John James Audubon’s “Magnificent Obsession”

September 6th – November 30th, 2014

Co-curated by Sarah Mottalini, Curatorial Assistant of Art Collections & Exhibitions and Julie Lohnes, Curator of Art Collections & Exhibitions

John James Audubon, Long-eared Owl, plate 383, 1985, full-size facsimile of the Havell engraving, Abbeville Press in collaboration with the National Audubon Society, Union College Special Collections

John James Audubon’s lasting significance in art, history, and science is not simply due to his artistic mastery, tenacity, and the overwhelming ambition of his undertaking to portray, as realistically as possible, all the birds of the American wilds. In large part, it is due to his ability to convey the life beneath the feathers; to transmit the spirit of these beautiful creatures, tenuous and fleeting, and ignite in us, the spark that fueled him all those years: his joy in discovering the intimate life of birds. It would take nearly twenty years, the help of his two sons, a few artist collaborators, and a highly skilled British engraver, Robert Havell, Jr., for Audubon to complete his grand opus, Birds of America: 200 double-elephant-folios, measuring almost 40 by 30 inches closed, each containing 435 hand-colored etchings, depicting the nearly 500 species of birds known to inhabit America’s vast landscapes.

Union College President Eliphalet Nott demonstrated his characteristic progressive nature when he purchased a complete set of the four-volume, double-elephant-folio, Birds of America, from Audubon in the summer of 1844. The artist was visiting the campus to tour Jackson’s Garden with its namesake, fellow naturalist and Union professor, Captain Isaac Jackson.

Nott’s tremendous purchase remained safely within the care of the College library until Commencement 1971, when the entire contents of volume one of Birds of America, on display in a locked glass case in the library for the weekend’s festivities, was wrenched from its cover and case by two thieves, leaving a bloody trail as evidence of their deed. The prints, some bloodstained and severely torn, were eventually recovered with the help of the FBI and a rare book dealer from Texas. The Audubon portfolios remain one of Union’s most precious Special Collections holdings today.

This exhibition features both the prints from the original Havell edition of Audubon’s Birds of America owned by Union College, as well as high quality facsimile prints from Abbeville Press and Oppenheimer Inc. The New-York Historical Society purchased the entire cache of 474 original watercolors Audubon painted as preparatory studies for Birds of America, acquiring the majority from Lucy Audubon in 1863. Of these watercolors, 435 served as the models for the final Havell engravings for Birds of America, but thirty-nine were not included for a variety of reasons. Schaffer Library at Union College has recently purchased, with gifted funds from alumnus David Seeley, a member of the class of 1970, twelve facsimile prints from these thirty-nine “to complete our flock.” Seeley made this gift in honor of former Union College President Harold Martin.

Union College is also fortunate to have recently acquired another group of facsimiles of the final Havell engravings from a 1985 collaboration between the National Audubon Society and the Abbeville Press. To produce this group of full-size facsimiles of all 435 prints to commemorate Audubon’s 200th birthday, the Audubon Society’s copy of Birds of America was used and the printing was done in Tokyo on paper from New York’s own Mohawk Paper Company.

– Sarah Mottalini, Curatorial Assistant of Art Collections and Exhibitions

This exhibition is a collaboration between Schaffer Library and the Mandeville Gallery/ Union College Permanent Collection.




Schaffer Library

1st Floor, Lally Reading Room

Union College, 807 Union St. Schenectady, NY 12308

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Talk & Reception

October 21, 2014

12:55 – 1:55 PM

Schaffer Library, Lally Reading Room