Magazine article USA TODAY

The Unknown Audubons: Mammals of North America

Magazine article USA TODAY

The Unknown Audubons: Mammals of North America

Article excerpt

The American Museum of Natural History's Audubon Gallery has been refurbished and reopened, providing a setting almost as stunningly dramatic as the art on display. Dark double doors open to an elegant salon-style hall, with high, white coffered ceilings graced by eight inverted bowl lamps, trimmed with metalwork depicting terns in flight. The warm wood inner doors, moldings, and wainscoting have been refinished and the walls covered in cream linen. New lighting also subtly complements the room's architectural details, which include magnificent marble door moldings.

Serving as the revamped gallery's first exhibition is "The Unknown Audubons: Mammals of North America," introducing visitors to an unfamiliar side of Audubon and his family. Most identify John James Audubon with his monumental and groundbreaking work, the 435-plate Birds of America (1827-1838) and, even today, his name remains synonymous with birds and bird conservation. However, soon after the publication of Birds of America, Audubon decided to pursue an even more challenging project--the documentation of all known North American mammals--an ambitious undertaking that included a six-month expedition to the Missouri River Valley in 1843. The exhibition recounts this project and features more than 50 vivid depictions of mammals. These images are at the heart of Audubon's last great work, the three-volume Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1845-1848), completed with the help of his sons, Victor Gifford Audubon and John Woodhouse Audubon, and written mostly by Audubon's longtime friend, the naturalist and Lutheran minister John Bachman.

The exhibition also succeeds in placing Audubon's life and art in the context of a dramatic environmental story-protecting endangered ecosystems. In addition to paintings of mammals, including raccoons, porcupines, wolves, and black bears, the exhibition presents a timely ecological message. Using Audubon's sketches, paintings, and journal entries, as well as mammal specimens from the Museum's collections, it documents the virtually complete loss of the prairie grasslands--the largest ecosystem in North America.

On the Missouri River expedition in 1843, Audubon found himself at the beginning of the transformation of the American heartland. …

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