Audubon’s Aviary — worth the visit no matter how far you migrate

Roberta Olson at Audubon's Aviary Preview

Roberta Olson, curator of the exhibition, making some remarks at the preview on March 6, 2013 of Audubon's Aviary: Part I of the Complete Flock. The watercolors for the 12th Fascicle are partially visible behind her.

The New-York Historical Society (NYHS) is now showing a superb exhibition curated by Roberta J. M. Olson of original work by John James Audubon (JJA or Audubon hereafter) including over 200 pieces from their own matchless collection of watercolors (almost all purchased in 1863 directly from Audubon’s widow Lucy), and a remarkable selection of 26 early and rare pastels from two other institutions.

Running only through May 19, 2013, this is the first installment of an extraordinary undertaking involving three exhibitions, the other two to be held in 2014 and 2015. Entitled Audubon’s Aviary: The Complete Flock, the series has been described as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to see the vast majority of JJA’s surviving original bird works. I must agree. Although a substantial number of the Audubon watercolors have appeared in the other NYHS exhibitions, the number and scope in the current exhibition make previous offerings seem like amuse-bouches. Although they certainly piqued our appetites, now we’re being served the first course of a large and hearty three-course meal.

Unlike most typical meals, however, this first course seems likely to be the largest and most substantial of the three. This exhibition is especially fascinating because of its inclusion of both early and alternate works that are less well known than the drawings that formed the basis of the plates of the Havell Edition (or Double Elephant Folio) of The Birds of America. It also includes the watercolors that were used by Robert Havell as the basis of the first 175 plates in the folio, and some “extras” (video, audio, and Auduboniana) that add to the overall experience.

(Note: photos at the NYHS were shot without flash at the preview. Illustrations of Havell Edition plates are taken from my own file images.)

Dead Barn Owl Hanging by Its Wing

This was one of several pastels from the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle de la Rochelle. This drawing shows a dead Barn Owl at full size.


The show opens with an “Early Birds” section, which includes works from Harvard’s Houghton Library and from Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle de la Rochelle in France. Only recently discovered, the French works are being exhibited outside of La Rochelle for the first time. This part of the exhibition includes excellent text panels that explain Audubon’s techniques and development as an artist.

The first part of the exhibition highlighting the early birds was to me the most interesting. I was never that much engaged by Audubon’s early work, having only seen it in books. This is not the work of a struggling novice, but someone who is inventing techniques and advancing his skills with one purpose — to capture in two dimensions what he saw in life. In the past I’ve compared in my mind Audubon’s early work to that of his son John Woodhouse Audubon (JWA), some of whose earlier efforts (made under Audubon’s supervision) found its way into The Birds of America(e.g., PL 429 Western Duck). JWA’s birds are often criticized as stiff or wooden (an assessment with which I agree in most cases), but I always felt that the criticism was unfair given JWA’s relative “newness” to the art of drawing birds. I thought JWA’s early work compared pretty well to Audubon’s early work in terms both of animation and accuracy.

Early Audubon pastel of a dead bird

Another pastel of a dead bird from Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle de la Rochelle. This one struck me as particularly beautiful. I failed to note the title, but it does look to me like a bittern.

Viewing the diversity of Audubon’s early surviving work, one beautiful example after another, some intentionally simple and some more complex, I perceived a will and focus (as well as underlying talent) that to me marks his genius. Audubon embraced innovation, combining a variety of media and approaches to achieve his desired ends, to capture first for himself, then for the rest of us, the beauty and variety of “the feathered race.” Even Audubon’s early drawings of dead birds, a few examples included in the “Early Birds,” seem extraordinary lifelike in terms of capturing what a dead bird, hung by a thread, must look like.

Audubon reports regularly destroying his old work as he improved over time, and so the less successful examples of his earliest work have probably not survived. Nevertheless this exhibition makes clear that Audubon possessed some extraordinary characteristics that resulted in his success. Although John Woodhouse seems to have had a good measure of innate talent, he was pushed hard by Audubon towards an artistic career (a mixed blessing at best) and also received instruction from Audubon and other. Audubon on the other hand followed his passion — he was self-directed and self-motivated, and through hard work and persistence was able to develop his talent to produce mature and sophisticated work at a fairly early stage of his artistic career.

Two woodpecker species (Houghton Library, Harvard University)

An undated pastel with watercolor, graphite, ink of two woodpecker species from the collection of the Houghton Library, Harvard University

Among the pieces from the Houghton Library I found especially lovely were a beautiful Carolina Parakeet (one of Audubon’s more reproduced early works, a single parrot with blue plumage that either shifted in color through its exposure to light, or perhaps portrays a subspecies with bluer plumage that was more predominant in Louisiana). I was also struck by the remarkable animation in a drawing of  two woodpecker species, the Red-bellied Woodpecker and the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-bellied is agressively scolding and crowding the interloper.

Audubon built a body of extraordinary work by developing innate talent using every means at his disposal — burning desire, persistent effort, and a grand vision of what he wanted to accomplish as an artist and a naturalist. Not every bird painted by Audubon sings — the Double Elephant Folio includes some birds that do not succeed, but the body of Audubon’s work shows him to be both an extraordinary artist and naturalist, one who helped define how we look at and appreciate birds.


Three Audubon watercolors none of which were included in the Double Elephant Folio

Three of the most striking of the Audubon watercolors that were not used for the Double Elephant Folio. At left is a watercolor of male and female Anhingas, at center is a Great Egret male in breeding plumage, at right is an adult Little Blue Heron.

The next area in the exhibition includes most of the watercolors in the collection of the NYHS of birds that Audubon, for whatever reason, did not use for the Double Elephant Folio. Some are quite similar to watercolors used for the folio, some completely different.  Many of these watercolors have been in other NYHS exhibitions, and most (if not all) have been published before, but this is a wonderful opportunity to see almost all of them at one time. It’s pretty amazing to see what didn’t make JJA’s cut, and your enjoyment will be enhanced by some excellent commentary available on the wall plaques. Most of these extras or alternates were part of the collection the NYHS purchased from Lucy Audubon in 1863; the NYHS acquired a few additional works through other donations. Three watercolors in this group are exceptionally lovely and are highlighted against a single wall.

Audubon's watercolor of the Great Egret - not used in the Double Elephant FolioThese include the amazing Great Egret in the center, an image of exceptional poetry and elegance, one that NYHS has successfully promoted in the last decade as being among JJA’s best. To me, this watercolor is reminiscent of the photo portraits of brides from the mid-20th century that are still popular in the present day. Also shown on this wall (left) is a beautiful watercolor of Anhingas (shown in a different composition in the watercolor for PL 316 Black-bellied Darter, not in this show) and a delicate Little Blue Heron (shown in an almost balletic pose, completely different from the handsome bird in the watercolor used for PL 307 Blue Crane, or Heron, also not in this show).

Audubon watercolor of a snowy owl not used in the Double Elephant FolioThe room contains many other interesting pieces including a remarkable cut-out of a Pacific Loon that is very similar to the center loon in the watercolor for PL 346 Black-throated Diver (which will be seen in a subsequent show) and a gnome-like Turkey Vulture chick that should have, but never made it, onto a plate. Also interesting (although located far above my head) is Audubon’s alternative view of the Snowy Owl. It is a single regal bird, more straightforward than Audubon’s famous and mysterious pair, and I would have loved a closer look. Another interesting watercolor is an early version of the watercolor for PL 31 White-headed Eagle which shows the bird with a goose rather than a catfish. A good friend of mine commented that he preferred the goose even if the fish was more accurate, but I think the eagle itself was better executed in the watercolor used for PL 31. If you visit, you can judge for yourself since the watercolor for PL 31 is also in the show.

If I recall the text on the wall plaques accurately, two of the museum’s extras and alternates were not included in this round. The two not appearing includes another watercolor of the Great Egret that is fairly similar in its approach to the ultimate watercolor used in the Double Elephant Folio for PL 386 White Heron (not an error — “White Heron” is the title Audubon gave the plate of the Great Egret). The second missing from this exhibition is Audubon’s spectacular watercolor of a lone American White Pelican on a stormy beach, its beak open to expose the interior of the pouch, a work Audubon bypassed in favor of the handsome and stately bird in profile that became PL 311 American White Pelican. I hope that both of these watercolors will be shown when the “standard” watercolors of these species are shown, most likely in 2015.


The watercolors used for the 33rd Fascicle of the Double Elephant Folio

The five watercolors that were used for the 33rd Fascicle of the Double Elephant Folio, portraying (clockwise from left) the Crested Caracara, Zenaida Dove, Palm Warbler, Veery, and Bachman's Sparrow

The remaining exhibition area is given over to the presentation of 175 watercolors used by Robert Havell, Audubon’s printer, to create the plates of the first 35 fascicles (which Audubon and his colleagues referred to as “numbers” and which some today call “parts”) of the Double Elephant Folio. Most of Audubon’s watercolors are not formal or finished works. They are working documents, most with writing, sometimes  identifying the subject, or giving measurements or including instructions to the printer. Many show corrections or incomplete areas, some have collaged elements, and some involve collaboration with another artist (e.g., Joseph Mason, Maria Martin, or George Lehman, all of whom contributed botanical or landscape backgrounds that were occasionally part of the actual watercolors and sometimes were separately incorporated into the plates).

Issuing color-plate books by subscription was a common practice, and had the advantage of generating revenue that could be used to finance continuation of the work. The fascicles would be sent to subscribers and paid for as they became available. In the ideal case — a subscriber who signed on at the beginning and stayed through the end — the fascicles would be collected, admired, then put aside to be bound when the final fascicle was issued. Subscriber retention was critical to financial success since it was “pay-as-you-go,” and you could cancel your subscription for any reason. If too many subscribers discontinued, completion of the project would become economically more difficult or even infeasible. Thus pleasing subscribers and maintaining their interest was essential, especially for a costly and long-lived project such as the Double Elephant Folio, spanning more than a decade from beginning to end.

The watercolors used for the 23rd Fascicle of the Double Elephant Folio

The five watercolors that were used for the 23rd Fascicle of the Double Elephant Folio, portraying (clockwise from left) the Pileated Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, White-crowned Sparrow, Eastern Wood-Peewee, and Eastern Bluebird

The organization of the exhibition by fascicle is inspired, allowing the viewer to easily experience the visual rhythms of Double Elephant Folio as Audubon intended it. Although he would use a different organizational approach when he issued the smaller (and much less expensive) octavo edition of The Birds, that of the folio was based on Audubon’s belief that subscriber interest would best be sustained if each fascicle included variety, both in terms of image size and subject matter. The octavo edition presents birds in phylogenetic order (as Audubon understood it in the early 1840s), and thus a single fascicle (or even many fascicles in succession) could be devoted to a single type of bird. For example, the warblers begin in the fifteenth fascicle and end in the twenty-third.

These different approaches likely relate to differences of intention. The octavo edition, which included Audubon’s written accounts of each bird directly interspersed between the plates, is intended at least in part to educate the reader about birds, in which case reading about and seeing all the warblers at once makes sense. The Double Elephant Folio, on the other hand, was more intended to delight the subscriber with the physical beauty of birds and to show birds in pursuit of diverse activities in accurate habitats. Audubon’s illustrations cover the vast scope of bird life, and shows preying birds and preyed-upon birds, courting birds and fighting birds, birds in migration, birds building nests, birds feeding, birds caring for chicks, birds participating in all activities of life including death.

Watercolor for PL 171 Barn Owl, first plate of the 35th Fascicle

Watercolor for PL 171 Barn Owl, a large image and the first plate of the 35th fascicle. The finished plate includes a very dark night sky and a river in the background.

Audubon mixed the types of birds and the sizes of his images, each fascicle beginning with a spectacular image that took up most of the large sheet of paper, immediately followed by a medium image with somewhat larger margins, and completed with three small images with large margins. This is beautifully captured in the way the exhibition is hung in groups of five, each group containing one large watercolor, one medium-sized watercolor, and three smaller watercolors.

