Mark your calendar: Early next month, the New-York Historical Society will mount the last of three exhibitions of the dazzling watercolor models created by John James Audubon for his famous masterwork The Birds of America.
Audubon’s Aviary: The Final Flight will open on March 6 and remain on view until May 10. If it’s anything like the previous two installments of Audubon’s Aviary, you won’t want to miss it.
The museum holds all 435 watercolor models for the plates engraved by Robert Havell Jr., plus an additional 39 avian watercolors of birds by Audubon. In this three-part show, the museum is offering us birders and other lovers of wildlife art the unprecedented, and fun, opportunity to explore the watercolors in the order in which they were engraved — the same way that original subscribers received their prints.
The Final Flight tracks Audubon as he gathered birds that had eluded him, mapped new species, and grappled with the latest information from expeditions to the West. Not wishing to lose subscribers, declare bankruptcy, or destroy his health as he completed his great work, he accelerated his schedule and became extraordinarily inventive.
More than 180 species are depicted in the latest exhibition, including Great Auk, now extinct, and California Condor, which is endangered. The show ends with American Dipper, prepared for the final plate of The Birds of America.
Audubon organized his watercolor models and the corresponding Havell plates not by taxonomy, as was the tradition, but according to his judgments, including which watercolors he considered ready for engraving.
He believed this order was closer to that of nature, and it was arguably more interesting for his subscribers because they received their prints in groups of five (usually one large, one medium, and three small). Viewed in this manner, the exhibition examines the struggles and decisions he made to bring his great work to fruition and to market it successfully.
The Final Flight will feature more than 135 Audubon watercolors, including 129 models for fascicles 62–87 (Havell plates 306–435) of The Birds of America, plus six earlier studies of several species that illustrate the development of the artist’s technique.
Highlights of the exhibition include the following:
Western Tanager and Scarlet Tanager
Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) and Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) are among the most colorful species in North America. By combining them in a single work, as was his practice late in the production schedule for The Birds of America, Audubon created a dazzling composition. At its center, he positioned the flamboyant male Scarlet Tanager in flight to spotlight the bird’s spectacular red back, which is concealed when its wings are folded.
Great Gray Owl
Audubon’s noble Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa) seems to turn her head to look at us, with large facial discs around yellow eyes, implying the bird’s ability to move in an instant. The pose was selected by Audubon to illustrate the subtle, monochromatic, almost hallucinatory barred plumage patterns on the bird’s dorsal and ventral sides and its feathered legs. An inhabitant of boreal forests of the Northern Hemisphere, Great Gray is North America’s largest owl, with a wingspan of five feet, although its body mass is smaller than that of either Snowy Owl or Great Horned Owl.
Audubon spotted several flocks of American Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) in the Florida Keys and finally obtained specimens from Cuba. Condensing the large bird’s physical characteristics to fit the double-elephant-size paper, Audubon depicted the bird as though feeding and about to walk off the page.
To create the image, Audubon applied watercolor in the traditional manner, in layers of thin washes of color, which appear under magnification as overlapping tidal edges. To render the brilliant pinks, he built up layers of media and glazing, a technique more common with oil pigment.
Considered by many to be the most splendorous bird of prey and termed a “superb Falcon” by Audubon, Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) is the largest falcon in the world, with a wingspan of 48-64 inches. The bird lives farther north than any other member of the falcon family and breeds on the Arctic tundra, which explains its white plumage.
Audubon depicts two savage-looking Gyrfalcons from a single female bird that he had observed only in captivity, placing them in a stark habitat against a dark blue sky to make them stand out in relief.
The Final Flight will feature audio calls and songs of each species provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, as well as video footage of a selection of species. iPads located in the exhibition galleries will feature the Havell plates for comparison with the watercolors, which reveal major departures from his watercolor models and changes in Audubon’s creative process. You can read more about the exhibition at audubon.nyhistory.org.