NEW YORK, NY.- This spring, the New-York Historical Society will launch the first exhibition in a sweeping three-part series that celebrate the sesquicentennial of the acquisition of its unparalleled collection of John James Audubon’s preparatory watercolors for the sumptuous double-elephant-folio print edition of The Birds of America (1827–38), engraved by Robert Havell Jr. Over three years, Audubon’s Aviary: The Complete Flock (Parts I–III) will feature all of its 474 original avian watercolors by Audubon, including all 435 watercolor models for "The Birds of America," all but one acquired by New-York Historical in 1863 from the artist’s widow Lucy Bakewell Audubon. Engaging, state-of-the-art media installations will provide a deeper understanding of the connections between art and nature and Audubon’s contributions to American art and history.
Audubon’s Aviary: The Complete Flock is a once-in-a-lifetime trilogy of shows (2013–2015) that will mine the depths of the New-York Historical Society’s Audubon collection and display a wide variety of watercolors and compelling objects to heighten the visitor’s understanding of Audubon as an artist, naturalist, and significant historical figure (who became a conservationist and the namesake of the National Audubon Society). It will afford audiences of all ages and backgrounds unprecedented access to these exceptional works and a chance to connect with their gripping historical narrative, their importance and beauty, and the creatures they represent.
Curated by Roberta J.M. Olson, Curator of Drawings at the New-York Historical Society, this extraordinary trio of landmark exhibitions will explore the evolution of Audubon’s dazzling watercolors in the order in which they were engraved. Visitors to the New-York Historical Society will have the unique opportunity to view these national treasures sequentially and in their entirety for the first time—the same way Audubon’s original subscribers received the Havell prints. Audubon organized his watercolor models and the corresponding Havell plates not by taxonomy, as was the tradition, but according to his judgments, including which watercolors he considered ready for engraving. He believed this order was more like that of nature, and it was arguably more interesting for his subscribers because they received their prints in groups of five (usually one large, one medium, and three small). Viewed in this manner, The Complete Flock series will examine the struggles and decisions the artist made in order to bring his “great work” to fruition and to successfully market it.
Part I of The Complete Flock:
Revealing the artist’s working methods and his ornithological and artistic influences, "Part I of The Complete Flock" will highlight Audubon’s unique role in the history of American art, science, and exploration of the ever-expanding nation. The exhibition will open with a look at the self-taught Audubon’s development of his innovative signature tableaux and experimental media. To elucidate this early chapter in Audubon’s life, New-York Historical will supplement its own rich holdings (dating from 1808) with a selection of the artist’s rare earliest pastels, borrowed from Houghton Library of Harvard University and the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, La Rochelle (Collection Société des Sciences Naturelles de la Charente-Maritime) in France. The La Rochelle pastels were discovered in 1995 and have never been seen outside of that city. These “early birds” capture Audubon’s youthful excitement about drawing birds while in France and during his first years in America, illuminating the renowned artist-naturalist’s methods and his early career.
Following this introductory installation on the early years of his career, "Part I of The Complete Flock" will feature more than 200 Audubon avian watercolors, including the first 175 models that were engraved for The Birds of America. (The remaining watercolor models will be shown in the two subsequent presentations of Audubon’s Aviary.) A highlight of Part I of The Complete Flock is the Northern Mockingbird, which is one of Audubon’s more controversial works due to disagreement about the anatomical accuracy of the venomous rattlesnake and whether a rattler could climb a tree to invade the birds’ nest. Another featured work, the Snowy Owl, shows two owls looking directly at the viewer in a position that intimates their ability to turn their necks 270 degrees and shows that owls’ eyes face forward on the same plane as those of humans.
