Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America & Paintings of Messersmith

Last updated on March 10, 2024


The Mennello Museum of American art is pleased to announce the opening of two new exhibitions on display from May 31 – September 8, 2024: The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, which is organized by the Huntsville Museum of Art and Mark Messersmith: Long Summer, organized the Mennello Museum of American Art and curated by Katherine Page, Curator, Art and Education.

In the early 1840s after having published the wildly successful Birds of America portfolio, John James Audubon set out on his second grand expedition, this time to record and draw the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Audubon along with his son, John Woodhouse Audubon, produced 150 folio drawings hand-printed and hand colored by J.T. Bowen of Philadelphia – making it the first full-color plate book to be printed entirely in the United States. This exhibition presents 34 of those works highlighting everything from squirrels and rabbits to large cats and buffalo.

A focus gallery will feature the work of Mark Messersmith, whose paintings depict the struggle for dwindling resources among people, flora, and fauna in Florida. Messersmith creates large-scale oil paintings of Florida’s untamed landscapes teeming with vibrant life. The canvas is framed by carvings of the animals within, continuing the narrative of the piece along the outer edges. These pieces share the base of an altar-like in a predella lined with vintage objects, carvings, smaller paintings, and other items that complement the main composition and add to one’s interpretation.

Katherine Page, Curator, Art and Education states “This is a special presentation of two individuals whose artistic practice documents animals and the natural environment in which they exist – John James Audubon shares mammals in their historic wilderness as beautiful scientific records and Mark Messersmith depicts Florida’s endangered animals from a variety of classes together in a contemporary tableau unmistakably influenced by human activity. While Audubon’s primary goal in the 1820s was the visual description of birds and animals, Messersmith’s contemporary practice 100 years later advocates for the conservation of the subjects he depicts – many of which are now extinct or critically endangered. In bringing these two artists together, we see how the environment and animal populations have changed since Audubon’s original paintings and prints, imploring us to take a closer look at how humans and animals interact in our shared environments.”

The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America

In the 1830s, as renowned naturalist and artist John James Audubon (1785-1851) was completing the final plates for his monumental Birds of America series, he and his sons began to gather material for his second and equally ambitious undertaking. Planning to complete the definitive study of American wildlife, Audubon set out to document the animals of North America, and to present them in a format as impressive as he had used for his birds. The result of his years of field research, travel, and seemingly endless study was the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, the outstanding work on American animals produced in the 19th century.

The book was the product of Audubon’s collaboration with John Bachman, a minister, social activist and naturalist who wrote virtually all of the text accompanying Audubon’s illustrations. During the course of their partnership, tragedy struck the two men with the deaths of Bachman’s daughters Maria and Eliza, who were also the wives of Audubon’s sons John Woodhouse and Victor. The loss put a great strain on the relationship, but Audubon tried to heal the wound by dedicating himself with vigor to the project, promising Bachman “the very best figures of all our quadrupeds that have ever been thought of or expected.” Their project eventually yielded 150 folio drawings, hand printed and hand colored by J.T. Bowen of Philadelphia.

The work was to be Audubon’s last. By 1846 the artist’s eyesight had failed to the point where he was no longer able to draw, leaving completion of the project to his two sons. With their father’s mental condition also deteriorating, they tried to keep him out of the public spotlight, partly to prevent bad publicity from hurting sales of the Quadrupeds. Audubon remained in a mostly incoherent state until his death on January 27, 1851.

This exhibition presents 34 original Audubon prints from the private collection of Mr. & Mrs. William H. Told, Jr. of New York and Palm Beach. The Tolds have collected these prints for nearly four decades, having received their first — a marmot — as a gift. They appreciated the scientifically accurate animal subjects (some of which are now extinct) as well as the beautifully detailed backgrounds that often-included native foliage and other naturalistic details. The Tolds are graciously donating this impressive collection to the Huntsville Museum of Art.

The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America is organized by the Huntsville Museum of Art.

Mark Messersmith: Long Summer

Artist Mark Messersmith creates dense paintings of Florida’s untamed landscapes where black bears wade among lotuses, discarded bottles top tree branches, and herons devour their dinners under the high contrast light of the sun and moon. Over the past four decades, Messersmith served as a professor and mentor inspiring and training young artists at Florida State University. His work has considered themes of struggle among people, flora, and fauna for dwindling natural resources in the region he calls home, North Florida. Using the language of the Hudson River School and Tonalist landscape painters, Messersmith builds narrative scenes where the romanticism and exoticism infused by his predecessors meet the reality of habitat reduction and destruction.  The paintings selected for this exhibition complement the prints on display by John James Audubon, showcasing Florida’s mammals among their natural environments while introducing the exquisitely feathered birds in national and state-governed sanctuaries built to halt human encroachment. As we see in Messersmith’s vignettes, all living things compete for resources to survive and we have the opportunity to be better guardians to help the world around us thrive.

Mark Messersmith: Long Summer, is organized the Mennello Museum of American Art and curated by Katherine Page, Curator Art and Education.

Mennello Museum of American Art and its exhibitions are generously supported by the City of Orlando and Friends of the Mennello Museum of American Art. Additional funding is provided by Orange County Government through the Arts & Cultural Affairs Program and United Arts of Central Florida. Sponsored in part by the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs and the Florida Council on Arts and Culture.

Tagged as: