How sad to have to say goodbye to the wonderful Audubon’s Aviary at the New-York Historical Society. A series of three exhibitions curated by Roberta J. M. Olson, the first two parts were shown in 2013 and 2014. The final exhibition, titled Audubon’s Aviary: The Final Flight (Part III of The Complete Flock), will close on May 10th. If you haven’t visited yet, THERE IS STILL TIME. Opportunities to see large groups of Audubon’s original paintings have always been rare, and will likely be more so in the future. Take advantage of this exhibition to learn about birds, about Audubon, and about your own relationship to the natural world.
This is the smallest of the three exhibitions and is limited to a single large gallery. At either end are mounted iPads that can be used to look up the corresponding Havell Edition plates for any of the paintings in the show. Also available is a fine video that highlights some of the bird species, and amply demonstrates Audubon’s ability to capture the birds in typical poses. Visitors can borrow audio devices that allow them to hear the voices of the various species and magnifiers for examining details of the paintings.
The exhibition includes the watercolor models for Havell Plates 306–435 (Fascicles 62–87), plus a small number of alternate paintings of a few species that make for interesting comparisons. At this point, Audubon was racing to complete the Double Elephant Folio without exhausting either the funds or patience of his subscribers. In order to squeeze in as many birds a possible, he often abandoned his typical approach of one species per composition. As a consequence, there are many complicated paintings that combine species in ways that do not always match perfectly with the plates. Olson has done her best to clarify some of this in the wall plaques for the individual paintings, but I personally found some of the text confusing without having illustrations of the plates immediately at hand.
My personal must-see for this exhibition are the two fantastic White Pelicans which are hanging side-by-side to the right of the entrance. The first painting is the basis of PL 311 White Pelican, one of the great images of the Double Elephant Folio. The alternate painting is far less familiar, but it is a stunner. According to the wall plaque, it is a radically foreshortened view of a pelican, possibly yawning or pulsating its pouch to cool itself. Although the wall plaque notes the bird chosen for the Havell Edition plate is more majestic, I am completely taken with the gaping opening of the bird’s pouch and the contrast with the thin upper mandible. It’s one of those rare instances where I wish I could go back in time, shake Audubon hard, and say, “REALLY?” I love PL 311 White Pelican, but I would have loved a plate based on this other painting even more. Be sure to watch the video footage of the American White Pelican to see that Audubon was not exaggerating in the least when he painted the bird in this pose. Also look closely at the painting to appreciate the beautiful background that George Lehman supplied for this work.
Another painting that is particularly interesting is the Green Heron. Audubon often used collage to combine elements of drawings from different sheets of paper into a single model for the plate. The wall plaque for the watercolor explains that the adult bird on the right was cut out and pasted from another sheet of paper. But to fit it into the composition, Audubon had to partially cut and lift a leaf painted on the main page to slip the bird figure underneath it.
Another example of collage is the watercolor model for PL 417 Maria’s Woodpecker. This plate includes ten birds that Audubon split into six different species, but in reality should have been grouped into two species. Eight of the birds are Hairy Woodpeckers (covering several subspecies); the remaining two are Three-toed Woodpeckers. All the birds were painted separately, cut out, and pasted onto a single sheet of paper.
The later watercolors demonstrate the increasing role of Audubon’s sons in the family “business,” roles that would expand when Audubon returned to America and began new projects. While Victor Gifford Audubon (VGA) was focused on landscape elements for some of the watercolors, John Woodhouse Audubon (JWA) is credited in the wall plaques with a significant number of birds and even a marsh hare (the prey species in PL387 Common Buzzard). At this time, both JWA and VGA were relatively inexperienced artists, and were continuing to learn their craft. VGA’s landscapes tend to be simple and unembellished with a few exceptions that may have included assists from Audubon himself (such as the lovely lighthouse detail in the beach scene for PL 421 Brown Pelican – Young).
Those familiar with Audubon’s work and that of his highly skilled assistants (Joseph Mason, George Lehman, and Maria Martin), may notice some loss of complexity and draftsmanship in the quality of work assigned to the two sons. I hope at some point in the future we will see an article or other publication summarizing Dr. Olson’s research on the “authorship” of various elements of each watercolor in the collection, and a detailed discussion of her criteria for these assignments.
Another highlight of the show is the brilliantly colored painting of the American Flamingo, one of Audubon’s most iconic images, and the first plate of the last fascicle of The Birds of America. Dr. Olson explains that the painting’s damaged appearance is a consequence of Audubon’s innovative techniques: “To render the brilliant pinks … Audubon built up many layers of media and glazing, a technique more common with oil pigment. This technique has caused the paint to crack over time.” (Olsen, Roberta J. M. with other contributors, Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for The Birds of America, New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2012, p. 364. )
As did the other two watercolor shows, the exhibition includes one of the original copper plates etched and engraved by Havell, but in this instance the copper plate is presented immediately adjacent to the original watercolor on which it was based, allowing visitors to study the “mirror image” relationship between the copper plate and the original watercolor, a characteristic that ensures that the printed plates will be oriented in the same direction as the original artwork.
Volume 4 of the N-YHS’s Double Elephant Folio is presented in a case, with the pages being turned weekly during the exhibition. On my visit, PL 351 Great Cinereous Owl (Grey Owl) was being displayed. Just a few yards to the left was Audubon’s almost-identical watercolor of this impressive bird.
Another iconic bird, Audubon’s Roseate Spoonbill, seemed to serve as a magnet, drawing visitors to a cluster of magnificent water bird portraits including ducks, seagulls, avocets and the unique black skimmer with its unusual bill.
If you have the flexibility to choose a date to visit, a new Audubon documentary — entitled Rara Avis: John James Audubon and the Birds of America — will be shown at the New-York Historical Society on May 2nd at 3:30pm. The film was written and directed by Al Reinert, an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, who will be there to answer questions after the showing. Admission to the film is included with admission to the NYHS. Taking in the documentary is a great way to extend a visit to that exhibition. Entrance to the film will be first come, first served, with the doors opening at 3pm. For more information on this film and to learn about future screening in other locations visit the film’s website.
So what’s next for the New-York Historical Society’s invaluable collection? In a review of Audubon’s Aviary: The Final Flight, William Grimes reported, “After it completes a renovation of the fourth floor in 2016, the museum plans to open an Audubon gallery devoted to rotating installations drawn from its large collection of Audubon watercolors, prints and related material. The new gallery will help solve the problem of how to make Audubon’s watercolors available to the public permanently.” (‘Two Wings, One Beak, Infinite Drama’, New York Times, Mar 5 2015, p. C19 New York edition).
Matthew Spady, an historian, webmaster, and blogger who writes about the Audubon Park area, has a superb interview with Dr. Olson which mentions plans for showing the preparatory watercolors with their corresponding plates: “When the newly renovated Luce Center opens in late 2016 there will be a … section where the preparatory watercolors can be displayed with their corresponding Havell plates, with both changing every month. In 435 months visitors can see them all. No other institution in the world can mount this, but N-YHS believes that we need to share this national patrimony with everyone.”
It is difficult to predict what will happen to this historic collection over the next few decades, but given that 435 months is over 35 years, I for one am thrilled that I had a chance to visit all three exhibitions and to share my experiences and impressions with others.