A range of objects drawn from New-York Historical’s vast Auduboniana collection will provide a detailed historical context for the works, including such treasures as the double-elephant-folio Havell print edition of The Birds of America (1827–38), which will be displayed in the exhibition with its plates changed weekly; the octavo edition (1840–44) of The Birds of America; Audubon’s Ornithological Biography (1831–39), together with a handwritten draft for one species; one of Havell’s engraved copper plates; hand-colored proofs (“pattern proofs”); letters and various documents; and Audubon’s beaded coin purse made by his wife, as well as other precious relics of this celebrated American figure.
Anyone who has a rudimentary acquaintance with birds knows something about John James Audubon and has seen reproductions of his bird art in books and as posters. Perhaps this familiarity has bred a dullness of response. But try taking a look at Audubon’s paintings—from which copperplates were made—at the “Audubon’s Aviary” exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, which begins in spring 2013. You’ll be stunned.
Now Roberta J.M. Olson, who has overseen the “Aviary” exhibits and is curator of drawings for the Society, has brought something of this excitement to a book.
One of the greatest treasures held by the New-York Historical Society is its collection of Audubon’s watercolors, the basis for his monumental work, The Birds of America. Most were purchased from his widow, and the Society continued to add to its collection, which also includes one of the magnificent double-elephant folios engraved by Robert Havell, Jr. Today the Society holds the most impressive collection of Audubon material anywhere.
Olson’s book includes a biographical sketch, two essays, and highlights from The Birds of America paintings. One hundred and fourteen works of art are culled from the total of 435, and there are miniature versions of “the rest of the flock.”
Besides reminding us of important events and relationships in his life, Olson presents Audubon as a complex figure; unraveling his story, she states, “beg[s] for several lifetimes and multiple volumes.” In recent years there have been some significant Audubon biographies and a great number of articles. In a small space, Olson’s sketch fits well beside them and adds new insights.
In the first of the two scholarly essays, Olson illuminates Audubon amid his contemporaries and predecessors. He is a pioneer, she shows, with unparalleled field experience and relentless curiosity. Here and in other parts of the book, illustrations are enormously helpful in making points, comparing Audubon’s paintings to those of other artists or showing blow-ups for detail. The second essay, by Marjorie Shelley, teases out Audubon’s technique, about which he himself was notably silent. It’s a masterly exposition of the artist’s “endless inventiveness.” Her discussion would turn anyone into an Audubon fan.
The next section, a selection of the paintings, is a treasure. It includes Audubon’s comments taken from the text that accompanied his plates for The Birds of America, analysis of technique, biographical or contextual information, current information about the bird displayed, and one or more additional small illustrations that shed light. But it is the paintings, so beautifully and vividly reproduced, that are the main show.
With impressive scholarship, delicacy, and respect Olson brings us close to the paintings and to the man. At one point, she evokes how Audubon’s brown ink fingerprints on the back of some paintings make her feel that she is in his presence. This extraordinary book makes me feel the same way.
“Audubon’s Aviary: Part 1 of the Complete Flock,” the first of three annual exhibitions at the New-York Historical Society, will take place March 8-May 19, 2013.
NEW YORK - It’s rare and thrilling when science and art are one. Think of Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings—not only are they beautiful, but they contributed immeasurably to science. Just by looking and drawing, he furthered the world’s knowledge of the human body.
Certainly the work of John James Audubon, the great 19th-century naturalist and artist, is in the same category. Now the New-York Historical Society is beginning a three-year homage to Audubon’s legendary The Birds of America, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its of acquisition of all 474 exquisite watercolors. First up of three shows is “Audubon’s Aviary: Part I of the Complete Flock,” beginning March 8.
Audubon was a fascinating character, a Frenchman born in Haiti in 1785 who ended up spending much of his life in New York City and then in other parts of the young United States, trying to find new birds to paint. He ended up discovering 25 new species—an incredible achievement. He was the Lewis & Clark of ornithology, in a time when some very brave people were exploring a still-wild land.
