April 26, 2015

"Audubon's Aviary: The Final Flight"

John James Audubon would have turned 230 years old today and in honor of this milestone I decided to visit the New-York Historical Society to catch the third and final installment of "Audubon's Aviary".  Part III of "The Complete Flock" is the public's last chance to view the Society's magnificent endowment of the preparatory watercolors for Audubon's magnum opus "The Birds of America" published in four double-elephant sized volumes between 1827-1838.

This exhibition is the summation of a three year program to display every one of the 474 avian watercolors, as well as the complete set of "The Birds of America", acquired by the New-York Historical Society in 1863.  Due to the enormous size and fragile nature of these works, the Society chose to prolong the pleasure and broke up the exhibition into a chronologically arranged trilogy.  The current installation, "The Final Flight", features the watercolors for fascicles 62-87 comprising plates 306-435 in Havell's monumental publication.

A self-taught artist, John James Audubon (1785-1851) is considered America's first great watercolorist and his careful study of each species portrayed made him a first class ornithologist and naturalist as well.  He was also a pioneer in the concept of environmentalism and worked to protect and preserve rare species of birds from extinction.  His lasting legacy is "The Birds of America" an ambitious attempt to record all the birds on the continent, life sized and in their natural habitats.  His quest to locate and document every kind of bird led him as far south as Florida and up to Labrador.  While he traveled almost regularly to England to see his publisher, he did not venture farther west than the Missouri River and relied upon intrepid explorers, private collectors and specimens in the London Zoological Society to fill in the gaps.

Currently on display are the last 129 illustrations engraved by Havell and distributed to the subscribers.  Organized according to Audubon's own aesthetic judgement rather than by breed or family, these are the last types of birds the artist was able to acquire for study.  Pressed for time and certainly for money, some of these watercolors are not quite as careful or intricate as earlier works, but every last one is a snapshot of the species in a pre-photography age.

From California Condors to Rufous Hummingbirds, American Flamingos to Barn Owls, John James Audubon's watercolors bring these birds to life.  Whether in groups or singly, against a white background or in its natural habitat, at rest or in flight, the artist has captures the essence of his avian subjects in what remains the "Bible of Bird Books".  I urge you to visit "Audubon's Aviary" before it closes on May 10th and these feathered fellows fly back into storage for another decade.

No comments: