator Carlotta Owens — down to the contents of their stomachs and what they tasted like. (When it came to the palate, however, not all birds were created equally. The caption next to his “American White Pelican” etching duly notes that Audubon found the bird in question “quite unfit for food unless in cases of extreme necessity.”)

Despite Audubon’s careful approach to thoroughly documenting his birds — unlike his contemporaries such as ornithologist and illustrator Alexander Wilson, he often pictured them in their natural habitats — he did make mistakes. For instance, his “Columbia Jay” is native to Mexico as opposed to Oregon’s Columbia River Basin area — an error resulting from Audubon having used a specimen he did not personally collect, Owens said.

Ironically, some of the very birds Audubon found in such abundance and shot freely (as did many others at the time) are now extinct. For instance, passenger pigeons, not seen since 1914, were once so prevalent that Audubon described the birds as blanketing the sky so that “the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse.”

“Audubon’s Dream Realized: Selections from ‘The Birds of America’” is on view until March 26, 2006, in the National Gallery’s West Building. As part of the exhibit, the Audubon Naturalist Society is teaming with the National Gallery to host a series of Saturday morning bird-watching walks, which will be held once a month from November 2005 through April 2006. For more information and to register, call the ANS at (301) 652-9188, ext. 10.

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