His achievements as an explorer were extraordinary, but we wouldn’t remember him as well if he hadn’t been such a talented draughtsman. This guy could really paint. I lost a few hours on this website, where you can see the whole flock. And he placed each bird in a suggestive, enhancing context, as with the spooky clouds and dead tree that frame his Snowy Owl, from Volume 2. He was a crack ornithologist and a scientist, yes, but he had a great artist’s ability to tell a story, too.
NYHS displays the complete works of painter and ornithologist John James Audubon in three chronological parts, with this first collection detailing his development and early career.
03:50 minute interview:
New York's Historical Society acquired the priceless water colours of John James Audubon 150 years ago. To celebrate, they are publishing a book showcasing the naturalist's groundbreaking work.
Audubon's "The Birds of America" series, published between 1827 and 1838, was a sensation in its day - purchased by royalty, statesmen and the leading libraries of Europe and North America.
The author of the new Audubon book and curator of the accompanying Historical Society exhibition, Roberta J.M. Olson, talked to the BBC's Michael Maher.
"Northern Bobwhite and Red-Shouldered Hawk" (1825)
In this painting of what Audubon called the "terror and confusion" of a hawk attacking a flock of quail, the artist depicted 18 male, female, and juvenile Bobwhites, known to have a "love call" of three distinct notes.
This painting is one of 435 watercolors by John James Audubon, on view at the New York Historical Society, March 8- May 19th.
If John James Audubon had been less avian in his ambitions, he might have made a career as a portrait painter, which is how, on occasion, he supported himself while longing to paint birds and “go in pursuit of those beautiful and happy creatures.” Had he taken the human route, the galleries of the New-York Historical Society, which are now given over to an extraordinary assemblage of more than 200 watercolors of beautiful (if not happy) herons, owls, woodpeckers, ravens, rails, falcons, blue jays and their fellows, might instead be presenting portraits of early-19th-century Americans.
But maybe that is one way to approach this major new exhibition, “Audubon’s Aviary: The Complete Flock,” which is really the first part of three to be presented annually through 2015. It does not just unveil the work of a naturalist jettisoning the analytical still lifes of earlier ornithological catalogs but also the work of an artist who saw the human and the natural intertwined, who looked into the wild and discovered that birds, along with their wings and feathers, have what he called a “cast of countenance.”
At times, when dealing with Audubon, boundaries between bird and human dissolve. Audubon’s writings about his explorations, meant to accompany his landmark work, “The Birds of America” (1827-38), is called “Ornithological Biography” — and it isn’t always clear if the biography is his or the birds’. In his pursuit of birds, he wrote triumphantly, “I would find myself furnished with large and powerful wings, and, cleaving the air like an eagle, I would fly off and by a few joyous bounds overtake the objects of my desire.”
And in New Orleans in 1821, while trying to earn cash through mundane human portraiture, he was asked by a beautiful woman to paint her nude. Shy, tempted and embarrassed, he wrote to his wife that he backed away (albeit temporarily) and “felt like a bird that makes his escape from a strong cage filled with sweetmeats.”
Audubon (1785-1851) may have even felt a kinship in his migrations, flying, as a child in Haiti, from an imminent slave rebellion, then flying from the French Revolution to the United States when his father thought France was becoming unsafe. But if he thought of himself in birdlike terms, it is also possible to talk of many of the fantastically alluring birds arrayed in these galleries as if they were eerily human, citizens of a rustic new country in the midst of discovering itself. The impression becomes stronger because one of the achievements of this exhibition is to suggest just how relentless and enterprising Audubon was in teaching himself his art, progressing from lifeless evocations of lifeless birds (“My pencil gave birth to a family of cripples,” he complained) to capturing them in the midst of tearing prey, building nests, suffering traumas and displaying glints of flinty character.
Roberta J. M. Olson, the curator of drawings at the historical society, the creator of this show and the main author of the superb exhibition catalog, had been responsible for a series of earlier Audubon shows here, rotating some 40 or so watercolors a year out from the society’s collection. Now Ms. Olson is dividing the society’s immense collection of Auduboniana into three annual shows that will include the 435 watercolors Audubon created in preparation for engraving 433 of the plates in “The Birds of America” (two plates have no surviving models), along with other watercolor studies, documents and artifacts.
