View Bird’s Eye: John James Audubon

I recently attended a fascinating joint exhibition in New York City of the work of John James Audubon. The first was at the American Museum of Natural History, which has renovated a space that had not been open to the public for decades and installed as its first exhibition The Unknown Audubons: Mammals of North America.

This exhibit has many examples from the second great project of Audubon’s live, an attempt to document and depict all North American mammals. Many of the paintings were done during an extended trip along the Missouri River in the summer of 1843. Audubon was accompanied by his sons John Woodhouse Audubon and Victor Gifford Audubon, both of whom were accomplished painters, and by naturalist John Bachman, who helped to identify the animals. Many of the backgrounds of the pictures were painted by the Audubon sons, and John W Audubon did many of the complete pictures in the finished work “The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.”

The hall itself is well worth the trip. It was built back in the 1930’s and hasn’t been open to the public for over sixty years. It is long with high ceilings and a subtle lighting very appropriate for the display of these fine works.

The companion exhibit (a ticket to one entitles you to admission to the other) can be found across the street at the New York Historical Society, Audubon’s Aviary: Natural Selection. The NYHS acquired all but one of the orginal drawings of Audubon’s famed The Birds of North American from his widow in the 1860’s (the last one was acquired a few decades later). The exhibit features forty of the original drawings, along with several of the books produced from them, including a copy of the large “Double Elephant Folio” version.

Though I had seen some of these watercolors many years ago I had never examined them closely, and this exhibit even provided magnifying glasses permitting close inspection. One bird in particular stands out: the Great Egret. Audubon painted this bird several times. The accompanying notes relate that he found this the most difficult to paint, and that the bird has been adopted as the symbol of Audubon (the group that used to be known as the Audubon Society). The long tail of this bird is represented by a network of shaded white lines. The level of detail has to be seen to be fully appreciated, especially in that the lines are so long and thin yet there is no sign of a waver or error in the drawing of them. You can get a rough sense from the following image.

The exhibits are also of interest in the the Birds book was prepared using engraving and the Mammals book was published using lithography, a then new technology that established itself in the intervening years, and so provides a setting to compare these two technologies. Audubon’s widow came into possession of all the plates used for the Birds book, and tried to sell them to a museum when she had need for some money. She was unable to do so, and thus sold them for scrap. Only about a quarter of the plates survive, thanks to the teen-aged son of a foundry owner who took an interest in them. The NYHS has four of the surviving plates and one of them is on display.

Both exhibits are fun and informative. Audubon’s work is unique in recording birds and animals at a time when their native environments were still intact, as well as depicting them at the highest artistic level while recording valuable scientific information, and published using hand-crafted technologies whose like we shall not see again.

Though the day was cold, there were signs of spring in the air. Across the street in Central Park we could see the first leaves on the trees and even a few daffodils. The NYHS exhibit even included Audubon’s drawing of a Baltimore Oriole, the one that flies not the one that catches flies.

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