In the “fascicle” part of the exhibition the text panels are generally limited to identifying the works of art, with the birds identified by their modern names and referenced to the Havell Edition by plate number. Some of the earlier NYHS watercolor shows included excellent text panels on specific watercolors and I missed these here, but the focus is perhaps more appropriately placed on viewing the artwork. Since my visits, the NYHS has added a table in Dexter Hall and also a podium, each supplied with books that visitors can review for more information about the works displayed.

Watercolor used for PL 11 Bird of Washington of the Double Elephant Folio

Watercolor used for PL 11 Bird of Washington (first plate of the 3rd Fascicle)

Over the course of several visits, I found myself at times flitting from favorite to favorite, including the Passenger Pigeon (which shows a very interesting use of pastel on the male bird), the Barn Owl (which seemed strikingly different without the background found in the Havell Edition plate), the Carolina Parakeet (an exuberant scene, made poignant by the fact that these birds are gone for good, the last bird of this species dying in the early 20th century), and the beautifully restored Ivory-billed Woodpecker (which before restoration was marred by a very distracting tape stain).

Among the watercolors that made the biggest impressions on me is the model for PL 121 Snowy Owl. This plate can be found with very small amounts of blue or a medium grey in a darker night sky. In the watercolor, the sky has more pale areas, including larger areas of a pretty sky blue. The painting is overall much lighter with clouds depicted in varying shades of grey. The details on the birds seem also to be lighter in color in the watercolor than in the plate, as if the owls are being seen at a different time of day. I find the sky in the painting more beautiful than that of the plate. I also enjoy the lighter coloring on the tree. If I had to guess, I’d say Audubon was not intending to present the owls by moonlight (as we generally assume is the case when viewing the plate), but was perhaps showing the birds in the aftermath of a storm or perhaps at dusk on a cloudy night.

Comparison of Snowy Owl watercolor and plate

Watercolor for the Snowy Owl on the left, Havell Edition PL 121 Snowy Owl on the right.

Comparison of Title Location for Bird of Washington

The top image shows Audubon's species identification and other writing for the watercolor for PL 11 Bird of Washington. The center image shows the title of the plate in the first variant, the bottom image shows the title of the plate in a later variant.



Another piece that I enjoyed seeing was one of two immature Bald Eagles on display, this one the model for PL 11 Bird of Washington. In the Bird of Washington plates I have seen in person, there is an extra uncolored feather on the far right of the tail. I always wondered about it when I saw it, but never looked up the watercolor. Seeing the watercolor confirmed that the uncolored feather is an addition (and therefore an error) by the printer. Rather than remove it from the plate, the colorists were apparently instructed not to paint it. It is also interesting to note that the unusual location of the title in the early state of PL 11 (placed diagonally on the rock on which the bird perches and thus incorporated into the actual image area) was inspired by Audubon’s own lettering on the watercolor. Although the title was eventually moved when the copper plate (along with all the other coppers plates used for Volume 1 of the Double Elephant Folio) was reworked to reflect a newly standardized format, the extra tail feather was not removed (or at least not immediately).


Of course even the best of museum exhibitions is limited by space. Children and shorter adults will find it difficult to get a close view of many of the paintings (stacked on the walls as they had to be). On my visits one horizontal watercolor (that for PL 32 Black-billed Cuckoo) hung in a vertical orientation, which I erroneously attributed to a lack of space in the area devoted to that specific fascicle. It turns out it was an inadvertent error and the painting was rehung with the correct orientation within a day or two.

Watercolors for the 9th Fascicle of the Double Elephant Folio

The watercolors for the 9th Fascicle of the Double Elephant Folio include (clockwise from top left) the Bald Eagle, Black-billed Cuckoo (inadvertently hung in a vertical position, since corrected), Yellow Warbler (a species Audubon mistakenly portrayed several times, in this case as Children's Warbler), Worm-eating Warbler, and American Goldfinch


Photo of video provided by Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology

Video provided by Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology juxtaposes several of Audubon's images with live video, enhancing understanding of the ways in which he sought to make his watercolors lifelike.