In a new, custom-made display case, a volume of the society’s immaculate copy of “The Birds of America” sits open to a page that will be turned weekly. It is one of only about 120 surviving copies of the book, printed on large “double-elephant-folio” paper — nearly 40 inches high and 27 inches wide — that Audubon specifically selected for this purpose. It allows the birds in the book, like the birds seen on the walls, to be portrayed life size.
What an amazing ambition that was, too: to show birds not as specimens but as life-size creatures in their habitats. There would be no hint of an imposed system (they were not presented according to any categorical order), yet at the same time there would be encyclopedic compass. It is as if the birds of America were being put on display in a living diorama. (Audubon had actually worked for a time in the Western Museum in Cincinnati, one of the nation’s first natural history museums.)
But the center of attention here is not the book, but Audubon’s watercolors, the primary references used to prepare what he called his “great work.” They are displayed in groups of five known as fascicles, which is how subscribers would have received their printed deliveries spread out over 12 years, each group usually containing one large specimen, one medium and three small that would later be bound into volumes. But these groups were gathered with no systematic purpose and no suggestion other than the variousness of the life portrayed. And they are arranged here in order of their release, so that by slowly making your way through, you can imagine the reactions these birds must have inspired among their wealthy patrons. It would have been helpful, though, to have had Ms. Olson’s catalog text available as accompaniment to the birdcalls that can be heard from portable players provided to visitors.
But before going through these portraits, start in the gallery in which Ms. Olson shows some of the earliest surviving images Audubon made of birds, beginning in 1803. Some are borrowed from the Houghton Library at Harvard; others have never before been away from their habitat at Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, La Rochelle, in France, where Audubon’s early pastels were discovered in 1995. The displays include four pairs of the 29 duplicate sets that Ms. Olson discovered, one copy serving as a record perhaps for the artist, but also providing an occasion, in some, to advance his technique in executing backgrounds.
The earliest drawings, in pastel and graphite, show dead birds hanging from strings tied on their legs. They represent an effort to move away from the posed, stuffed look of ornithological drawings and recall, as Ms. Olson points out, Dutch still lifes of killed game. Audubon said the desire was “to shew their every position” and, he added wryly, “in this Manner I made some pretty fair sign Boards for Poulterers.”
If that was Audubon’s apprenticeship, what is seen in the following years is the discipline of exploration. While he sketched birds in the wild in his quest for the natural, Audubon also created a mounting board for the birds he shot, pinning them in varied positions for study. One observer recalled the 28-pound wild turkey Audubon drew for the first fascicle: “Audubon pinned it up beside the wall to sketch and he spent several days sketching it. The damned fellow kept it pinned up there till it rotted and stunk — I hated to lose so much good eating.”
We have become so used to the idea of frozen images in time from photography that this enterprise of evoking a live animal in motion by posing it when it was dead seems almost bizarre. Sometimes the result really was a kind of precariousness, a sense of an animal on the brink, as if it were put in place to show it in life, but it hadn’t yet come into full existence. The two examples of the tufted titmouse, for example, seem almost too artfully posed, but the white pine branch they grasp is exquisitely vibrant. (Ms. Olson believes in this case that Audubon did not rely on a colleague to execute the plant life, as he often did.) The contrast is moving, the conifer’s strands of green making the birds seem more weighty and corporeal than they might have, possessing the substance, if not the movement, of life.
But his carefully constructed scenes also seem to relish a moment of instability, when everything is changing. Feathers are plucked from a great crested flycatcher by a rival; a Carolina wren uncannily balances atop the petals of a scarlet buckeye flower as it sings; a great egret poses on a thin branch broken off at its end, as moonlight, breaking through the clouds above, seems to announce the end of a storm that had scarcely ruffled the filaments of ethereal feathers.
