The Final Flight is the third exhibition in the once-in-a-lifetime series showcasing the New-York Historical Society’s unparalleled collection of John James Audubon’s (1785–1851) dazzling watercolor models for The Birds of America (1827–38), engraved by Robert Havell Jr. (1793–1878). For the first time ever, visitors can view these national treasures in the order in which Havell engraved them and subscribers received the prints. Audubon organized his magnum opus not by taxonomy, but organically by his aesthetic judgment, believing that this order resembled that of nature. It was, arguably, more interesting for subscribers, who received the prints in fascicles of five—usually one large, one medium, and three small.
This exhibition features Audubon’s models for fascicles 62–87 (Havell plates 306–435), plus six additional studies. By the 1830s Audubon was an established artist-naturalist, a world citizen, and a celebrity in a nation that was pressing westward to the Pacific. JJA became a conservationist during his southeastern explorations and the Labrador Expedition, as he saw the wilderness fast-disappearing. A number of watercolors from those trips are included in this exhibition as he completed them.
Viewing the watercolors sequentially reveals JJA’s struggles and compromises. During the final years, not wishing to lose subscribers, to declare bankruptcy, or to destroy his health, Audubon accelerated his schedule and combined species, the practice for which he had criticized other ornithologists, albeit his vignettes feature lifesize birds that interact with each other. In the final watercolor model for The Birds of America and Havell plate 435, Audubon depicted a western species, the American Dipper that together with the Wild Turkey for Havell plate 1 bracket the North American continent coast to coast.
As the swan song of the series, The Final Flight tracks Audubon gathering the elusive outliers and western species. Since Audubon never travelled beyond the Missouri River, he depended on the observations of early explorers, such as Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838). He obtained many from the naturalists Thomas Nuttall (1809–1851) and Dr. John Kirk Townsend (1786–1859), members of the expedition led by Captain Nathaniel Wyeth (1802–1856) to the Pacific Northwest in 1833–36. Nuttall returned first, with a large collection of bird skins, specimens, and nests of which Audubon bought a sizeable number in 1836. The artist took them to Charleston, South Carolina, where he painted many of his watercolors of western species during a highly productive period in 1836–37. Afterwards he shipped the rest to London, where he also consulted specimens in private collections and the London Zoological Society in order to complete his “great work.”