Birds of a Feather
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Orson Welles once remarked that Chaucer’s England was a world where the sky was a little bluer and the hay a little sweeter. The same can be said of John Audubon’s America.
In “Audubon’s Aviary: Parts Unknown,” the second of a three-part series, The New-York Historical Society continues to celebrate the career of the French-born American naturalist, showcasing watercolors by his own hand for the historic double-elephant-folio print edition of “The Birds of America” (1827-38), engraved by Robert Havell Jr., alongside other related works from the series.
The context of this vast publishing venture helps us to take a measure of the man who continues to walk the stage of the American imagination. Within these works converge several avenues of interest — scientific, artistic, even journalistic — as Audubon sought to identify, catalogue, and understand the unfolding encyclopedia of American ornithology as he witnessed it.
The engraved works of the series were available by subscription and were created over a period of 11 years. With an emphasis on water birds this exhibit keeps with Audubon’s original arrangement of images in sets of five, presented sequentially. Intent on posing his feathered subjects in the manner most expressive of their characteristics and personalities, in natural environments portrayed with sympathy and accuracy, he created works full of life and detail.
Audubon preferred to classify his subjects not by taxonomy, which was the normal scientific practice, but rather by his own personal judgement. In the original watercolors we see extra little sketches and drawings of bird’s feet or other details, emphasizing certain physical traits and often including a penciled comment alongside to the engraver, Havell, as to how he wished these to be included.
These elements were all brought together on the page with a sophisticated sense of design. “Black-throated Mango, Study for Havell pl. 184” displays all the grace and delicacy of a tapestry design, as small iridescent birds dart among blossoms of orange and golden yellow.
In “Wood Duck, Havell pl. 206” the cycle of life is shown in two vignettes as a male duck courts and wins a female. In both scenes the female reaches out for the male with tenderness, her webbed feet firmly grasping the branch they sit on. After she prepares the nest, his wings spread to show the characteristic markings of blues and blue-greens, as their breasts shimmer with soft reflection.
Get up close to these watercolors and allow light to rake across them to see the underdrawings. In “Golden Eagle, Havell pl. 181” the feathers rustle with thousands of quick, parallel lines of graphite by Audubon’s own hand, indicating the innumerable barbs of each feather. Clutching its fresh kill, the upward thrust of the bird’s powerful body leaves a distant figure far below — Audubon himself, crossing a chasm upon a felled tree.
In his groundbreaking watercolors he combined multiple artistic mediums — drawing, watercolor, pastel, ink — to achieve a high degree of delicacy and realism as he broke new ground in the discovery of previously unknown species. Here cloudy skies are humid, distant mountain chains soften into mist, and warm breezes rustle the grasses along quiet streams as herons strut, warblers perch, and puffins waddle about.
This was the age of Manifest Destiny, the widely held belief that Americans were to fulfill their destiny by expanding and settling the land. Today, it seems expected of us to cringe at this idea. We have, after all, reached the farthermost shore and now lament what is lost. But this beautiful exhibit is important for reminding us of the American spirit. Sometimes an individual comes along and sums up the greatness of an age. John Audubon was just such a man.
“Audubon’s Aviary: Parts Unknown (Part II of The Complete Flock)” is on view through Monday, May 26, 2014, at The New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, 170 Central Park West, New York, NY, 212-873-3400, nyhistory.org
More information about Robert Edward Bullock’s work can be found at bullockonline.com