The birds are back in town: Part II of Audubon’s Aviary

Volume III of the N-YHS copy of Audubon's Birds of America.

A case with Volume III of the New-York Historical Society’s copy of the Havell Edition of The Birds of America stands in front of five Audubon watercolors. The book will be opened to a different plate once a week. During my visits, PL 211 Great Blue Heron was being shown.


Another “can’t miss” exhibit of John James Audubon’s original watercolors is on view now through May 26 at the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS). Titled Audubon’s Aviary: Parts Unknown, this is the second of three exhibits in a series subtitled “The Complete Flock.” Together the three exhibits (curated by Roberta Olson) provide visitors with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view every Audubon watercolor in the N-YHS’s unparalleled collection. Acquired directly from Audubon’s widow Lucy in 1863, the N-YHS collection includes all 433 of the surviving paintings used for the folio edition of The Birds of America, plus an additional 42 paintings, some of which also found their way into the folio plates, others of which are alternate or early portraits of species included in The Birds of America.

Last year’s exhibition, which set the table for the entire series, was broader in scope than this year’s exhibition, but this second installment is truly a delight, including paintings related to Havell Edition Plates 176 to 305 (including 25 land birds and 105 water birds), plus other Auduboniana from the Museum’s extensive collection. It also happily includes the multimedia features that contributed so much to the success of the first show.

The exhibition includes video that juxtaposes Audubon’s work with film footage of birds shot in the field. Also available are portable audio players that allows visitors to listen to bird calls of many of the species. This photo combines into one shot some of the footage shown for three different species (from top to bottom — Whooping Crane, Willow Ptarmigan, and Atlantic Puffin).


According to the N-YHS website, “Parts Unknown considers 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 … 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. It galvanized his awareness about the necessity of conserving species and habitats. Most of the watercolors in Parts Unknown (studies for Havell plates 176-305) depict water birds, many of which are among Audubon’s most spectacular and largest birds, with numerous studies begun during his southeastern explorations and on his Labrador Expedition.”


The five watercolors for Havell Edition Fascicle 44

This grouping includes the five watercolors for the 44th Fascicle, including PL 216 Wood Ibis (Wood Stork), PL 217 Louisiana Heron (Tri-colored Heron), PL 218 Foolish Guillemot (Common Murre), PL 219 Black Guillemot (Black Guillemot), and PL 220 Piping Plover. This fascicle (or “number” as Audubon generally referred to the fascicles) juxtaposes southern birds (the stork and heron) with northern birds (the murre and guillemot) that Audubon saw on his Labrador trip. The fifth species of the group, the Piping Plover (now an endangered species) is found on northern coasts in summer and southern coasts in winter.


The paintings are organized by fascicle so that visitors can see the work unfold in a rhythm that parallels Audubon’s original intentions. Each grouping includes a large image, a medium-sized image, and three smaller images. With magnifiers provided, visitors are encouraged to get close views of Audubon’s work, with the text on the wall plaques pointing out some of the features that make his paintings work special including his extensive use of mixed media and collage.


Audubon's Watercolor for PL 271 Frigate Pelican


For example, the text on the wall plaque for the watercolor for PL 271 Frigate Pelican (Magnificent Frigatebird) highlights the techniques that Audubon used in the watercolor for PL 271. A close examination of the “plumage” from various angles reveals the use of a variety of dark shades to suggest iridescence and the careful delineation of individual feathers using very tightly spaced graphite strokes.

The exhibit emphasizes several aspects of Audubon’s development into a mature and sophisticated artist and entrepreneur, and also explores his growing awareness of the ecological consequences inherent in the unbridled exploitation of wildlife as resources (e.g., his comments on the destructiveness of “eggers”).

Audubon's watercolor of the Golden Eagle

Also highlighted is the influence of other artists on Audubon’s work. The painting of the Golden Eagle (model for Havell Edition PL 181 Golden Eagle) is heroic in scope, and is often said to reference a painting of Napoleon by the French artist Jacques-Louis David. Audubon’s painting includes a tiny and precariously perched figure, obviously intended to represent the artist as he traverses a chasm with a dead Golden Eagle, presumably intended for the studio, strapped to his back. Although the figure is charming, it had no basis in experience, and Audubon cautiously instructed Havell to omit the figure from the plate, perhaps in the hope of eliminating a likely target for his many critics.


Audubon's watercolors of the Black-backed Gull


A poignant and beautiful portrait of a wounded gull is the basis of Havell Edition PL 241 Black-backed Gull. Also part of the exhibit is a very small painting of the gull’s foot, a painting that shows up in the plate as an added detail. The wall plaque for the gull painting identifies Audubon’s source for the main composition as the figure of Jesus in a painting by Peter Paul Rubens entitled “Descent From the Cross.”


Audubon's watercolor for the White-fronted Goose


Unlike the paintings included in Part I, many of the paintings in this exhibit include titles, part and plate numbers that would appear in the corresponding Havell Edition prints.


The exhibit includes two cases of additional material from the museum’s collection. The case shown above includes the copper printing plate for PL 138 Connecticut Warbler (far left, with finished plate shown to the right), an uncolored proof of PL 31 White-headed Eagle (center), and a pattern print (a watercolored print that was intended as a guide for colorists) of PL 188 Tree Swallow.

Uncolored print of PL 31 White-headed Eagle

The uncolored print of PL 31 White-headed Eagle allows visitors to see and appreciate the subtlety and detail involved in printer Robert Havell’s work. The use of aquatint for the plates allowed a wide range of shadings that could not be achieved with more conventional etching techniques.

These watercolors are for the plates of the 50th fascicle, which includes PL 246 Eider Duck (Common Eider), PL 247 Velvet Duck (White-winged Scoter), PL 246 American Pied-bill Dobchick (Pied-billed Grebe), PL 247 Tufted Auk (Tufted Puffin), and PL 248 Arctic Tern.


If you have a chance to make it to this exhibit, by all means GO! It is a worthy follow-up to the superb opening exhibit in 2013, and presages another important show in 2015. There is much of interest here, not only about Audubon, but about nature and the ways in which the world has changed since Audubon’s time. Also much appreciated is Olson’s commentary on the important contributions of Audubon’s printer Robert Havell, his artistic assistants (including Joseph Mason, George Lehman, Maria Martin, John Woodhouse Audubon and Victor Gifford Audubon) and his scientific collaborators (such as John Bachman and William MacGillivray). The exhibit makes clear that even though it took only a single mind to conceive the magnificent work that is The Birds of America, it took many talented hands to bring the concept to its full fruition.