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February 18th - April 3, 2005
(above: John James Audubon (1785-1851), Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), 1829, Havell plate no. 116, watercolor, graphite, pastel, and black ink with scratching out and selective glazing on paper, laid on thin board. Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon in 1863)
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 an "urban aviary" with its exhibition, Audubon's Aviary, February 18th through April 3, 2005 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), explained Roberta J.M. Olson, the exhibit's curator. (right: John James Audubon (1785-1851), Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), c. 1825, Havell plate no. 102, watercolor, graphite, pastel, black ink, and charcoal with selective glazing and scratching out on paper, laid on thin board. Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon in1863)
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, produced by Charles Morrow 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. 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", said Olson. "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 200th 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 six week 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. (right: John James Audubon (1785-1851) and George Lehman (c. 1800-1807), Common Raven (Corvus corax), 1829, Havell plate no. 101, watercolor, pastel, black ink, gouache, and graphite with selective glazing on paper, laid on thin board. Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon in 1863)
Highlights include: A discussion with Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Rhodes, who will bring his latest biography on Audubon to N-YHS on February 23. Also, a three-part series will examine nature's pivotal role in the growth of our great city; titled John James Audubon and the Nature of New York and produced in association with Nurture New York's Nature and the New York City Audubon Society. For a full list of upcoming public programs, please see our programs calendar http://www.nyhistory.org/programs.html and to make a reservation call (212) 817-8125 or visit: http://web.gc.cuny.edu/cepp/registration/index.html.
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. Bird calls and video footage were generously provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Wall text from the exhibition:
Editor's note: RL readers may also find of interest these related articles and essays:
and this video:
John James Audubon: The Birds of America is a 29 minute, 1985 National Gallery of Art program directed by Steve York. After bankruptcy in business ventures in the early 19th century, John James Audubon set out on his amazing quest to render the birds of our country. His lifelong dream was realized with the publication of The Birds of America, a magnificent collection of color engravings of his watercolors, and which established Audubon as this nation's preeminent naturalist artist. The video "Traces Audubon's career as a dedicated artist who documented the entire pantheon of American birds and who wrote extensively on nature and the American wilderness. With quotations from his journals and illustrated with his original drawings and engravings, it tells the unique story of Audubon's artistic development and of his uncompromising devotion to his dream of publishing The Birds of America . The works of art are interwoven with live-motion nature photography and footage of sites prominent in Audubon's life and work. with viewer's guide."
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