March 02, 2009

What's On at the New-York Historical Society

The New-York Historical Society occupies a suitably imposing building on the corner of 77th Street and Central Park West. Lately, on Saturdays, the front steps of this august structure have featured a rather formidable looking soldier in full Civil War garb guarding the entrance with a sword and a musket! What treasures lie within to warrant such a display of might, I wondered? So last weekend, to satisfy my curiosity, I paid a visit to this landmark institution!

It turned out that the soldier was one of a group of living history actors representing the Third U.S. Colored Infantry who served in the Civil War. The re-enactment troops were there to add an extra dimension to the exhibition "Grant and Lee in War and Peace" which runs until the end of March. It is a fascinating exhibition that looks at the lives and legacies of two principal figures in the history of the United States.

"Grant and his Generals", 1865
Oil on canvas by Ole Peter Hansen Balling


Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) was born to a wealthy Virginia family with a distinguished Army background. Conversely, Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) was a tanner's son who grew up in Western Ohio. Both men attended West Point Academy and both served in the Mexican War (1846-48) after which Lee continued with a military career while Grant returned to civilian life and farming. With the escalation of tensions between the free states and slave-holding states, both men were pressed into service, Lee as the General of the Confederate forces and Grant obtaining a commission and campaign assignment for the Union Army.

The rest of the story is Civil War legend with bloody battles and an appalling loss of human life and property, finally culminating in Lee's surrender of the South at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. What makes this exhibition special is the wealth of personal artifacts and original documents that bring these two figures to life. More than simply a review of the history of the Civil War, the curators have managed to present the two men in a human scale in the face of much larger issues and draw parallels from the concerns of their day to current affairs.

"Let Us Have Peace, 1965", circa 1920
Oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

In a totally different vein but also fascinating is the marvelous "Audubon's Aviary: Some Things Old, Some Things Borrowed, But Most Things New", the fifth and final installment in a series intended to showcase the N-YHS's unparalleled collection of Auduboniana.

John James Audubon (1785-1851) is known world wide as the foremost artist in the area of ornithology. His master work "The Birds of America" comprises 435 life size prints and is the standard to which all subsequent bird artists' work has been held. The N-YHS counts a complete set of the double elephant sized portfolio, as well as the original watercolors for each plate illustrated, among the treasures in its collection.

For a limited time, 40 of the original watercolors and several of their corresponding plates are on display at the New-York Historical Society. It is a rare opportunity indeed to see these incredible works of art (see left "Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)", circa 1825, Plate # 1). Hanging in an upstairs gallery, with recorded birdcalls providing an appropriate soundtrack, the viewer can examine the detail and delicacy of Audubon's compositions and the exquisite quality of the resulting prints (a complicated process of engraving, etching and aquatint).

The exhibition also explores the influence of earlier naturalists on the work of Audubon and original volumes by Alexander Wilson, Isaac La Grese and Pierre Vase are on display for comparison. It is interesting to note also that Mr. Audubon sometimes left the backgrounds to be completed by other artists, Maria Martin in particular, while he concentrated on the avian subjects.

Bird lover or not, these paintings are gorgeous and the massive, 5 volume tome, so large that it required a custom made desk to house the portfolios, is a magnificent example of color plate book. Due to the fragility of the medium, this exhibition is only on display until April 5, when the works will be returned to storage until at least 2019.

"Scarlet Ibis (Eudocimus ruber)", 1837
Plate # 397

1 comment:

Margie said...

Wow, a weekly guide now! How wonderful for NYC deprived folk like me. Abrazos!