Audio handsets are available that allow you to hear the birds as you view them, but with all the visual interest and text to read, I did not have a chance to sample the audio extensively. A limited number of magnifiers are also available allowing closer examination of the work. Included in the exhibition is a small room of well-chosen Auduboniana (some of which illuminates the NYHS purchase of the collection from Lucy Audubon). The exhibit is also enhanced by video that juxtaposes a selection of plates with footage of the corresponding birds. In these cases the video seem to highlight the behaviors or postures that inspired JJA’s images. Especially poignant is the archival video of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The video and audio were provided for the exhibition by Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology.

Case containing Volume 1 of the NYHS copy of the Double Elephant Folio

Case containing Volume 1 of the NYHS copy of the Double Elephant Folio. Three watercolors for the 13th Fascicle are also shown including (clockwise from right) the Great Horned Owl, the Swamp Sparrow (famously credited to Lucy Audubon based on instructions from Audubon to Havell written on the watercolor), and my all-time favorite the Passenger Pigeon (an incredibly numerous bird in the early 19th century that became extinct in the early 20th century).

The exhibition space includes a display case with the first volume of the NYHS Havell Edition set.  The announced plan is to show a different plate every week of the exhibition, so many visitors probably will not have the opportunity that I had to directly compare the early W.H. Lizars plate PL 1 Great American Cock Male (which would become PL 1 Wild Turkey – Male after the copper plate was reworked by Havell). The bird in the watercolor is somewhat larger than the bird in the plate, so large that the tip of the tail is omitted, whereas the bird in the plate manages to squeeze himself completely into the book, even maintaining space for binding and a small amount of margin. Also interesting is the difference in color. The Lizars’ turkey cocks, colorfully dressed with golds and reds as well as bright blue in their plumage, are not much like the original watercolor. Havell’s much browner birds are more in keeping with what Audubon painted.

Prior to this exhibition, the main chance (if any) a person would have had to experience so much of Audubon’s work at once would be through books. The major books on Audubon’s watercolors are John James Audubon: The Watercolors for The Birds of America (Villard Books, 1993), Audubon: Early Drawings (Belknap-Harvard University Press, 2008, which highlights Harvard’s holdings), and the outstanding book by exhibition curator Roberta J. M. Olson (with contributions from others) Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for “The Birds of America”(New-York Historical Society and Skira/Rizzoli, 2012) that is related to this exhibition. Olson’s book includes (in both large plates and small figures) illustrations of some of the Harvard drawings, some of the drawings from France, other pertinent illustrations (including additional works by Audubon and many other artists), and the NYHS’s complete “flock.” The new book is available from the New-York Historical Society in two editions (regular and deluxe), currently priced at the museum store for $59.95 ($53.96 for NYHS members) and $200 ($180 members) respectively. The regular edition price is an outstanding value and is a significant reduction from the original publication price of $85.

Audubon’s work continues to inspire today’s artists, from well-known contemporary artists such as Walton Ford to young novices such as the talented Leah Gehret. Leah, aged 12, attended the preview with her parents Carol and Alan Gehret (the curator of the John James Audubon Museum in Henderson KY), and was well armed with both sketchpad and iPad. Her quick sketch of one of Audubon’s greatest images, the Osprey, brought a smile to everyone who saw it.

Audubon's watercolor of the Osprey with Leah Gehret's sketch

Audubon's original watercolor for PL 81 Fish Hawk or Osprey with Leah Gehret's quick copy (bursting the boundaries of her sketch pad) at right.

As you learn more about these great works, you may decide that you’d like to have one or more of them on your walls. sells fine limited edition Giclée facsimiles of all of the NYHS Audubon watercolors. For more information, visit the reproductions and facsimiles area of the website (scrolling down towards the bottom of the page) or contact me directly.

Whether you must walk, run, railroad, bus, boat, or (indeed) WING your way there, I urge lovers of bird and wildlife art to make every effort possible to see Audubon’s Aviary: Part I of the Complete Flock in person, but if that is not possible this year, then start thinking ahead to Parts II and III in 2014 and 2015. Whether you love wildlife, art, or Audubon, there is little doubt that you will want to see the rest of Audubon’s watercolors when they migrate out of storage onto the walls of the NYHS.