Three Great Exhibitions for Audubon Lovers in 2015

These four watercolors will be included in this year's installment of Audubon's Aviary.

These four watercolors (clockwise from upper left: California Condor, American White Pelican, Woodpeckers – Multiple Species, and Gyrfalcon) will be included in this year’s installment of Audubon’s Aviary.


The first half of 2015 brings some unique opportunities for Audubon fans to enjoy his work. Three exciting exhibitions are scheduled: Audubon’s original watercolors at the New-York Historical Society,  a complete disbound copy of the Double Elephant Folio of The Birds of America at HistoryMiami, and an exhibition at the Stark Museum in Orange, Texas, home of Audubon’s own copy of the Double Elephant Folio and other unique artifacts.

Running from March 6 to May 10, 2015 is Audubon’s Aviary: The Final Flight (Part III of The Complete Flock) at the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS). The last part of a 3-year series, the Aviary shows has offered visitors the chance to see every one of the 474 Audubon watercolors owned by the N-YHS. With the great majority acquired directly from Audubon’s widow Lucy in 1863, with a few later acquisitions, the N-YHS collection includes all 433 of the surviving paintings used for the folio edition of The Birds of America, plus an additional 41 paintings, some of which found their way into the folio plates, others of which represent alternate or early portraits of the species included in The Birds of America.

Sold by subscription, the plates were distributed to subscribers in 87 groups (variously called “fascicles,” “parts,” or “numbers”), each consisting of five plates. As was the case with the previous two exhibitions, the original paintings will be grouped and shown by fascicle, an order that happily provides an idea of what the subscribers must have experienced. This exhibition will include the watercolors for Fascicles 62 through 87 (covering Plates 306 to 435) of The Birds of America. The birds in the series finale will include a great variety — herons, pelicans, raptors, swans, geese, ducks, alcids, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, and other songbirds. Some highlights will be watercolors for PL 307 Blue Crane or Heron (Little Blue Heron), PL 311 American White Pelican, PL 321 Roseate Spoonbill, PL 333 Green Heron, PL 336 Yellow-crowned Heron (Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron), PL 366 Iceland or Jer Falcon (Gyrfalcon), and PL 431 American Flamingo. If it is similar to the earlier shows (the first in 2013, the second in 2014), the exhibition will also include other Auduboniana from the Museum’s collection and video and audio features. The final fascicles are highly varied, covering the last of the water birds, some land birds, and all of the paintings for the 32 “multi-species” prints.These paintings were a departure from Audubon’s usual approach of depicting one species per composition, an exception he made in the hope of squeezing in as many species as he could without exhausting either his audience’s patience or their pocketbooks.

Also running from late winter to middle spring (February 27 to May 31, 2015) will be an exhibition at HistoryMiami (founded in 1940 as the Historical Association of Southern Florida). Titled The Complete Audubon, this large exhibition will provide visitors with the unique opportunity to see all 435 original Havell Edition prints. HistoryMiami is taking the same approach N-YHS has taken with the watercolors by arranging the prints “as John James Audubon intended them to be seen, in their original order, in the sets of five he selected for their aesthetic appeal. The show will open with print 1, the Wild Turkey, and work its way work its way to the final set of five prints—including the spectacular American Flamingo (print 431) and the improbable American Dipper (print 435).” The exhibition will also include other rare books and prints, including a complete first octavo edition set of The Birds of America. The books from the octavo edition will be displayed in cases, with the plates being changed every few days. Over the course of the exhibition, all 500 octavo lithographs will be displayed.

Although there are frequent opportunities to see Audubon’s work, especially if one can travel, and on rare occasions it is possible for anyone to see an entire folio (e.g., if it is being exhibited for auction), I cannot personally recall the chance for the public to see an entire Double Elephant Folio displayed all at once. I would anticipate a thrilling experience, well worth the trip even if you are not in the Miami area.

Finally, the Stark Museuem of Art in Orange, Texas, the institutional home of the single most important copy of the double elephant folio (the set that originally belonged to Audubon himself), will be offering an exhibition titled Drawn to Life: Audubon’s Legacy running from March 28 to July 25, 2015. The Stark exhibition will examine how Audubon changed the way we see nature by portraying North America’s birds and animals in lifelike poses and in their natural habitats.

The exhibition will offer the rare opportunity to see all five volumes of John James Audubon’s personal set of The Birds of America. There will also be an opportunity to view together three copies each of two plates, PL 1 Wild Turkey (Male) and PL 6 Wild Turkey, Female & Young. (Studying multiple copies of a specific plate increases understanding of the evolution of the plates over the extended period of publication.) Visitors will be able to see other editions of Audubon’s work including the never completed Bien Edition of The Birds of America and a set of the first octavo edition (Audubon’s smaller version of The Birds of America). In addition, there will be a copy of The Viviparous Quadruped of North America (Audubon’s folio work on mammals), two oil paintings by son John Woodhouse Audubon, and a selection of family letters.

The importance of the Stark Double Elephant Folio — Audubon’s own — cannot be overstated. Originally sold by John Woodhouse Audubon in 1861 (shortly before his death) at a heavy discount to raise sorely needed funds, Audubon’s folio is one of three with special features that Havell made for Audubon and two close friends. The plates chosen for these three folios were of the highest quality, and each folio included the original 435 plates plus 13 extra so-called “composite” plates (the composites specially printed by Havell and intended to correct errors of identification or organization that Audubon perceived in the original 435 plates). Bound according to Audubon’s understanding of avian systematics, rather than the aesthetic considerations that determined plate order for “typical” folios, Audubon’s folio is one of only two of these “special” folios that are known to survive intact to the present day.

Other very rare items that will be presented at the exhibition are an unbound composite plate, a group of pattern prints (working prints that were used as prototypes to guide the workers who colored the plates of the Double Elephant Folio), and the original copper plate etched and engraved by Havell for the printing of PL 72 Swallow-tailed Hawk.

These three extraordinary exhibitions, any one of which would make the year a significant one for Audubon lovers, are clustered in the tight space of only five months. Better start making your travel plans NOW.