John James Audubon and the American Landscape
Reception: September 5, 2013 / 6:00 pm (Immediately folllowing the lecture by Christoph Irmscher) / Sixth floor gallery / Bird Library
John James Audubon and the American Landscape showcases Syracuse University’s copy of the rare double elephant folio The Birds of America. Printed in London and Edinburgh between 1827 and 1838, the work is a stunning visual catalog, featuring four hundred and thirty-five plates depicting American bird life. The enterprise consumed much of Audubon’s adult life and took him from the Pennsylvania woods to the Florida Keys and the Labrador coast. To its nineteenth-century audience, The Birds of America was much more than an ornithological inventory. It brought the exotic American wilderness into the drawing rooms and parlors of its wealthy subscribers. In 1896, former mayor of Syracuse and Syracuse University trustee James J. Welden donated a copy to the University. Today, The Birds of America is known for its extraordinary value, fetching more than ten million dollars at auction.
The exhibition situates The Birds of America in the wider contexts of Audubon’s life, nineteenth-century scientific knowledge, and a rapidly changing landscape that was becoming less exotic each day. Also on display are Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology (1808–14), Audubon’s textual companion to The Birds of America (Ornithological Biography, 1831–49), and later volumes that speak to Audubon’s legacy, such as first editions of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (1949). Syracuse University's copy of The Birds of America is disbound, which makes it possible for visitors to the exhibition to consider several different prints at once. Some of the engravings on display include the barn owl, Swainson’s hawk, and the long-billed curlew, all of which depict American avian life against the backdrop of encroaching civilization.