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Virtual Aviary – Audubon Watercolors come to Life at New-York Historical Society

Virtual Aviary: Audubon Watercolors come to Life at New-York Historical Society – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – March 2005

For the first time ever the sounds of birds will accompany an exhibit of original Audubon watercolors when the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) creates a “virtual aviary” with its exhibition, Audubon’s Aviary, open thru March 27, in its second-floor gallery, Dexter Hall.

The multi-media exhibition will showcase a selection of approximately 40 watercolors by John James Audubon (1785-1851) preparatory for his sumptuous, double-elephant folio print edition of The Birds of America (1827-38), said Roberta Olson, the exhibit’s curator.

Three-dimensional objects—from Audubon’s own portable writing desk and purse for tipping, sewn by his wife Lucy Bakewell Audubon, to ornithological models and mounts demonstrating Audubon’s technique of drawing from specimens as well as from nature—and a unique sound component, courtesy of Charlie Murrow Associates Inc. will help tell the story of Audubon’s “magnificent obsession,” the world-renowned The Birds of America. They will also characterize the genius of this buckskin-wearing American ornithologist with a French accent.

“The N-YHS features a selection of material from the Society’s unparalleled cache of Auduboniana to illuminate the story of Audubon’s ‘magnificent obsession’,” Olson said.

The Society’s Audubon collection is the largest single repository of Auduboniana in the world, Olson said. The N-YHS holds 435 watercolors preparatory for 433 of the 435 plates in Birds of America. No watercolors for plates 84 and 155 are known to exist.

The age of the watercolors makes them extremely fragile, and only a few are placed on display at any given time, Olson said. To preserve the watercolors each can only be exhibited once every 10 years.

The complex transatlantic genesis of The Birds of America was a fascinating saga of collaboration and entrepreneurship, as well as a great love story. The project involved Audubon’s entire family and that of his talented London engraver, Robert Havell, Jr. Its success pivoted around many journeys in the United States and Europe in quest of specimens and subscribers, together with Atlantic crossings to supervise the production of the plates in Havell’s London studio.

An accomplished musician who was sensitive to sound, Audubon frequently described birdcalls and songs as an integral part of his species identification. To suggest Audubon’s observations in the field that enabled him to create his life-like images, there will be periodic birdcalls in a supplementary four-dimensional sound program as part of the exhibit. A short video will underline Audubon’s mastery at encapsulating each bird’s personality and unique physical characteristics in a single image.

Most of the objects in the exhibition—including one of the rare double-elephant folio editions of 435 plates and Audubon’s subscription list in his own hand—will be drawn from the Society’s collection of ‘Auduboniana’. There will also be several major loans from New York institutions. Featuring a strong didactic, as well as experiential thread, the exhibition will include a rare opportunity to explore Audubon’s creative process through a juxtaposition of an original watercolor with its corresponding copperplate and hand-colored [tinted] engraving.

The exhibition builds on N-YHS’s mission of exploring American history with an emphasis on New York, as it celebrates its bicentennial anniversary. As New York’s oldest museum, part of its original mandate was to collect material pertinent to natural history. Today, the Audubon collection is one of the few vestiges of that initial mission. In response to the huge demand to view the light-sensitive Audubon watercolors, four to six hang in rotating installations in the Audubon Niche of the Society’s Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture. Beginning last February with “Birds of Central Park: Audubon’s Watercolors,” the Society initiated an annual month-long Audubon event to share with the public a wider selection of these rare treasures. The 2005 exhibition, “Audubon’s Aviary”, continues this tradition.

To accompany the exhibit, N-YHS plans an exciting series of public programs with a New York focus, underlining why both Audubon and his printer, Robert Havell, made New York their final home.

Highlights include: A three-part series examining nature’s pivotal role in the growth of our great city, titled John James Audubon and the Nature of New York produced in association with Nurture New York’s Nature and the New York City Audubon Society. For a full list of upcoming public programs, or to make a reservation call (212) 817-8125 or visit:

This exhibit is made possible through a grant from the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation. Additional programs and exhibitions at the New-York Historical Society are made possible in part with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency.

