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Catesby, Audubon, and the Discovery of a New World
At the Milwaukee Art Museum. Through March 22, 2009.

The lively intellectual curiosity of the 18th and 19th centuries is evident in Catesby, Audubon, and the Discovery of a New World. This superb exhibition of 60 prints from classic volumes of American natural history, dating from the 1730s to the 1850s, displays the work of three pioneering naturalists side by side. From the charm and economy of Catesby's hand-done works to the sumptuous color of Audubon's double-elephant folio lithography, it is a partnering that enhances all three while also showing their direct lineage of endeavor.

Englishman Mark Catesby was the first to systematically document New World species. Prints from Catesby's The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (London, 1731-43), drawn from Catesby's five-year exploration of what were then British colonial holdings, not only represent the earliest published images of American flora and fauna, but are also etchings produced and hand-colored by the naturalist himself. Engraved bird prints from the definitive volume American Ornithology (Philadelphia, 1808-14) by Scottish-born Alexander Wilson were derived from drawing and observation during years of travel in which Wilson comprehensively documenting American bird species. A chance meeting between Wilson and younger rival John James Audubon is said to have fueled Audubon's desire to document America's birds himself, resulting in the double-elephant folio renderings of Audubon's Birds of North America (1839), whose great size lends to the sheer drama of their lavish color and illustration. Two more Audubon volumes are represented, featuring selections from Audubon's octavo version of Birds of North America (1840-44), in which he re-drew and slightly altered images to fit the smaller format, and beasts of wood and field from Audubon's final and most lavish production, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1846-53).

Prints by any one of these naturalists would be well worth a special trip. To see selections from all three is a particular pleasure. Exhibiting all three at once amplifies the comparison and contrast of their significant achievements and the splendid images they created in the service of both art and science. Magnifying glasses, available in the gallery, encourage a detailed look at the fineness of the printing. Audubon's own copies of Wilson's American Ornithology, open to some of his marginal notes, are also on view. At Milwaukee Art Museum through July 5, 2009.

Image: Mark Catesby (English, 1683-1749), The Flying Squirrel. Hand-colored etching. Plate: 13 1/2 x 10 1/4 in.; sheet: 20 1/4 x 14 1/2 in. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gertrude Nunnemacher Schuchardt Fund, presented by William H. Schuchardt. Photo by John R. Glembin.

--Katherine R. Lieber

Katherine R. Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

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