Published: December 9, 2003
New York, N.Y. – A spectacular selection of 47 original watercolor drawings by John James Audubon is on view in “Birds of Central Park: Audubon’s Watercolors” at the New-York Historical Society. This exhibit is a rare opportunity for visitors to the historical society to see so many of Audubon’s original watercolors at one viewing. These drawings are the life-size originals from which were made the exquisite prints, also life size, of The Birds of America published by Robert Havell, Jr, in London.
The New-York Historical Society has mounted the show in celebration of the 150th anniversary of its neighbor, Central Park. The dramatic images depict birds that are full-time residents or migratory birds seen in Central Park that Audubon made for The Birds of America, published between 1827 and 1838. The historical society acquired the works by subscription from Audubon’s widow Lucy Bakewell Audubon in 1863, 12 years after the artist’s death. That the originals have survived in pristine condition, except for two that are missing, is remarkable.
Normally the New-York Historical Society displays only four of the watercolors each quarter because of their fragility. But, in honor of the anniversary of the park, which is one of the most important natural bird sanctuaries in North America, the customary number has multiplied more than tenfold.
John James Audubon was an extraordinarily talented self-taught artist and knowledgeable naturalist who began his watercolor series in 1820. The work was his passion. While his prints themselves are compelling in their precision and beauty, the original images are extraordinarily beautiful in color and form and they are singularly rare. Meticulously detailed, the watercolors are rendered crisply using such innovative media as adhesive, overglazes, pastels, egg white, ink, collage, metallic pigment, pulverized graphite, chalk and gouache. The results are a masterful blending of fine art and exact science.
Before making any painting, Audubon painstakingly observed the birds in their habitat, sometimes for days in the wild, sometimes even for decades, which resulted in a seldom-seen ornithological and botanical clarity. Audubon’s observations enabled him to capture the birds in glorious detailed life-size images. He portrayed the birds, male and female, young and old, in habitat — eating, fighting and in flight — using high quality wove watercolor paper from three English paper mills J Whatman, J Whatman Turkey Mill and Turkey Mills J Whatman in double elephant size (391/2 by 291/2 inches), elephant size (23 by 28 inches) and medium size (171/2 by 22 inches). He carried the paper into the fields and forests of early Nineteenth Century America where he observed the birds and drew them, later sending them to Havell in England for engraving. After Havell completed the copper plates in 1839, Audubon shipped the watercolors back to the United States where they were exhibited publicly for the last time at the Lyceum of Natural History in New York.
Roberta J.M. Olson, the associate curator of drawings at the New-York Historical Society, describes Audubon’s incredible sense of the materials and unerring sense of quality, which, she said, resulted in very little degradation in the quality of the watercolors. The originals bear Audubon’s and his engraver’s extensive notations and much can be learned from them. She also describes the artist as a humanist and an ecologist, noting that in his journals he rued the fact that he saw fewer Carolina parakeets in one spot than he had seen on previous visits. On a practical note, Olson describes the trimming and tack marks left on the originals from Audubon’s traveling exhibits when he was trying to raise money for their publication.
According to Olson, Audubon’s primary goal was to make the birds look alive and his success is indisputable. Olson notes that Audubon made several thousand strokes of graphite over watercolor and pastels to define one bird’s tail feathers.
What might an original Audubon watercolor fetch if it came to market?
Kenneth Newman of The Old Print Shop in New York said he could not even hazard a guess but the price for an original Audubon watercolor would probably be “whatever you could imagine.” Newman said he has seen the originals several times when they have been on view in the past. “Always a treat,” he said, “Extraordinary!” The Old Print Shop has handled nine sets of Havell’s The Birds of America over the years since the shop was founded in 1898.
Audubon dealer Julian Taverner of Haley & Steele in Boston said, “The original work is for sale so infrequently that it is difficult to say with any accuracy. Any watercolor for The Birds of America must be considered a treasure. One could see prices for one watercolor in the hundreds of thousands, if not more. Audubon is such an icon of American natural history of art that there would be heavy competition for such a piece.” Taverner describes the artist using the terms “genius” and “enigma.” He has written extensively on Audubon. His latest book just out, The Birds of the Northeast, is annotated with Audubon’s comments on the images.
Stuart P. Whitehurst, head of Skinner’s books and manuscripts department thought for a minute about the prospect of an original Audubon watercolor for sale, “Jeez-o-Pete!” he said. “If a snowy owl print brings $80,000 to $100,000, just think what an original watercolor might fetch!” He, too, declined to cite figures.
The society also has a complete set of the original double-elephant folio edition, of which about 220 were made, bound in four volumes. Included among the images on view is a comparison of Audubon’s preparatory watercolor for “The House Wren,” along with the copper plate and the hand colored print of the plate number 83 from the society’s own volume. The juxtaposition allows an overview of the gradations in the process of creating just one image for Birds of America.
Audubon documents, books and other relevant objects are also on view, including a monogrammed purse that Lucy Bakewell Audubon sewed for her husband to hold the tip money for footmen and doormen in his travels in the United State and Europe to sell subscriptions for The Birds of America.
“Birds of Central Park: Audubon’s Watercolors” remains on view through February 15 at the New-York Historical Society, Two West 77th Street.
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