There is something about the substance of life — its possibility and energy, its unpredictability and precariousness — that seems the subject in many pictures as much as the birds themselves, even when the artist is less than fully successful. These images are so different from those of earlier naturalist catalogs, it is no wonder that Audubon’s most fearsome nemesis, the naturalist George Ord, said, “No one of taste and knowledge can behold these monstrous engravings without feelings of dissatisfaction, if not of contempt.”
But that was partly because they really are monstrous, at their best, relishing the brute forces at work, not just the anatomical niceties of the subject. The Romantic spirit presses past the Enlightenment poise, like the rattlesnake with wide-open mouth that has wound itself around a nest of the Northern mockingbird, prepared to strike from a thicket of jasmine flowers. The image of two peregrine falcons over their prey, one with bloodied beak, actually shows the murdered duck’s feather floating in the air: the image is too artificial to have a cinematic impact, but there again is that moment in which everything hangs still in time, delicacy and brutality intertwined.
Audubon, we know, traveled with a copy of La Fontaine’s “Fables,” and he constructed many of these images with the taste of a fabulist. The blue jays destroy the eggs of another bird? “Who could imagine,” Audubon asks, “that selfishness, duplicity and malice should form the moral accompaniments of so much physical perfection!” There are also family tableaus like the one composed of pileated woodpeckers, personality studies like those of the great horned owl. There are birds of industry, bustle, poise and passion. And because these images offer slivers of precarious life, Audubon often lets us realize that at any moment everything might change.
“I have lost nothing,” Audubon says in lines used for the catalog’s epigraph, “in exchanging the pleasure of studying men for that of admiring the feathered race.”
An installation view of “Audubon’s Aviary: The Complete Flock” at the New-York Historical Society. The works at the historical society now are the first part of a three-part show running through 2015. It will ultimately display more than 435 paintings.
NEW YORK (AP) — The New-York Historical Society is exhibiting its entire collection of 474 bird watercolors by John James Audubon for the first time.
They're being shown chronologically in three exhibitions over three years. The first group went on view Friday.
The collection includes 435 watercolors engraved for Audubon's monumental "The Birds of America." The intricately detailed, life-size renderings are the naturalist's greatest work.
An original edition of Audubon's book, known as the double elephant folio, is also being shown. Its plates will be turned weekly.
The 3 1/2-foot-tall volume features all the avian species known to Audubon in early 19th-century North America. He sold the engraved plates in a subscription series.
The museum purchased all the watercolors, except one, from the artist's widow in 1863.
The avian visions of John James Audubon, America's finest wildlife artist, are coming to life as never before.
On display now through May 19 at the New York Historical Society is the first of three installations in "Audubon's Aviary: The Complete Flock," the society's unprecedented exhibition of 474 paintings.
Most are so-called preparatory watercolors, the drafts Audubon made while working towards The Birds of America, the famed series of hand-colored, life-sized engravings that would make his name synonymous with the winged world.
The watercolors were purchased by the Society in 1863 from Audubon's wife Lucy, and are usually kept in storage, hidden from light that could disturb their delicate pigments. They've never been gathered in one place for public display.
Also on display are some of Audubon's earliest paintings, which were only recently discovered and have never been seen in the United States. As a multimedia bonus, some paintings are accompanied by birdsong recorded — or, in the case of the extinct Carolina parakeet and ivory-billed woodpecker, reconstructed — by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.
Ornithologists, grab your binoculars! This season, the number of bird-centered activities happening in New York City is soaring. Beginning with the New York Historical Society’s celebration of the sesquicentennial of its purchase of John James Audubon’s avian watercolors, which also marks the publication of "Audubon’s Aviary: Part I of The Complete Flock" and a corresponding exhibit that will eventually include all 474 pieces in the collection, birders will have plenty to gaze upon over the next few months.
