Audubon’s Aviary, Part I

J.J. AudubonThe New-York Historical Society has begun it’s three year, three-part exhibit of John James Audubon’s preparatory studies for his masterwork. These were the watercolors that Audubon gave to his printer, Robert Havell, in London, who then made the prints for the multi-volume Birds of America. “Preparatory study” is an understatement, however, for these incredibly detailed works.

The exhibit also includes some of Audubon’s juvenalia, his “early birds,” including the swallow above. More than a dozen of these early works were only recently discovered and have never before been seen outside France. They nicely document the young artist’s development in both France and America.barnswallowAudubon is an extraordinarily complex figure. He killed all the birds he portrayed, and many more besides, yet realized and worried that such species as the Passenger Pigeon and the Carolina Parakeet were disappearing precisely because of encroaching humans; his name now graces one of the most well-known conservation organizations (it was founded after his death). He sold an already hokey image of the American frontier to Europe by wearing buckskin and dressing his long locks with — gross — bear grease, playing the mountain man role to the hilt, and then some. Some of his images are more dramatic — more Romantic — than naturalistic (yes, I know, a loaded word); I lost count of the snake/bird battle-royales he staged. (And all the images were staged, since he worked with dead specimens.)

A fascinating story of art and ambition, and, especially for the larger birds, a stunning ability to imbue watercolor, gauche, and ink with vitality. This exhibit will pay close study.bobwhites

3 Responses to “Audubon’s Aviary, Part I”


  1. 1 alphonsegaston March 15, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    I have never been a great admirer of his work because they are so dead, so staged. Especially the snake ones, as I am afraid of snakes anyway.

  2. 2 alphonsegaston March 16, 2013 at 3:25 am

    Matt, every time I leave a comment, I get a notice that I have to sign up again as a subscriber. Don’t know why–I have been following for several months at least.

    • 3 mthew March 16, 2013 at 8:02 am

      Hmmm, I don’t know why that should be. There is a subscribe to the comments feature, which I’ve never frankly understood. Maybe this is what you are doing? (P.S., please call me Matthew)


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