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Audubon's Aviary: Some Things Old, Some Things Borrowed, but Most Things New

February 13, 2009
April 05, 2009

Audubon's Aviary: Some Things Old, Some Things Borrowed, but Most Things New is the final exhibition in a five-part annual Audubon series mounted by the New-York Historical Society. Each Aviary has featured different objects drawn from the Historical Society's permanent Audubon collection, the largest single repository of Audubon objects (Auduboniana) in the world. This final Aviary examines Audubon's connections to his predecessors alongside his radical innovations to illuminate his major contributions to the history of ornithological illustration and to the development of watercolor as a sophisticated medium.

Due to their sensitivity to light, each of the 40 original Audubon watercolors in this show can be exhibited for only a brief period every 10 years. The exhibition, curated by Dr. Roberta J.M. Olson, will be on view from February 13 through April 5, 2009, after which these watercolors will return to the Historical Society's storage for at least ten years.

Audubon's Aviary will be supplemented by a video that underscores Audubon's mastery at encapsulating each bird's personality and unique physical characteristics in a single image, and by a soundscape of recorded birdcalls.

The New-York Historical Society's collection includes all 435 of John James Audubon's known extant watercolors preparatory for the 435 plates in The Birds of America.

Audubon frequently based the poses of his subjects or parts of his compositions on earlier artworks (both European and American) and was influenced by earlier naturalists such as Konrad Gesner, Pierre Belon, George-Louis LeClerc (the Comte de Buffon), Mark Catesby, and even his American rival Alexander Wilson. This final Aviary will include original volumes of many of these early ornithologists' works with text panels discussing these antecedents and Audubon's relationship to them.

Among these antecedents are several recently discovered 16th-century watercolors, preparatory for woodcuts in Gesner's Historiae animalium liber III: Qui est de avium natura . . . (Zürich, 1555), as well as a selection from the Historical Society's cache of more than 200 vivid 16th-century watercolors of birds, many of which predate Gesner's and Belon's treatises published in 1555. These rare works, which trace their provenances to the collection of the Dukes of Devonshire at Chatsworth, represent a missing chapter in the history of ornithological illustration. They are among the first foundations of Audubon's dazzling depictions of birds.

By comparing Audubon's watercolors to earlier achievements in this tradition, the exhibition demonstrates the nature of Audubon's debt to his predecessors and shows just how innovative his watercolors really were. Audubon's Aviary also highlights the work of many bird illustrators whose representations have been overshadowed by Audubon's legend. Long overdue, this investigation of Audubon's place in the history of ornithological illustration blazes new trails in the scholarship on the iconic American artist.

To augment Audubon's Aviary, the New-York Historical Society will present the following talks, walks and tours:
• Tour of the gallery with the exhibition's curator, Roberta J.M. Olson, on February 24, and with wildlife artist Alan Messer on March 21.
• A night of birds, art, and fun with cartoonist Mort Gerberg and wildlife artist Alan Messer on March 5.
• Bird walks in Central Park with Alan Messer on April 25 and May 9.

For a complete list of upcoming public programs, please see our programs calendar. Reservations are suggested. To order tickets, visit smarttix.com or call (212) 868-4444

Creative: Tronvig Group