June 2006


Audubon's Aviary
New-York Historical Society
March 17 - May 7, 2006

John James Audubon--Rara Avis

by Louis Torres

The collections of the New-York Historical Society comprise much more than its name might suggest. Among its admirable holdings are landscapes by Thomas Cole and Frederick Edwin Church of the Hudson River School, and portraits by the early American painters Charles Willson Peale and Gilbert Stuart. But the Society also happens to own all 435 of the known extant watercolors by John James Audubon (1785-1851), America's pre-eminent painter of birds. That his paintings were intended as scientific illustration rather than fine art is a technicality that hardly matters. What is important here is that while setting out to meticulously record the appearance of the various species of North American birds, Audubon was no mere illustrator.

In settings stripped to their essentials Audubon vividly conveyed, as no one else has since, the unique qualities of these ever-fascinating creatures. (His paintings were mainly watercolors, supplemented with other media--in Great Egret, for example, employed watercolor, gouache, white lead pigment, graphite, pastel, black ink, and charcoal with selective glazing on paper, laid on thin board.) But his treatment of bird life encompasses more naturalistic renderings as well, not to mention instances in which natural setting is eliminated altogether, leaving the bird alone to be viewed.

Audubon's Aviary was the second in a series of annual exhibitions showcasing the Audubon watercolors. The Society's elegant second-floor gallery was transformed into a virtual aviary, replete with intermittent birdcalls triggered by individual paintings, unobtrusively emanating from small sound boxes set at floor level near the relevant paintings. And what a treat it was!

In Great Egret (c. 1821), the exhibition's poster image, Audubon depicted the bird in an imaginative dramatic setting and imbued it with such individuality that one might well imagine it the subject of a cinematic drama, or a work of fiction or poetry--by Edgar Allen Poe, say, or Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Audubon was not content merely to depict birds precisely as he observed them in nature. As well as draw them in the wild, he would utilize captured birds as models, and would also work from specimens he had killed, arranging them on tree branches or nests, for example, in whatever configuration (such as feeding the young)--suited his purpose. He would also sometimes picture the same species of bird in different seasons in a single work, or deviate from reality by depicting birds in greater numbers than would be found in nature, or engaging in simultaneous activities normally observed in isolation, as in the delightful Ruby-Throated Hummingbird.

Among the paintings in the exhibition were Black Rail (1836), an endearing work depicting a chick walking behind an adult in imitation, Magnificent Frigatebird (1832), Bald Eagle (1820), American Robin (1829), and Wood Duck (1821), a tender rendering of two pairs shown "during the love season." The latter three online images are not of original watercolors, but of prints from a set of fifty by Oppenheimer Editions.

Some of the paintings in the show were made in preparation for the much larger plates of his monumental Birds of America (see below for an online version). Cedar Waxwing (1820) is an example from that work (for numerous images of its lithographs, see the Darvill Gallery collection). Online images of plates from the Havell Edition of Birds of America include Marsh Wren (1829) [no. 98] and Lesser Red-Poll [search or scroll down] (1833) [no. 375].

Audubon was far more than a great painter of birds. He was a multi-faceted individualist--ambitious, adventurous, and self-made. His life story, told by Richard Rhodes in John James Audubon: The Making of an American, is one of the most inspiring of the nineteenth century (for a generous excerpt from that book see "America's Rare Bird," Smithsonian, December 2004). Birds were the core of Audubon's life, though, and he was possessed of an uncommon ability to re-create them in paint. For that, we are all in his debt.

The website of the National Audubon Society includes a brief biography of Audubon and an online version of Birds of America. For an informative illustrated account of the New-York Historical Society's first Audubon's Aviary exhibition, see the March 2005 issue of the Journal of Antiques and Collectibles. (Birds in sculpture was the subject of "Birds, Birds, Birds" in our December 2003 issue.)