Now On Display: Audubon

Now On Display: Audubon

Brianna Elliott
Published: 03/08/2013

Great egret by John James Audubon, 1821. Photo by New-York Historical Society/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A new exhibit offers viewers an unprecedented opportunity to experience John James Audubon’s incredible bird paintings, including the famous watercolors featured in The Birds of America as well as some of the artist’s earlier works. 

The exhibit, which opens today and is hosted by the New-York Historical Society, is a state-of-the-art experience, allowing visitors to interactively view Audubon’s pieces. Supplemental audio devices are available to listen to corresponding birdcalls for each species. “One-third of all bird identification is by songs, calls, or sounds,” Museum Curator of Drawing Roberta J.M. Olson told me yesterday during a press viewing, explaining why she added audio to the exhibit. “Sometimes you don’t see the birds and you only hear them in the canopies of trees or in swamps.” A video display shows footage of many birds beside Audubon’s drawings, allowing one to observe just how incredibly accurate his works are. Magnifying glasses are also available to take a closer look at fine details. 

The show celebrates both the Society’s sesquicentennial purchase of Audubon’s avian watercolors and its release of the sumptuous illustrated book Audubon's Aviary: The Original Watercolors for 'Birds of America' by Olson. This exhibition, “Audubon’s Aviary: The Complete Flock,” will display 474 pieces in a three-part series between 2013 and 2015.  

John James Audubon (1785-1851) was a scientist, observer, artist, and naturalist. Said to be America’s first great watercolorist, he was a man of many trades, including playing the fiddle, teaching swordsmanship, drawing, and writing. His passion for birds, ecology and the bridging of art and science set the stage for American conservation, and of course, his mission is reflected in the work of the National Audubon Society today.

The Historical Society purchased 434 of Audubon’s watercolors for The Birds of America from Audubon’s widow, Lucy, in 1863. The other pieces are not featured in The Birds of America, but are some of Audubon’s first pastels and watercolors. The Houghton Library of Harvard University and the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle, La Rochelle, in France, are loaning these pieces to the Historical Society for the exhibit. 

The first part of the exhibit runs from March 8 through May 19 and showcases more than 200 of Audubon’s first pieces. It’s sequential, tracing the artist’s evolution. It opens with his “Early Works” in the Luman Reed Galleries, displaying Audubon’s original sketches from 1803, when he was still residing in France. Next, the exhibit moves into what separated Audubon from other bird drawers of his time: He began drawing and painting birds in their life size form. Depictions of feeding, mating, and other bird behavior then emerge in the watercolors. 

The second section, located in Dexter Hall and the second floor hall, displays Audubon’s preparatory watercolors for The Birds of America. They are displayed in fascicles, or groups of five, just as Audubon mailed them to his followers in the 19th century. His fascicles consisted of one large, one medium, and three small pieces, and the exhibit upholds this pattern. 

Finally, the Cabinet Gallery features “Auduboniania,” a small, dark room with documents, letters, and personal objects from Audubon’s life. “We could spend years in here,” Olson said. 

Olson hopes this exhibit bridges the gap between science and art for the public, just as Audubon did with his famed watercolors. “One thing I hope the public takes away, because it is really the sub-theme here, is the preservation of the species and the preservation of the planet because birds are the canaries of the coal mine,” she says. “I think that Audubon was, and increasingly so later in life, concerned with preservation of the wilderness.”

The audio devices and fine detail by Audubon make this exhibit a sanctuary within the city to go birding indoors before the weather warms. Because the watercolors are extremely sensitive to light, they’re only on display for a little more than two months. Before the watercolors are tucked away again, this comprehensive exhibit is not to be missed by any birder, nature enthusiast, or art lover. 

“My aunt was a birder and my father in law was a very dedicated birder, but Audubon has made me a birder,” notes Olson, a member of Audubon. “I really recognize birds through Audubon, because he captured them not in profile poses or only flying, but he captured them in ways that I see them.”

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This past fall, Audubon gave away two copies of Audubon's Aviary: The Original Watercolors for the Birds of America.