Audubon: National Treasures—The Five Watercolors for the Second Fascicle of "The Birds of America"
Looking at these five watercolors you are enjoying an experience similar to that of John James Audubon’s (1785–1851) original subscribers to The Birds of America (1827-1838). In distributing its 435 plates, he followed a nineteenth-century practice of issuing them serially by subscription in 87 fascicles (groups) of five prints. In a brilliant marketing ploy, John James Audubon packaged each group of engravings to consist of three small, one medium, and one large, spectacular species. The latter fully exploited the double-elephant-size paper, the largest then available, used for the prints and the watercolors of the biggest birds. In the second grouping, the pièce de résistance was the Wild Turkey (hen and chicks). Two of the other four preparatory watercolors date from an intense early period of studying birds in the company of his best pupil from Cincinnati, Joseph Mason (1808–1842), who painted many of the botanical specimens during 1821-22. All five prints after these watercolor models were initially engraved by William Home Lizars (1788–1859) in Edinburgh and retouched later by Robert Havell Jr. (1793–1878) in London.
The 435 hand-colored aquatints and etchings of The Birds of America contain at least 1,026 life-size birds representing around 500 species (a number that changes as DNA evidence alters modern taxonomy). This deluxe edition, considered the most spectacular color folio print series ever produced, remains one of the world’s preeminent natural history documents.
John James Audubon (1785–1851)
Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), Havell plate no. 6, 1820
Pastel, watercolor, oil, graphite, and black ink on paper, laid on card
Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.6
Five years before painting his turkey cock (1863.17.1), which completed this family of fowl, Audubon portrayed its mate sprinting with her nine poults in tow in this ambitious tableau. The hen in this work is “leading her young progeny, with measured step and watchful eye, through the intricacies of the forest. The chickens, still covered with down, are running among her feet in pursuit of insects. One is picking its sprouting plumelets, while another is ridding itself of a tick which has fastened upon its little wing,” wrote Audubon. Embedded in their customary habitat, the poults are camouflaged in a tapestry of the forest floor. Audubon delineated the hen mostly in pastel, his preferred medium at this early date, while traveling down the Mississippi River from Cincinnati in 1820. He later added the brood of chicks in watercolor and mixed media, and finally the background in oil.
Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), Havell plate no. 7, 1825
Watercolor, graphite, pastel, black chalk, gouache, and black ink with scratching out and selective glazing on paper, laid on card
Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.7
“Look at them,” Audubon wrote about the Common Grackle in his Ornithological Biography (1831-39). “The male, as if full of delight at the sight of the havoc which he has already committed on the tender, juicy, unripe corn on which he stands, has swelled his throat, and is calling in exultation to his companions to come and assist him in demolishing it. The female has fed herself, and is about to fly off with a well-loaded bill to her hungry and expectant brood. . . . See how the husk is torn from the ear, and how nearly devoured are the grains of corn!” In Audubon’s time, this opportunistic species was considered a pest by farmers because of its fondness for grain. According to recent surveys, its numbers are declining rapidly due to habitat loss. The grackle, along with other threatened or endangered avian species, is the canary in the coal mine for the entire planet.
With Joseph Mason (1808–1842)
White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis), Havell plate no. 8, 1822
Watercolor, graphite, pastel, gouache, black ink, and white lead pigment with selective glazing on paper, laid on card
Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.8
In his effort to provide the most accurate ornithological information, Audubon depicted both the male and female of the species, thus showcasing their very different plumages, as they perch naturalistically on a dogwood branch. The bird’s crisp facial markings make the White-throated Sparrow an attractive bird to watch. Note the black eye stripe, the white crown, and the yellow lores. Its pretty multi-toned whistle makes it an engaging songster. Sparrows tend to be small, plump brown-gray birds with short tails and stubby, powerful beaks. The differences between species can be subtle. Primarily seed-eaters, they also consume small insects. A few species scavenge for food around cities and, like gulls and pigeons, will eat virtually anything in small quantities. Sparrows are physically similar to other seed-eating birds, such as finches, but have a vestigial dorsal outer primary feather and an extra bone in the tongue. Many are threatened because of the disappearance of their habitats.
With Joseph Mason (1808–1842)
Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia citrina), Havell plate no. 9, 1821
Watercolor, graphite, pastel, and gouache with touches of black ink and glazing on paper, laid on card
Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.9
At first Audubon believed this immature warbler was a new species, and he called it the “Lousiana Fly Catcher.” Later, he renamed it “Selby’s Flycatcher” to honor Prideaux John Selby, the author of Illustrations of British Ornithology (1819-34). According to the sheet’s inscription, Audubon drew the bird on July 1, 1821, while he was working as a tutor at Oakley, James Pirrie’s plantation in Louisiana. His former pupil, Joseph Mason, collaborated on the exquisite pheasant’s-eye plant.
American Pipit (Anthus rubescens), Havell plate no. 10, c. 1819
Pastel, watercolor, graphite, gouache, and black ink on paper, laid on card
Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.10
During Audubon’s lifetime this bird was considered identical to the water pipits he had seen in Europe. Only recently, in 1998, the American Ornithological Union split the species into two. John James Audubon probably executed this tableau in Kentucky in 1819 or before that time, because its primary medium is pastel, his early medium of preference, and its composition is related to his work in the years between 1810 and 1819. He represented the male at the left and his mate engaged in the pursuit of an insect. This sheet was one of the more than two hundred drawings that Audubon exhibited in his first public exhibition in 1826 in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Watercolors for The Birds of America (1827-1838)
In 1863, Lucy Bakewell Audubon (1787–1874), the widow of John James Audubon ―arguably the most gifted naturalist-illustrator of the nineteenth century―sold to the New-York Historical Society her husband’s preparatory watercolors for his seminal The Birds of America (published serially in London). New-York Historical owns all the known preparatory watercolors for its 435 plates, engraved by Robert Havell Jr., as well as additional alternate studies. Due to their sensitivity to light, which could damage the fugitive pigments and the paper, only a small selection of these masterpieces are displayed at a single time. The watercolors are rotated on a quarterly basis to limit the potential damage caused by their exposure, ensuring that these national treasures are available to future generations.