Our thanks to Alfred A. Knopf, publisher, for permission to publish the interview below.

John James Audubon by Richard Rhodes ISBN 0-375-41412-6
A Conversation with Richard Rhodes
Author of “[amazon_link id=”037571393X” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]John James Audubon: The Making of an American[/amazon_link]”

A new biography tells how “The American Woodsman” became one of the greatest wildlife artists of the 19th century. Historian Richard Rhodes shows us young Audubon arriving in New York from France in 1803, his illegitimacy a painful secret, speaking no English but already drawing and observing birds. We see him falling in love, marrying the wellborn English girl next door, fashioning himself into an American just as his adopted country was finding its identity.

Q: Why Audubon?

A: Audubon is the great American artist no one knows. For example, he and Benjamin Franklin were the only two Americans elected Fellows of the Royal Society of London prior to the American Civil War–the 19th century’s highest scientific distinction. Audubon was a pioneer as colorful and original as Daniel Boone. He came to America from France in 1803 when he was just eighteen years old, learned thee-and-thou English from the Quaker landladies at his Philadelphia boarding house and after establishing himself on a plantation his father owned near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, married a beautiful and cultured young Englishwoman, Lucy Bakewell, who lived on the plantation next door. Audubon and his Lucy crossed the Appalachians and made a life for themselves in frontier Kentucky, then in Louisiana, then in London and Edinburgh and finally in Manhattan–a great love story as fraught with separation and struggle and as romantic as the story David McCullough told so well of John and Abigail Adams.

Audubon gave us the first comprehensive portraits and field observations of American birds, reporting in detail on more than four hundred species that he traveled from Labrador down to Florida and Galveston Bay to observe. After his business failure in Kentucky he reinvented himself as a naturalist and a public celebrity at a time when America itself was inventing its national character. He could dance, sing, fence, draw portraits, play the violin and the flute, imitate an owl or an Osage war whoop. Now he took to dressing in buckskins and calling himself “the American Woodsman” to help promote his art. His life is an amazing odyssey, full of twists and turns and highs and lows, a true-life tale worthy of James Fenimore Cooper or Victor Hugo. He was unknown; he went bankrupt; he began drawing American birds for a comprehensive survey with not a penny in his pocket; he became a celebrity in England, a veritable rock star, Natty Bumppo with a stick of charcoal in his hand, within a month of arriving there and exhibiting his portfolio of incredible drawings; eventually he was attending dinners at the White House with Andrew Jackson, getting free use of Treasury Department revenue boats for his birding expeditions and inspiring the likes of young Henry David Thoreau.

Q: Your book is the first major biography of Audubon in more than thirty years. How does it revise the general understanding of the man? How did he execute his art?

A: There weren’t any cameras in the early 19th century, nor any binoculars. To draw a bird you had to shoot it. He shot, collected, mounted and drew. After he drew he dissected, investigating the birds’ anatomy and what they ate. Sometimes he shot multiple specimens to determine the type and preserved the skins for museums. And then, since he was out in the wilderness for weeks at a time collecting and drawing, he almost always cooked and ate his catch–which gives an idea of how quickly he could do a drawing. People today don’t realize that wild birds, including songbirds, were considered a valuable food resource in Audubon’s day and were shot in great numbers for sale in local markets, much as wild fish are harvested today.

The subtitle of my book is The Making of an American. Audubon’s life is a great example of how America became America–became the nation with the values we cherish today. Before the War of 1812, Americans thought of themselves in terms of where they had come from–as English, French, German and so on, with the values and character of those countries. After the War of 1812, which was a kind of second American Revolution, proving that we were here to stay, we began to call ourselves Americans, to see ourselves as an independent people who were can-do go-getters, democratic, enthusiastic, a little rough around the edges, self-made. The country had a small population and almost endless natural resources: the sky was the limit.