The exhibit at the New York Historical Society is the first of three stages of the Audubon-themed show to be rolled out through 2015, with one stage unveiled per year. Part I, which is on display now, focuses on Audubon’s drawings of birds in the Eastern United States; Part II, due to be released in 2014, highlights water birds as well as species found in Canada and Labrador; and Part III, scheduled for 2015, includes outlying species as well as those found in the Western United States.
The historical society will also offer state-of-the-art media installations to enhance the collection. Select video footage and bird calls from the species on display are available on a hand-held device provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
For those looking for a more interactive experience with nature, the American Museum of Natural History is offering a series of bird walks this spring:
Lunchtime Spring Bird Walks (Mondays, April 8-29, noon-1:30pm, $50): Ornithologist Paul Sweet offers a tour of Central Park with a focus on spring migration. Participants can learn how to identify various New York City bird species using field marks, behavioral observations, and song. Call 212-313-7579 for information or to register.
Early Morning Spring Walks: If lunchtime tours don’t work for you, the museum offers early-bird specials Tuesdays through Fridays, from April 9 until May 31, from either 7-9am (Tue-Thu) or 9-11am Fri), which includes the same tour with ornithologists Paul Sweet (Tue, Fri) and Joseph DiCostanzo (Wed-Thu). Birder field cards are included with these walks and help participants keep track of what they’ve seen and identified.
Additionally, the City of New York Parks and Recreation Department offers its own series of birding events, held all over the city and in every borough. Some highlights include:
Birding for Families on March 24 at the Charles Dana Discovery Center
Saturday Bird Walks at the New York Botanical Gardens, beginning April 6
Inwood Hill Birding at the Inwood Hill Nature Center on April 20
For more info, visit nycgovparks.org/events/birding
Right now, somewhere in New York City, some corner of Texas, the mountains of North Carolina, or in a house in Portland, Oregon, the story of contemporary America is being written about, filmed, or painted. The art of today will be the historical documents of tomorrow, telling future generations what the here and now was like.
When you read Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, you get so much more than a story about a fanatical captain chasing a whale; you get the story of our country less than a century after its founding. You get a sense of America’s growing pains and confusion in the years leading up to a war that would divide the country in half. Norman Rockwell painted scenes of an everyday America during the World Wars, while playwrights like Arthur Miller and essayists like Joan Didion helped tell the story of the post-war American Dream gone wrong. You can get to know the people of America from its inception all the way to today through art; you might not understand the entire country, but our paintings, books, films, and songs help to give us an idea of what life was like throughout our young nation’s lifetime.
Yet, no artist, living or dead, has done more to showcase the natural beauty of America quite like John James Audubon did.
AUDUBON WAS, AND STILL is, the greatest documentarian of American wildlife. And now, 162 years after his passing in 1851, we are living in a sort of re-golden age of the man’s work, thanks to a three-part exhibition of Audubon’s watercolors of the birds of America being shown at the New York Historical Society. Beautifully presented in book form, these selected pieces are some of most beautiful collections of the American icon’s work in Audubon’s Aviary (Rizzoli). Simply put: these are good days for those who already know and cherish Audubon’s work, and a perfect time for those unfamiliar to find out.
The first part of the exhibition at the New York Historical Society (running now until May 19), will feature all 474 watercolors related to The Birds of America, Audubon’s series published between 1827 and 1838. Visitors will be able to get up close to view every detail in his famous rendering of the Snowy Owl, or his 1821 painting of two red-tailed hawks fighting over a still-alive, and very frightened (as evidenced by the fact that it is defecating itself) rabbit, clutched inside the talon of one of the birds of prey. Long before television programs on the National Geographic channel showed us the violent beauty that is nature, John James Audubon was painting it, and giving future generations of Americans a chance to see American birds that have since become extinct.
For those who can’t make the pilgrimage, there’s still the massive book, which is well worth the $85 price tag. Hundreds of pages of Audubon’s watercolors and the stories behind them make this one of the finest collections of his works. Audubon’s Aviary serves as a historical document comparable to any great work of literature, painting, film, music, or any other kind of American-made art. Beautiful and unparalleled in creating and preserving what we know about natural America, the work of John James Audubon will always be in style.
