Audubon’s Aviary: Part of I of The Complete Flock
March 7 – May 19, 2013
To celebrate the sesquicentennial of the New-York Historical Society’s purchase of the Audubon avian watercolors and the the release of the lavishly illustrated book Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for “The Birds of America”―published by the New-York Historical Society and Skira/Rizzoli and winner of a 2013 New York Book Show Award—the New-York Historical Society plans a sweeping three-part exhibition to showcase every masterpiece from its unparalleled collection of John James Audubon’s preparatory watercolor models for the sumptuous double-elephant-folio print edition of The Birds of America (1827–38). Over three years Audubon’s Aviary: The Complete Flock (Parts I–III), will feature all 474 stunning avian watercolors by Audubon in the collection, alongside engaging state-of-the-art media installations that will provide a deeper understanding of the connection between art and nature.
Selective video footage and calls of all the species exhibited in each Aviary—available on a hand-held device and provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology—will underscore Audubon’s vast knowledge, which he gained though his field observations, as well as the importance of birdsong in the identification of species.
The trilogy Audubon’s Aviary: The Complete Flock is a once-in-a-lifetime series (2013–2015) that will explore the evolution of Audubon’s dazzling watercolors in the order in which they were engraved. Visitors to the N-YHS will have the unique opportunity to view these national treasures sequentially and in their entirety for the first time—the same way his original subscribers received the Havell plates. Interestingly, Audubon, an entrepreneur and a genius at marketing, organized his magnum opus not by taxonomic classifications, as was the tradition, but according to his aesthetic and practical judgments, including which watercolors he considered were ready for engraving. He believed his presentation was more natural, and it was arguably far more interesting for his subscribers because they received their prints in fascicles of five prints each (usually one large, one medium, and three small). Viewed in this manner, The Complete Flock series will reveal the artist’s decisions and struggles to complete and successfully market his “great work.”
Audubon’s Aviary: Part I of The Complete Flock opens with a fascinating look at the self-taught Audubon’s development of his innovative signature depictions and experimental media. To elucidate this early chapter in his life, the N-YHS has supplemented its own rich holdings (dating from 1808) by borrowing a selection of the artist’s rare, earliest pastels: eleven from Houghton Library of Harvard University and and fifteen from the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle de La Rochelle, Collection Société des Sciences Naturelles de la Charente-Maritime, in France. The French pastels were only discovered recently and have never been seen outside of La Rochelle. These “early birds” capture Audubon’s youthful excitement about drawing birds while in France and during his first years in America. They also reveal important new discoveries about the renowned artist-naturalist’s methods and his early career drawing birds.
Following an introduction of early pastels into which Audubon gradually introduced watercolor, the exhibition will feature over 220 of the artist’s avian watercolors, including the models for the first 175 plates engraved in The Birds of America. A range of fascinating objects drawn from the Society’s rich Audubon collection, the largest single repository of Auduboniana in the world, will augment these offerings. Among the treasures to be displayed are: the celebrated double-elephant-folio print edition (whose plates will change weekly) and the octavo edition (1840–44) of The Birds of America; Audubon’s Ornithological Biography (1831–39) and a handwritten draft for one of the species in it; one of Havell’s engraved copper plates, of which the N-YHS holds four; a hand-colored proof (“pattern proof”) with annotations by the artist; letters (including one recently acquired in August 2012) and documents; together with other precious relics of this iconic American figure, such as Audubon’s carte-de-visite and the beaded coin purse that Lucy Audubon made to hold his change for tipping in England. It will also feature new discoveries about the artist’s working methods, including a reconstruction of his “position board,” and ornithological innovations. The groundbreaking exhibition Audubon’s Aviary: Part I of The Complete Flock presents an important opportunity to examine Audubon’s unique role in the history of American art, science, and the exploration of the ever-expanding nation, and thus to illuminate his genius.
Considered America’s first great watercolorist, the legendary Audubon achieved unprecedented originality as a naturalist-artist through his extraordinarily dramatic watercolor models for The Birds of America. (They depict 1026 individual birds with over 99 in the backgrounds). Not only was Audubon the first person to render all of his magnificent birds, not just the smaller ones, life-size, but also to capture them in cutting-edge media. Rather than traditional watercolors, Audubon’s paintings are complex, multimedia compositions that he sometimes worked on for years, even decades. They consist of layered media: watercolor, pastel, graphite, gouache, ink, glazing, metallic and oil pigments, all over an under-drawing in graphite, and frequently with collage and scratching out. Moreover, the vivid drama of the artist’s vignettes so successfully portrays each bird’s behavior and natural habitat that even extinct species—like the Carolina Parakeet and the Passenger Pigeon, and the disputed Ivory-billed Woodpecker (whose existence has been questioned for decades)—come alive in his watercolors. Because of his years drawing portraits to support his family and his unadulterated passion for drawing wildlife―especially birds―Audubon encapsulated the individuality of each species in his inventive tableaux. Drawn from a lifetime of observation and study, his watercolors characterize the essence of each bird in an arresting, often cinematic image that magically transforms ornithological illustration into a fine art, capturing the fragile, often brutal and endangered balance of nature.
In 2014 and 2015, the N-YHS will present Audubon’s remaining watercolor models for The Birds of America. Part II of The Complete Flock (2014) will demonstrate the artist’s quest to depict outstanding species of water birds and will address the artist’s travels in the South and Canada, while Part III of The Complete Flock (2015) will grapple with his push to complete his magnum opus―with further examples from the Labrador Expedition (1833) and the western United States, as well as watercolors of the outliers―to bookend the North American continent (from the eastern Wild Turkey to the western American Dipper). Each of the last two incarnations of Audubon’s Aviary will include over 130 of the artist’s beautiful watercolors, together with Auduboniana from the N-YHS collections.
This extraordinary trio of landmark exhibitions will mine the depths of the New-York Historical Society’s Audubon collection and display a wide variety of watercolors and compelling objects to heighten the visitor’s understanding of Audubon as an artist, naturalist, and significant historical figure (who became a conservationist and the namesake of the National Audubon Society). It will afford audiences of all ages and backgrounds unprecedented access to these exceptional works and a chance to connect with their gripping historical narrative, their importance and beauty, and the creatures they represent that are so important to protect.
The Complete Flock Parts I-III
Part I: The exciting early years drawing birds (mostly from the eastern half of the country) until around 1833.
Part II: The big push to represent all of species of water birds and the resulting journeys southward and northward to Canada and Labrador.
Part III: Rushing to completion: the continuation the Labrador Expedition (1833), western birds, and the outliers to bookend the North American continent.