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Audubon: National Treasures—The Five Watercolors for the First Fascicle of "The Birds of America"

November 11, 2011
January 15, 2012

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 eighty-seven fascicles (groups) of five prints. In a brilliant marketing ploy, Audubon packaged each group of five engravings to represent 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 first grouping, the piece de resistance was the magnificent Turkey Cock whose model he painted in watercolor in 1825. Three 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 1821–1822. 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 1,065 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.

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 work 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.

Creative: Tronvig Group