Audubon’s Aviary: Parts Unknown (Part II of The Complete Flock)
March 21 – May 26, 2014
Parts Unknown is the second exhibition in this once-in-a-lifetime series (2013–2015) that is showcasing in three installments every masterpiece from the New-York Historical Society’s unparalleled collection of 474 Audubon watercolors related to The Birds of America. For the first time, the dazzling watercolor models are installed in the order in which they were engraved, affording visitors the opportunity over three years to view all of these national treasures, and in the sequence that Audubon’s subscribers received the Havell prints. Audubon organized his magnum opus not by taxonomy, which was traditional, but according to his aesthetic judgment and which watercolors were ready for engraving. He believed this organic order resembled that of nature. It was also far more interesting for his subscribers, who received their prints in fascicles (groups) of five prints each—usually one large, one medium, and three small.
Part II of The Complete Flock features Audubon’s watercolor models for fascicles 36–61, that is for Havell plates 176 through 305, of The Birds of America, plus two additional studies. All but 25 of these species are water birds or waders. Some of them are among his most spectacular and largest birds. Audubon began many of these watercolors during his explorations in the Southeast or on his Labrador Expedition during a period that was among the artist’s most productive. No longer the young Frenchman who created the “early birds” of the frontier featured in the first installment of the series, Audubon had become an established artist-naturalist, a world citizen, and celebrity in an expanding nation. This exhibition follows Audubon into uncharted territories—geographic, artistic, and scientific—as he mapped new species and grappled with the disappearing illusion of America’s infinite wilderness. Viewing the watercolors sequentially reveals JJA’s struggles to organize, complete, and successfully market his “great work.”
Calls and songs of each species provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology are available on an audio device; they demonstrate the importance of birdsong for species identification and underscore Audubon’s extensive field observations. Volume III of the double-elephant-folio edition of The Birds of America is also exhibited. To help visitors understand Audubon’s creative process and the differences between his watercolor models and Havell’s plates after them, two iPads (on the reading table) will enable visitors to compare each watercolor with its corresponding plate. Highlights from the N-YHS’s extensive Auduboniana collection enrich the story of The Birds of America. For anyone wishing to revisit Part I of The Complete Flock or who missed the exhibition, a monitor in the second floor hall will feature highlights from that first installment.