The Wisconsin museum famed for its annual Birds in Art exhibition has added two paintings from history's most famous bird artist to its permanent collection.
John James Audubon’s oil portrait Pacific Loons (above) is the highlight of the acquisition by the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau. Director Kathy Kelsey Foley called the 1834 work a “significant milestone” for the museum and a “curatorial dream come true.”
In addition, the museum acquired Audubon’s Black-Throated Diver, a hand-colored engraving of the same species that is one of the hundreds of images in Birds of America.
Pacific Loons is one of only a dozen or so known Audubon oil paintings of birds. The most famous, Foley said, is Osprey and Weakfish, which the National Gallery of Art owns. The artist whose name is synonymous with birds produced the majority of his bird portraits as watercolor engravings, including those published in Birds of America. Foley said Audubon painted oil portraits primarily to raise money to support Birds of America.
We have a 2001 edition in our library, so I looked up Black-Throated Diver. The scene is similar to Pacific Loons: Two adult loons turn their necks toward each other. But a loon in juvenal plumage swims between them, and the background is not the oil painting’s pleasant mix of grasses and puffy clouds but gray, somewhat choppy water, suggesting an oceanside scene.
The two paintings are on display now. To celebrate their arrival, the museum is hosting an exhibition, titled “Spirits of Wilderness,” that features eight other depictions of loons by 18th- and 19th-century artists. It includes works by Alexander Wilson and John and Elizabeth Gould.
"It's really interesting to see the variations and interpretations of loons by different artists," says Jane Weinke, the museum's curator of collections.
The exhibition continues through January 20. The star, of course, is Pacific Loons.
"It just has a presence," Weinke says. "For a museum whose major subject is bird art, this is our crown jewel. It's way too amazing to even think about." — M.M.
P.S.: It just so happens that we are working on a story for our April issue that describes a great place to see Pacific Loons. Stay tuned.