This exhibition presents 24 of the 435 prints comprising the best known work of 19th century American naturalist John James Audubon (1785-1851): the folio of engravings entitled The Birds of America. The execution of this series captivated Audubon’s imagination for over twenty-five years, with the actual engraving of the images taking place from 1826 to 1838. The works on view are from the private collection of Kathy and Michael Mouron of Birmingham, Alabama, and are being shown publicly in the region for the first time.
To observe his subjects firsthand, Audubon traveled through much of the North American continent – often killing his specimens to examine them as closely as possible. He recorded the appearance of birds in a variety of media. His intricately detailed illustrations – all of which are rich in observation – include songbirds, waterfowl and birds of prey, which are represented as life-size and in their natural habitats.
In 1826, Audubon entered into the process of having his paintings published as hand-colored engravings. He collaborated first with the Edinburgh-based William H. Lizars, but when a colorists’ strike brought this partnership to a close, Audubon began his collaboration with Robert Havell, Jr. The partnership with Havell lasted until 1838.
Both printers worked closely with the artist, making certain the prints retained the character of the artist’s originals. However, the care required to produce the artistic quality Audubon demanded often came into conflict with the pragmatic need to create prints speedily. To meet this demand, Havell devised a method of working that echoed the modern assembly line. He employed a team of colorists, each of whom was dedicated to finishing a specific aspect of each print.
About the Collectors
Both Kathy and Michael Mouron graduated from the University of Alabama. Upon graduating, Michael went to work in Birmingham for Price, Waterhouse & Co. and was assigned to the Gulf States Paper Corporation in Tuscaloosa. The CEO of Gulf States Paper Corporation, Jack Warner, was a philanthropist and businessman known for his collection of American art. Gulf States’ corporate office held Warner’s immense art collection and among the pieces were Audubon aquatints from The Birds of North America. The collection at the corporate office was so impressive that after business hours, the building became an art gallery with tours conducted often. After visiting those offices, Michael Mouron was drawn to Audubon’s birds.
While traveling forty years later, Michael and Kathy spotted Audubon’s Summer (or Wood) Duck through the open doors of the Arader Gallery and Michael remembered it from Mr. Warner’s collection. The owner of the piece was Mr. Graham Arader. After getting to know each other, the Mouron’s and Mr. Arader quickly formed a friendship on the basis that the artwork should be made accessible to college and university professors for active use in their teaching.
After purchasing the “Wood Duck” aquatint in May, 2013, the Mourons, with help from Mr. Arader, have now accumulated thirty-three other pieces. “With Graham’s careful guidance and counsel, I believe we have been able to secure some absolutely fabulous pieces, rich in color and with full margins and some with most interesting provenance.”
Seven of the aquatints are currently on loan to the University of Tennessee in honor of Michael’s father and most of the other pieces will be included in the exhibition at HMA.