Thrill to the beautiful feathered creatures captured in art, including egrets, woodpeckers and falcons, at the New-York Historical Society. Part 1 of “Audubon’s Aviary: The Complete Flock” runs through May 19 at 170 Central Park West. Information: +1-212-873-3400; http://www.nyhistory.org.
Just as people-watching can feel like a zoological activity, it’s impossible not to extrapolate human traits from John James Audubon’s gorgeous watercolors of birds.
In this exhibition, curated by Roberta J.M. Olson, the first in a three-part series displaying the museum’s Audubon holdings, there are nesting barn swallows, an impassive barn owl holding a dead chipmunk, a red-eyed vireo craning his neck for a tiny spider. There’s a crow in a honey locust tree eating a tiny crab, cuckoos in magnolia trees, more crows in a black walnut, pretty groups of yellow-breasted chat moles, an elegant Cooper’s hawk attacking a rabbit, two peregrine falcons tearing apart wood ducks, a fish hawk clutching a shiny trout. There are a chestnut-sided warbler and red-tailed hawks. These nearly life-size depictions of birds are hung salon-style. In their flocks and clusters, they take up every inch of exhibition space. Birdsong plays in the galleries, and the audio guide features the calls associated with each species. There are some 175 different species of birds to see here—a third of what Audubon illustrated for his massive tome, The Birds of America (1827-38).
Audubon’s birds don’t just sit there. While early studies in pastel and graphite show his sensitivity to the feel of articulated feathers and the soft slump of a carcass, Audubon had a flair for drama. Although at first his specimens were depicted strung from one foot by string, his taste was for the living bird. An early pastel study of a hoopoe from 1806 shows the crested creature seemingly surprised by a tiny fly caught in its beak. He soon imagines pileated woodpeckers preening on fox grape, a viper attacking a nest of valiant brown thrashers and black vultures picking at the eyes of a dead deer. He collaborated with friends, and later his sons, on the meticulous execution of plants, flowers and insects, all of which enhanced his backdrops and made his posed creatures look increasingly lifelike.
Audubon’s Americanness was as self-invented as his artistic project. Born Jean-Jacques to a French father and a Creole mother, he was Haitian by birth, and he and his sister were raised near Nantes, in France. His father intended to make him a sailor, but Audubon was bad at math and prone to seasickness. He changed his name to the Anglicized John James in 1803 when he made a fake U.S. passport and moved to this country to escape being drafted into the Napoleonic wars. Other ironies abound: the naturalist lived most of his life in Manhattan—albeit the rural predecessor of the Upper West Side circa 1840. He made most of his renderings from dead birds pinned to wooden boards, impaled on wires against gridded backdrops to create what he called the G.I.S.S. (“General Impression of Size and Shape”). Early proofs show his meticulous corrections to the colors of the printing and watercolor processes for the production of The Birds of America, and magnifying glasses help viewers zoom in on the last pinfeather.
Audubon became a celebrity; by the 1830s, his fame was worldwide. (If his rendering of a blue-winged warbler in hibiscus has the feel of a Japanese woodcut, a work on view shows Audubon the artist-explorer himself depicted in an early 19th-century Japanese woodcut—he was big in Japan.) A carte de visite shows him with a Byronic look, not that he was modest about it—“quite a handsome figure” is how he described himself.
But at the heart of Birds of America is, as its title describes, a national spirit. In it he created one of the definitive renderings of this country. These are the birds we most associate with America: the bald eagle, the red cardinal, the robin. They are shown striving for life—reaching for a berry, clutching a rabbit—and are set among plenty, in a beautiful world in which chanterelles spring from the earth, the trees are thick with birds and there’s an abundance of nature at every turn. And yet there are ways in which Audubon’s birds appear to have been seen through a French eye. It’s not just that his great egret of 1821 wears white plumage as handsome as a couture gown, but that his project itself speaks to the French mania for classification. It’s our Comédie Humaine, capturing the variety of our patrimony and implying a profound natural harmony to our social order, with its unique combinations of large, medium and small prints and depictions of birds great and small.
