April 20, 2014

"Audubon's Aviary - Part II"

As one might expect, the New York Historical Society is a treasure trove of art and artifacts having to do with the Empire State.  But few people realize that its original mandate was as a museum for both natural history and art.  In fact, it served this dual purpose until 1870 and along the way became the largest repository of Auduboniana in the world, making its very urban location on Central Park West the epicenter for ornithologists and amateur birders alike.

 Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)
Havell Plate # 211, 1821

The jewel in the crown is the Society's complete set of original watercolors by John James Audubon for the 435 plates reproduced in his magnificent album "The Birds of America".  This large-format (double-elephant) size folio was Audubon's life achievement - it took eleven years to publish (1827-38) and remains the quintessential reference book for birds of the Northern Hemisphere.

John James Audubon was born in Haiti in 1785, the illegitimate son of a French privateer and his chambermaid/mistress.  After immigrating to the United States in 1803 to avoid conscription in the Napoleonic wars, John James soon began to follow his true passion - the study and registry of indigenous bird life.  He began the first bird-banding on the continent and soon used his artistic talents to make detailed drawings and watercolors of the species he observed.  While his endeavors were scientifically interesting they were not sufficient to support his young family and he relied on taxidermy, fur trapping, portrait painting and his wife's school teaching to make ends meet.

Whooping Crane (Grus americana)
Havell Plate # 226, 1821

In 1826, at the age of 41, he sailed to England with a portfolio of his watercolor paintings to try to generate interest in a deluxe publication of bird books.  The response was overwhelming and before long he had enough financial backing to begin what was to become his legacy - "The Birds of America".  It was an ambitious project - 435 hand colored engravings printed on the finest paper and featuring 1037 life-size species of birds at a cost of  $116,000 (over $2 million today).  It was also a logistically challenging one with Audubon traveling the US and Canada to seek out bird specimens and ferrying the watercolors to London to be reproduced by the master engraver Robert Havell, Jr.  The book was to be sold by subscription offering 87 monthly fascicles each containing five prints - one very large, one medium and three smaller size - and was a huge success with subscribers on both sides of the Atlantic.  However, the high cost of production as well as Audubon's expenses for research and travel meant that he was never to realize a profit for his efforts.

Which brings us back to this blog.  In 1863, at the height of the American Civil War, the New York Historical Society was able to purchase nearly the complete set of the original watercolors from Audubon's widow Lucy.  Thanks to the generosity of later donors, the Society eventually came to own all of the extant watercolors, plus a large group of watercolors of other birds and mammals, and the final model for "The Birds of America".  It is an impressive collection but a fragile one and therefore seldom available for public viewing which was why, when I heard that the NYHS was presenting a portion of their watercolors on view, I wasted no time in heading over for a look.

Snowy Egret (Egretta thula)
Havell Plate # 242, 1832

"Audubon's Aviary:  Parts Unknown (Part II of the Complete Flock)" showcases all 129 watercolor models for fascicles 36-61 of "The Birds of America".  This is the second of three exhibitions and is focused on the species Audubon observed and painted during his 1831 voyage to Florida and his 1833 expedition to Labrador, Canada.  It is a beautiful installation with the framed watercolors grouped in the order in which they were engraved, five per fascicle, each with corresponding bird calls on the audio guide!  Audubon was a masterful artist and a devoted naturalist and his magnificent birds look ready to take flight.

Although John James Audubon achieved moderate recognition during his lifetime, it was nothing compared to the legacy he left behind.  "The Birds of America" is considered one of the greatest color plate books ever produced as well as a pre-eminent natural history document.  Audubon himself was a pioneer environmentalist who recognized the importance of nature and its preservation at a time when America's wilderness seemed unlimited.  His scientific research and discoveries led to a far better understanding of the ornithology of North America and its place in the ecosystem.  And his paintings are just plain gorgeous.  You have until May 26, 2014 to see "Audubon's Aviary:  Part II" before it flies back into deep storage.

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