Exhibit | February 20, 2014

Celebrate Spring at the N-YHS with Audubon’s Original Watercolors of Birds

NEW YORK, NY—This spring, the New-York Historical Society will continue its acclaimed series of exhibitions celebrating John James Audubon’s legendary original watercolors. Audubon’s Aviary: Parts Unknown (Part II of The Complete Flock) will offer an unprecedented opportunity to explore the evolution of Audubon’s watercolors in the order in which they were engraved. The second in a series of three exhibitions, New-York Historical will showcase these masterpieces from its collection of Audubon’s watercolor models for the sumptuous double-elephant-folio print edition of The Birds of America (1827-38). New-York Historical holds all 435 watercolor models for its 435 plates, engraved by Robert Havell Jr., plus an additional 39 avian watercolors by Audubon. 

Parts Unknown will consider Audubon as an established artist-naturalist, a world citizen, and a celebrity in an expanding nation—no longer the young Frenchman who created the “early birds” displayed in the first installment. This once-in-a-lifetime exhibition follows Audubon into uncharted territories—geographic, artistic, and scientific—as he encountered and mapped new species and grappled with the disappearing illusion of America’s infinite wilderness, which galvanized his awareness about the necessity of conserving species and habitats. At this time Audubon presciently wrote, “Nature herself is perishing … not only of her aboriginal men but of every thing and animal which has life and attracts the cupidity of men. When her fish and game and birds are gone, she will be left alone like an old worn-out field.”

Curated by Roberta J.M. Olson, Curator of Drawings at the New-York Historical Society, the Audubon’s Aviary trilogy allows New-York Historical Society’s visitors the opportunity to view these national treasures sequentially—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 closer to 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 Audubon’s Aviary series examines the struggles and decisions the artist made in order to bring his “great work” to fruition and to successfully market it.

Audubon’s Aviary: Parts Unknown (Part II of The Complete Flock)

On View March 21-May 26, 2014

Parts Unknown Exhibition Highlights

All but 25 of the 132 watercolors related to Havell plates 176-305 in Parts Unknown depict water birds or waders, many of which are among Audubon’s most spectacular and largest birds—such as the Great Blue Heron and the Whooping Crane—which he began during his southeastern explorations and on his Labrador Expedition. There will also be an array of watercolors, prints, and objects exhibited for the first time, as well as a consideration of Audubon’s collaborators and his role as a writer. Exhibition highlights include the following species.

Audubon witnessed the Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) during his trip to Labrador, an area known for its puffin colonies. Determined to illustrate the nesting behavior, he depicted one of the two adults head-on and foreshortened in its burrow to showcase the female incubating, and the male positioned on guard in profile to display its rainbow-colored beak. Audubon recounted that some puffins “flew past us with the speed of an arrow, others stood erect at the entrance of their burrows, while some withdrew within their holes.”

Audubon observed thousands of Snowy Egrets (Egretta thula) arrive in Charleston, South Carolina, in March 1832, “in the marshes and rice fields, all in full plumage.” Audubon’s male model, in flamboyant breeding plumage executed in heavy gouache, measured twenty-two and a half inches in length to the end of its tail, but weighed a mere twelve ounces. The bird was over-hunted for its aigrettes, or breeding plumage, and became endangered. Only strict conservation measures have restored it to its wetland habitats. 

The Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) was painted from an injured adult that could not survive in the wilderness, purchased by Audubon in Boston. Struggling for weeks with how to euthanize the bird in order to paint it, Audubon suffered a seizure from the stress, after which he spent two weeks drawing this eagle. Audubon represented it straining to carry off a hare in a complex composition based on a work by the Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David. Showing the eagle carrying off its prey, Audubon painted his self-portrait dressed in buckskins as the “American Woodsman” with a shot eagle at the lower left (not included by Havell in the plate), a vignette that parallels the main scene. 

Parts Unknown will feature audio birdcalls and songs of each species provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, as well as video footage, to demonstrate the importance of birdsong for species identification and to underscore Audubon’s extensive field observations. iPads will feature the Havell plates for comparison with the watercolors. Also on view will be a variety of objects drawn from New-York Historical’s rich Audubon collection, the largest single repository of Auduboniana in the world.

About John James Audubon

John James Audubon was an artist, naturalist, and a significant historical figure who became a conservationist and the namesake of the National Audubon Society. During his lifetime Audubon was awarded many honors, including election to England’s prestigious Royal Society, the highest scientific honor of his era. He and Benjamin Franklin were the only American members until after the Civil War. Audubon is considered America’s first great watercolorist, and his ability to bring together science and art equally during the age of Romanticism reveals the range of his genius. It has only been in the last one hundred years, however, that his name has become solidly linked with efforts to preserve America’s wildlife and wilderness areas.

Additional Information

Program highlights include gallery tours of the exhibition with curator Dr. Roberta Olson (March 31 and April 7).

Accompanying the exhibition is the lavishly illustrated book Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for “The Birds of America” by Roberta J.M. Olson, published by the New-York Historical Society and Skira/Rizzoli (2012).

Support for Audubon’s Aviary: Parts Unknown (Part II of The Complete Flock) has been provided by The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation and The Gilbert & Ildiko Butler Family Foundation.