Audubon’s experiences mirrored that transformation, beginning with the winnowing fire of business failure and bankruptcy after the financial panic of 1819 when he took up his artistic calling. The bastard only son of a wealthy French naval officer and a chambermaid, mostly self-educated, he aspired to create a great work of art that would also be a great work of natural history. The Birds of America, his four-volume work of 435 hand-colored engraved prints–each fully two feet wide and a yard high–gave all the American birds known at that time at life size in all their colorful glory of attitude and display. He’s a paradigmatic example of how America evolved its national character through the individual lives and choices of its people.

He was also a charming man, comically vain about his thick chestnut hair, movie-star handsome, who never lost his French accent. People liked to be around him. To raise money to go to England to have his drawings engraved he taught cotillion dancing in the barns of Louisiana plantations where his Lucy worked as a schoolteacher.

Q: How much formal training as an artist did Audubon have?

A: His father taught him natural history on long walks together into the woods and marshes along the Loire River below Nantes, and he also learned how to observe and dissect birds from a ship’s surgeon and naturalist who was a family friend and who became an important mentor, Dr. Charles-Marie D’Orbigny. How much art training Audubon received isn’t known. From what he wrote later and from how he worked, he seems to have been trained in drawing from manikins, in black chalk portraiture and in drawing in pencil, pastels and watercolor. His great bird drawings are mixed media, primarily pencil and watercolor. He only learned to paint in oils as an adult in America, beginning with lessons in Louisiana in the 1820s. But he didn’t waste the lessons; he painted large oils of wildlife in England that he sold to the English gentry to finance the engraving and publication of his Birds.

Q: Up to that point, you write, ornithological illustration had been lifeless: birds were inevitably drawn perched on branches in profile. How did Audubon’s innovations distinguish him?

A: Birds were drawn so plainly because the illustrations were used for identification, as bird guides are today. Audubon saw the possibility of moving from simple illustration to art. He moved his birds off their perches, put himself at eye level with them and showed them flying, diving, fighting, loving, nesting in full animation and as he said, “at the size of life.” To realize how electrifying his drawings were to his contemporaries you have to remember that the only images available at that time were made by hand–by drawing, painting and engraving. Images were expensive; an oil portrait cost the equivalent of several thousand dollars. There were no cameras, no motion pictures, no television, no computer screens, no glossy full-color magazines. So there was very little in the way of visual stimulation. When Audubon arrived in Liverpool in 1826 with his portfolio of several hundred two-by-three-foot full-color watercolor drawings of American birds set in natural scenes–trees, rivers, shoreline, swamps–he rented an exhibition room and hung the walls with all his drawings. Walking into that room in 1826 would have been like walking into an IMAX theater today–exciting and almost disorienting in its flood of vivid color and animated action.

Q: But his early drawings were static. How did he achieve his spectacular effects?

A: His great challenge was how to set up his freshly-killed specimens so that he could draw them as if animated and alive. He tried drawing in the field, but simply couldn’t get close enough to the birds to sketch them going about their lives–something that’s easy to do today with a camera. He tried suspending his specimens with wires, puppet-like, and made, he said, “some pretty fair signboards for poulterers!” Then he woke up one morning–he was only nineteen at the time, still living on his father’s plantation near Philadelphia–with an inspiration, had his horse saddled, rode to a nearby town, bought some different thicknesses of wire and rushed home. His inspiration was a gridded mounting board studded with sharpened spikes on which he could impale his recently-killed specimens in lifelike positions–positions he had observed carefully in the field. The grid made it easy to transfer an outline to his paper. That was the beginning. He still had years of careful study and work to do before his drawings took on realistic life. Every year or two he deliberately destroyed most of his recent drawings to force himself to improve. It was only in the mid-1820s, when Audubon was in his 30s, that he finally achieved his mature style. The Edinburgh engraver William Lizars had engraved many bird illustrations when Audubon presented his portfolio in 1826. Lizars’ first response to Audubon’s work was, “My God, I never saw anything like this before!”

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