A Rare Copy of Audubon's Birds of America Could Break Records at Auction

Christie's
Christie's

American artist and naturalist John James Audubon published The Birds of America in the first half of the 19th century, and his massive “double-elephant” folio of life-size bird illustrations remains one of the most ambitious nature books ever produced. On June 14, a rare edition of the four-book set is hitting the auction block, and it's expected to fetch up to $12 million—more than any Audubon book ever sold.

This edition of The Birds of America was owned by the dukes of Portland from around 1839 to 2012. Because it was stored on the shelves of the family's Nottinghamshire, England estate for nearly a century, the set's prints of watercolor drawings have remained remarkably well-preserved.

In 2012, the copy was auctioned off to philanthropist and businessman Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. for nearly $8 million. Knobloch donated the books to the Knobloch Family Foundation (KFF) before his death in 2016. Now, the KFF is sending the books to auction once again. This time, all proceeds of the sale will go to nature conservation.

Set of red leather-bound books.

New York City auction house Christie's describes the set in a listing as "among the finest copies in private hands of this icon of American art, and the finest color-plate book ever produced." Each of the 435 double-elephant folio pages measures 39.5 inches by 26.5 inches, the largest sheets Audubon could get his hands on at the time, and they feature 1037 birds from 500 species. The books are bound in red Moroccan leather with gold detailing on the borders and spines. The four-volume set also comes with the Ornithological Biography, a collection of five books describing the specimens in The Birds of America and their habits.

Christie's estimates the set will sell for $8 million to $12 million when the final bid is placed later this month. To date, the most expensive copy of The Birds of America was a first edition acquired from Sotheby's in London for $11.5 million. That sale also broke the record for the most expensive printed book ever sold at auction, a record held until 2013.

Illustration of American birds.

Illustration of American bird.

Illustration of American birds.

Illustration of American birds.

Illustration of American birds.

All images courtesy of Christie's

Could Leonardo da Vinci's Artistic Genius Be Due to an Eye Condition?

Young John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci (1513-16, Louvre, Paris).
Young John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci (1513-16, Louvre, Paris).
Christopher Tyler, JAMA Ophthalmology (2018)

Leonardo da Vinci was indisputably a genius, but his singular artistic vision may have been the result of seeing the world differently in more ways than one. A new paper argues that he had strabismus, a vision disorder where the eyes are misaligned and don’t look toward the same place at the same time. This disorder, visual neuroscientist Christopher Tyler argues, may have helped the artist render three-dimensional images on flat canvas with an extra level of skill.

Tyler is a professor at City, University of London who has written a number of studies on optics and art. In this study, published in JAMA Ophthalmology, he examined six different artworks from the period when Leonardo was working, including Young John the Baptist, Vitruvian Man, and a self-portrait by the artist. He also analyzed pieces by other artists that are thought to have used Leonardo as a model, like Andrea del Verrocchio’s Young Warrior sculpture. Leonardo served as the lead assistant in the latter artist’s studio, and likely served as the model for several of his works. Leonardo was also a friend of Benedetto da Maiano, and possibly served as a model for his 1480 sculpture of John the Baptist. Tyler also looked at the recently auctioned Salvator Mundi, a painting that not all experts believe can be attributed to Leonardo. (However, at least one scientific team that examined the painting says it’s legit.)

With strabismus, a person’s eyes appear to point in different directions. Based on the eyes in Leonardo’s own portraits of himself and other artworks modeled after him, it seems likely that he had intermittent strabismus. When he relaxed his eyes, one of his eyes drifted outward, though he was likely able to align his eyes when he focused. The gaze in the portraits and sculptures seems to be misaligned, with the left eye consistently drifting outward at around the same angle.

'Vitruvian Man' with the subject's pupils highlighted
Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci (~1490, Accademia, Venice)
Christopher Tyler, JAMA Ophthalmology (2018)

“The weight of converging evidence suggests that [Leonardo] had intermittent exotropia—where an eye turns outwards—with a resulting ability to switch to monocular vision, using just one eye,” Tyler explained in a press release. “The condition is rather convenient for a painter, since viewing the world with one eye allows direct comparison with the flat image being drawn or painted.” This would have given him an assist in depicting depth accurately.

Leonardo isn’t the first famous artist whose vision researchers have wondered about. Some have speculated that Degas’s increasingly coarse pastel work in his later years may have been attributed to his degenerating eyes, as the rough edges would have appeared smoother to him because of his blurred vision. Others have suggested that Van Gogh’s “yellow period” and the vibrant colors of Starry Night may have been influenced by yellowing vision caused by his use of digitalis, a medicine he took for epilepsy.

We can never truly know whether a long-dead artist’s work was the result of visual issues or simply a unique artistic vision, but looking at their art through the lens of medicine provides a new way of understanding their process.

Learn to Paint Like Bob Ross in an Upcoming Facebook Live Event

Public television hero Bob Ross may no longer be with us, but you can still paint happy little trees in his honor. October 29, 2018 marks what would have been the 76th birthday of the beloved art teacher to the masses, and to honor his memory, the Quarto Group—publisher of the new book Painting With Bob Ross—is hosting a live-streamed painting party online.

Painting With Bob Ross provides step-by-step instructions to help you create some of the master’s favorite oil landscapes on your own. While Quarto’s October 23 painting party (a collaboration with Bob Ross, Inc.) can’t teach you how to mimic Ross's soothing voice, the celebration does include a painting session with Bernie Oropallo, a Certified Ross Instructor, who will demonstrate the techniques that Ross taught on The Joy of Painting.

Promo for The Quarto Group's Bob Ross painting party
The Quarto Group

The live-streamed instructional session will take place within the offices of a youth arts center in Beverly, Massachusetts, called Express Yourself. Oropallo will lead you through the process of painting “Distant Mountains,” one of the artworks included in the new book.

The painting lesson kicks off at 7:30 p.m. ET on October 23. To participate, log onto Facebook and head to the QuartoCreates page to join the live event. Before it starts, check out the event page here for a list of the supplies you’ll need to complete the painting. If you can’t make it to a computer that night, grab Painting With Bob Ross on Amazon ($15) to get the next best thing. If that’s not enough for you, we suggest you curl up with the official Bob Ross art book and/or a Bob Ross coloring book.

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