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Massachusetts artist Isaac Sprague was one of the greatest American bird and botanical artists of the 19th century, working alongside two giants of natural science, artist-naturalist John James Audubon and Harvard botanist Asa Gray.
The Mass Audubon Visual Arts Center's current exhibition, Isaac Sprague and the Art of Discovery, shines a well-deserved spotlight on Sprague's work. This is the first museum exhibition focused on Sprague since exhibits by the Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard's Houghton Library in the 1960's. It incorporates new research on his life and work, and presents some never-before-exhibited artworks.
Sprague's life changed forever in August, 1840 when John James Audubon, having heard of Sprague's reputation as a bird artist, visited his home in Hingham. Sprague was not home at the time, and Audubon took the liberty to write comments on some of Sprague's watercolors. Visitors to the exhibition will see three of those annotated watercolors, one on loan from the Boston Athenaeum, and two from a private collection.
Audubon invited Sprague to join him on his journey up the Missouri River in 1843, to draw and paint the mammals, birds, plants and landscapes of the West for his forthcoming books. This journey provided a rare opportunity to see life on the American prairie before the vast herds of buffalo and many American Indian tribes disappeared from the land.
In his journal, included in the exhibition, Sprague wrote of life at Fort Union (in what is now North Dakota), watching the wolves outside the fort, participating in hunting expeditions, collecting food with the women, and observing the American Indians from varied tribes who came to the fort to trade. A watercolor portrait of Natawista Culbertson in her native Blackfeet dress, done at Fort Union and on loan from the Hingham Public Library, shows Sprague's artistry at its best.
After returning from his trip with Audubon, Sprague spent the next twenty years in Cambridge as technical illustrator of Asa Gray's groundbreaking botanical studies. His illustrations introduced American plants to the world, and he also pictured the exotic flora discovered on international scientific expeditions. His careful, accurate work was praised by Gray in a letter to Charles Darwin, and won him the respect of the leading botanists of the day.
Sprague drew birds throughout his life, working primarily in watercolor, pencil and ink, and only occasionally in oils. On display are ten splendid watercolors of birds on loan from the Boston Athenaeum, as well as two rare oil paintings, an eagle on loan from the Wellesley Historical Society and a mallard pair from a private collection.
Isaac Sprague and the Art of Discovery brings together works from 10 institutions and 7 private collections for a rare glimpse of the work of this masterful and fascinating artist.