In this intimate gallery, visitors have the unique experience of viewing John James Audubon’s spectacular watercolor models for the 435 plates of The Birds of America (1827–38) with their corresponding plates from the double-elephant-folio series, engraved by Robert Havell Jr. The gallery features monthly migrations in publication order that showcase the artist’s creative process and his contributions to ornithological illustration. Other works from New-York Historical’s collection, the world’s largest repository of Auduboniana, illuminate Audubon’s process, and bird calls courtesy of The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology animate the environment. Curated by Roberta J.M. Olson, curator of drawings.
Exhibitions at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the Seymour Neuman Endowed Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. WNET is the media sponsor.
Birds of the Month: Bald Eagle
Audubon portrayed the Bald Eagle four times including this watercolor, his first representation, which is a juvenile with dark plumage and hence does not show the species’ characteristic white or “bald head.” When he painted the work he believed that his model, a juvenile, represented an entirely new distinct species, which he named “The Bird of Washington” in honor of the nation’s first president. Audubon had become a proud American citizen in 1810. “It was in the month of February 1814, that I obtained the first sight of this noble bird,” Audubon wrote, “and never shall I forget the delight which it gave me.” He may have copied this watercolor from an earlier pastel drawing before he cut it out of its sheet and collaged it to its paper support. He inscribed it in an unusual position on the rock on which it stands, a feature which is retained in the plate Havell engraved after it, because the Bald Eagle ranges in height to between 35 and 37 inches, leaving insufficient room on the double-elephant-sized paper for a proper caption.
The Bald Eagle’s recovery is a conservation success story and a great environmental victory. Moreover, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey their numbers have increased between 1966 and 2015. Partners in Flight estimates their global breeding population at 250,000, with 88 percent spending some part of the year in the US. On the Continental Concern Score the species rates a 9 out of 20. Once abundant in North America, Bald Eagles became rare in the mid-to-late 1900s—the victim of trapping, shooting, and poisoning as well as pesticide-caused reproductive failures. In 1973 the bird was placed on the original Endangered Species List under the federal act. Since 1980, with public awareness and the banning of DDT in 1972 (the main pesticide threat), there has been a dramatic resurgence. In June 2007, the bird’s recovery prompted its removal from the Endangered Species list. Continuing threats to Bald Eagle populations, however, include lead poisoning from hunter-shot prey, collisions with motor vehicles and stationary structures, and destruction of habitats. They are also still vulnerable to environmental pollution.
John James Audubon
Arguably the greatest American artist-naturalist, John James Audubon (1785–1851) was the legendary rara avis who created The Birds of America (1827–38). Born in the French colony of Saint Domingue (Haiti), Audubon was the illegitimate son of Jean Audubon, a naval and merchant marine captain, and Jeanne Rabine, a French chambermaid who died six months after his birth. The cloud of illegitimacy would haunt him throughout his life and perhaps drive his genius. In 1788, during the French Revolution, Audubon’s father sent him to his home in Nantes, where he raised by his stepmother and where his incurable passion for nature was sparked as he began to draw birds. In 1803, his father dispatched him to America to oversee the family’s property at Mill Grove outside of Philadelphia, thus preventing his conscription into Napoleon’s army. Audubon immediately fell in love with America’s wildlife, becoming a champion of his adopted country and a citizen in 1812. A few months after his arrival, he met English-born Lucy Bakewell, who he married in 1808. After trying various professions on the frontier, as well as fieldwork observing and drawing birds along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, the self-taught artist decided to dedicate himself to depicting all the birds of North America. Failing to find an engraver in Philadelphia, Audubon sailed for England in 1826, where in Edinburgh he engaged William Home Lizars to etch the plates for The Birds of America. After ten plates, Lizars’s colorists went on strike, forcing Audubon to seek another engraver. In London Audubon found the printmaker Robert Havell and his son, Robert Havell Jr., who proved to be his ideal collaborator.
The success of The Birds of America is a fascinating story of entrepreneurship and heroic dedication. The work ensured the immortality of Audubon, the self-styled “American Woodsman,” who remained in England until 1839 to finish the task and to complete the Ornithological Biography, the text for The Birds. Returning the US to live in New York City, eventually at Minnie’s Land, he and his sons produced multiple octavo editions of The Birds of America, adding new species, as well as The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1845–48). Already by the late 1820s, Audubon was concerned about the disappearance of the American wilderness and some avian species. His appreciation of the natural environment finds expression in the organization named for him, Audubon, formerly the National Audubon Society. Founded in 1905, the national institution succeeded the Audubon Society of New York, which was founded in 1886 by the conservationist George Bird Grinnell, who had been tutored as a youth by Lucy at Minnie’s Land.
Image: Allen & Horton Photographers, Boston (after a miniature of 1831 by Frederick Cruickshank), Carte-de-visite of Audubon, ca. 1861–62. Photographic reproduction on paper, laid on card. New-York Historical Society Library, Gift of Daniel Parish Jr., 1903