Some species here are now extinct, like the four stunning ivory-billed woodpeckers (1825-6) or the seven great Carolina parakeets. It is partly thanks to Audubon that we know how they looked, nested, mated and ate. Full of faith in observation from life, this long-haired Caribbean immigrant with a forged passport, on the run from revolution and terror, looked closely at what this country had to offer and saw in it both beauty and the makings of an enterprise. (Through May 19, 2013)
The Comte de Buffon was a snob. Keeper of the Royal Botanical Gardens and the foremost naturalist of his era, Buffon deemed European birds superior to their American counterparts. John James Audubon begged to differ. The untutored bastard son of a French-Haitian merchant, he saw first-hand that the nascent United States, deficient in so many ways, was rich in wilderness, hosting creatures that even the most erudite mind could never conjure. He believed that a naturalist had to be an adventurer. Universally praised as a peerless scientific record, and coveted as one of the most beautiful books ever printed, The Birds of America is also a visual chronicle of Audubon’s boundless American adventure.
An epic three-part exhibition at the New-York Historical Society highlights that facet of Audubon’s work by showing his original watercolors. The exhibition is accompanied by a superbly-illustrated book.
Like the birds they depict, Audubon’s pictures aren’t always pretty. The nestling turkey vulture illustrated above, painted in 1820, is worthy material for a horror story. (Just try to imagine it as a new mascot for the Audubon Society.) Alive with behavioral details, the watercolor vividly captures Audubon’s encounter with the hissing creature, an effect amplified by his bristling brushwork. Fully grown, the vulture would have a wingspan of six-and-a-half feet. A bird like this could have eaten the portly Comte de Buffon for lunch.
Curator Roberta Olson talks about her book and the New York Historical Society exhibition, "Audubon's Aviary." It’s about the original watercolors for Audubon’s "The Birds of America."
John Jay Audubon was one of the most colorful and fascinating figures in American history. The illegitimate child of merchant marine captain, he was born on his father’s sugar plantation in Haiti, moved to France as a child, and was given a a superb classical education. Then he came to America — and reinvented himself as a buckskin-wearing naturalist, ornithologist and, above all, artist. He traveled throughout the new nation documenting it abundant bird life in magnificent drawings and paintings that he sold on a subscription basis to an eager public.
He laid the basis for the American conservation movement that would arise around the turn of the next century and remains an inspiration to nature lovers and art lovers everywhere.
The full collection of 435 watercolors he prepared for his world renowned elephant folio of engravings, "The Birds of America," is housed in the New York Historical Society. This Spring, the museum has put on an exhibition of the water colors, along with other works by "Audubon: Audubon’s Aviary, The Complete Flock." It’s the first part of three exhibitions spanning the water colors, to be presented over a three-year period.
The richly illustrated book, "Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for The Birds of America" (Skira Rizzoli, 2012), accompanies the exhibition, with text written by museum curator Roberta Olson. The book is as spectacular as the exhibit and Olson’s text is a delight to read.
Roberta Olson is Curator of Drawings at the New York Historical Society. The exhibit, Audubon’s Aviary, Part One of the Complete Flock, is open until May 19. Olson’s authorship of Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for “The Birds of America" was honored with the Association of Art Museum Curators (AAMC) 2012 Award for Excellence.
06:19 minute video:
A visit to the New-York Historical Society for a curator's tour of the Audubon Collection. The museum is the permanent home to all 474 of his watercolors related to artist John James Audubon's work, “The Birds of America.” The New-York Historical Society will unveil their collection in the continuing exhibition “Audubon’s Aviary: The Complete Flock” through 2015.