The American Museum of Natural History is a familiar destination for many suburbanites, but far fewer members of the bridge and tunnel crowd have visited its neighbor, the New-York Historical Society (NYHS).
By Paul Hicks
The American Museum of Natural History is a familiar destination for many suburbanites, but far fewer members of the bridge and tunnel crowd have visited its neighbor, the New-York Historical Society (NYHS). If you go there before May 27, you can see masterpieces from the Society’s unique collection of Audubon’s watercolors, which served as the models for his famous collection of prints, published as “The Birds of America” during the mid-nineteenth century. The Guardian newspaper called it “a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition.”
This is the second of a three-part series of annual exhibitions called “Audubon’s Aviary: The Complete Flock,” which are being shown in the spring, appropriately coinciding with the migration season. The day we were there, the exhibition was filled with young schoolchildren armed with audio guides that allowed them to listen to the songs and calls of birds represented in the more than 125 paintings on display. To enliven the works of art even more, there is a streaming video that shows action photos of birds in the wild along with Audubon’s depictions of them.
The exhibition appeals not just to bird lovers but also attracts many others because of Audubon’s artistic excellence as well as his lasting influence on the worldwide fields of natural history and conservation. His naturalistic illustrations of birds and their habitats were revolutionary for their time, and as one reviewer wrote, the exhibition “does not just unveil the work of a naturalist jettisoning the analytical still lifes of earlier ornithological catalogs but also the work of an artist who saw the human and the natural intertwined…”
John James Audubon was as colorful an early American character as Boone and Crockett and as adventurous as Lewis and Clark. Dressed as a frontiersman and carrying his gun and paint box, he traveled from the deep south to the far north and made several excursions into the western wilderness. Even when he was in England he wore his back-woods costume to help promote the sale of his art, adding bear grease to his hair, which like Ben Franklin, was topped with a coon skin cap.
The financial success enjoyed by Audubon from “The Birds of America” and other publications of his art in both Europe and America provided enough funds for him to purchase an estate on the Hudson River in what later became the Washington Heights section of New York City. However, after his death in 1851, his family’s fortunes declined substantially, and his widow was forced to sell the family home as well as all of the watercolors in 1863. Fortunately, the NYHS was able to raise $4,000 in the midst of the Civil War to make the purchase and keep the priceless collection of paintings intact and in New York.
Assuming the price paid by NYHS had increased one hundred times during the intervening years to a current value of $400,000, it would not begin to approach the real monetary value of the collection. As a comparison, a beautiful, complete (four volumes) set of “The Birds of America” was sold at auction in December 2010 for slightly over $11.5 million, a record price to-date. Just over 100 complete sets of the prints are known to exist, so imagine what the only collection of the original watercolors would be worth.
As fine as the Audubon prints are, the watercolors are even finer. One of the most arresting images in the current exhibition is his painting of a Golden Eagle shown flying high above snow-capped mountains as it ascends to its nest with a freshly killed hare in its talons. It is a graphic illustration of nature as “red in tooth and claw,” in Tennyson’s memorable phrase.
At the bottom of the painting a tiny figure is seen crawling along a tree trunk across a vast ravine. On closer inspection, the miniature scene portrays a hunter dressed in buckskin and carrying a rifle with another bird slung over his back. It most likely represents Audubon himself, demonstrating the risks he took to create such an extraordinary work of art. Interestingly, when this image of the Golden Eagle was reproduced as a print in “The Birds of America” it did not include any sign of the hunter.
Whether or not you are able to see the exhibition at the NYHS before it closes on May 26, you might want to see some excellent reproductions of the NYHS watercolors which are hanging in the art gallery at the Audubon center in Greenwich. For more information about the current selection of “Audubon’s 50 Best Watercolors” and directions, go to the Audubon Greenwich website, http://greenwich.audubon.org/. If you get excited enough to purchase one of the replicas from the publisher, Joel Oppenheimer Inc., I would suggest the Fish Hawk (Osprey) at $5,500.