New-York Historical Society to Present the Swan Song of Audubon’s Masterpiece

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NEW YORK, NY—This spring, the New-York Historical Society will conclude its acclaimed series of once-in-a-lifetime exhibitions celebrating the legendary John James Audubon’s original watercolor models for The Birds of America (1827-38).

Since Audubon never travelled West of the Missouri River, he depended on the observations and specimens gathered by early explorers of the western territories, such as Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838), as well as the naturalists Thomas Nuttall (1809-1851) and John Kirk Townsend (1786-1859), members of the expedition led by Captain Nathaniel Wyeth (1802-1856) to the Pacific Northwest in 1833-36. Audubon bought a sizeable number of bird skins, specimens and nests from Nuttall in 1836, and then went to Charleston, South Carolina, to paint many of his watercolors of Western species. He continued this work in London, where he consulted specimens of outlier species in private collections and the London Zoological Society.

Curated by Dr. 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.

The Final Flight Exhibition Highlights
Part III of The Complete Flock will feature more than 135 Audubon avian watercolors, including 129 models for fascicles 62-87 (Havell plates 306-435) of The Birds of America, plus six earlier studies of several species that illustrate the development of the artist’s technique. Exhibition highlights include Audubon’s spectacular watercolor portrayals of the following species.

During the winter of 1836 in Charleston, rushing to complete Birds of America, Audubon painted an acrobatic tableau of male and female members of the titmouse family: Chestnut- backed Chickadees (Poecile rufescens), Bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus), and Black- capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus). Only one of them, the Black-capped Chickadee, inhabited a part of the country that Audubon knew and he purchased the nest and skins of Western birds that he had not personally observed in nature. Positioning the birds as though drawing a single individual changing positions, the composition moves counterclockwise around the elaborate gourd-shaped hanging nest of the Bushtit.

The Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) and Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) are among the most colorful species in North America. By combining them in a single work, as was his practice late in the production schedule for The Birds of America, Audubon created a dazzling composition. Since they inhabit the upper canopy of the forest, they are often difficult to see and were more easily heard. At the center of his composition, the artist positioned the flamboyant male Scarlet Tanager in flight to spotlight the bird’s spectacular red back, which is concealed when its wings are folded.

Considered by many to be the most splendorous bird of prey and termed a “superb Falcon” by Audubon, the Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) is the largest falcon in the world, with a wingspan of forty-eight to sixty-four inches. During medieval times, royalty alone could use the Gyrfalcon for hunting. These rare birds live farther north than any other members of the falcon family and breed on the Arctic tundra, which explains their white plumage. Audubon depicts two savage-looking Gyrfalcons from a single female bird that he had observed only in captivity, placing them in a stark habitat against a dark blue sky to make them stand out in relief.

Audubon’s noble Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa) seems to turn her head to look at us, with large facial discs around yellow eyes, implying the bird’s ability to move in an instant. This posture is typical of owls, which can rotate their heads 270 degrees or more to gain wide- ranging peripheral vision of possible prey. This pose was selected by Audubon to illustrate the subtle, monochromatic, almost hallucinatory barred plumage patterns on the bird’s dorsal and ventral sides and its feathered legs, rendered so subtly by Audubon in multimedia that we feel that we could touch their softness. An inhabitant of boreal forests of the northern hemisphere, the Great Gray is North America’s largest owl with a wingspan of five feet, although its body mass is smaller than that of either the Snowy Owl or Great Horned Owl.

Audubon spotted several flocks of American Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) in the Florida Keys and finally obtained specimens from Cuba. This iconic image has been termed a national treasure in its own right and represents one of four species of flamingos native to the Americas. Condensing the large bird’s physical characteristics to fit the double-elephant- size paper, Audubon found a creative way to depict the great bird’s actual size as though feeding and about to walk off the page. To create this image, Audubon applied watercolor in the traditional manner, in layers of thin washes of color, which appear under magnification as overlapping tidal edges. To render the brilliant pinks that flamingos acquire from the carotenoids in their diet of plankton, Audubon built up layers of media and glazing, a technique more common with oil pigment.

The Final Flight, the swan song of the tripartite series, will feature audio birdcalls and songs of each species provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to demonstrate the importance of birdsong for species identification, as well as video footage of a selection of species to underscore Audubon’s extensive field observations and the cinematic nature of his portrayals. iPads located in the exhibition galleries will feature the Havell plates for comparison with the watercolors, which reveal major departures from his watercolor models and changes in Audubon’s creative process.

Program highlights include gallery tours of the exhibition with curator Dr. Roberta Olson on March 9 and April 20. On May 3, wildlife artist and illustrator Alan Messer will lead a tour of Central Park’s wooded Ramble, discovering resident and migrating birds including colorful warblers, hummingbirds, tanagers, and thrushes.

Accompanying the exhibition is the lavishly illustrated book Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for “The Birds of America” by Dr. Roberta J.M. Olson, published by the New-York Historical Society and Skira/Rizzoli (2012). An exhibition website with featured watercolors, audio birdcalls, biographical material about John James Audubon, and other resources is also accessible at http://audubon.nyhistory.org/.

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

Audubon’s Aviary: The Final Flight (Part III of The Complete Flock) On View March 6 - May 10, 2015

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. His profound avian illustrations continue to delight millions and have earned him a place in the Pantheon of the world’s greatest artists.

About the New-York Historical Society

The New-York Historical Society, one of America's pre-eminent cultural institutions, is dedicated to fostering research and presenting history and art exhibitions and public programs that reveal the dynamism of history and its influence on the world of today. Founded in 1804, New-York Historical has a mission to explore the richly layered history of New York City and State and the country, and to serve as a national forum for the discussion of issues surrounding the making and meaning of history.

Image: Seen here is Audubon’s Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea), Study for Havell pl. 307; sketch of a second bird, ca. 1832. Courtesy of the N-YHS.

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