Get Out of Town with JJ Audubon

Audubon’s Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), Study for Havell pl. 281 (1832). Watercolor, graphite, and pastel on paper, laid on thin board. Courtesy NYHS and Mrs. Audubon

Audubon’s Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), Study for Havell pl. 281 (1832). Watercolor, graphite, and pastel on paper, laid on thin board. Courtesy NYHS and Mrs. Audubon

If you need to get out of town Memorial Day weekend, there’s no better traveling companion than J.J. Audubon, whose original watercolors will transport you to another time and place better than any plane, car, or train. Experience his spectacular show at the New-York Historical Society, Audubon’s Aviary: Parts Unknown: Part II of the Complete Flock today and tomorrow.

Can’t make it in person to New York? Not a problem, because you can tour Mr. Audubon’s show (and more) on a fantastic website that shows you his birds, provides the maps of your journey, and more. True, you won’t enjoy the life-size paintings – shocking when you see them in person – but you’ll learn the entire backstory of JJ’s trips through the Southeast US and Northeast Canada as he did the best-job-ever for his epic Birds of America four-volume series.

In the NYHS gallery in the last several weeks, visitors have been running up to the second floor and grabbing the magnifying glasses to study each brushstroke of these magnificent works. Although they’re mostly watercolor, each painting is enhanced with graphite, pastel, gouache, and ink. Because no one’s perfect, a few have birds pasted in from other pieces of paper, but you really can’t tell unless you study them closely.

A second Great Blue Heron (1834), thought to be another species at the time, with the skyline of Key West, Florida. Courtesy NYHS and Mrs. Audubon

A second Great Blue Heron (1834), thought to be another species at the time, with the skyline of Key West, Florida. Courtesy NYHS and Mrs. Audubon

It’s the first time that NYHS has exhibited JJ’s complete watercolor series, but it’s so big – 474 original watercolors – that they had to break it into three separate shows.

Mrs. Audubon presented JJ’s entire set of original work to NYHS in1862. Her husband had worked so hard on these works of art (he didn’t consider them “scientific”) that she commented that sometimes the birds felt like “her rivals.” Better that NYHS preserve them for posterity.

The museum decided to mount the watercolors in the order in which JJ painted them. On the website, you can revisit Part I, but let’s turn our attention to Part II.

As you’d expect from his trips to the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Labrador, and Newfoundland in 1831-33, the majority of the birds you’ll see live in and around the water. Two spectacular works are of the Great Blue Heron in two color ways. In JJ’s lifetime, the white- and bluish-colored herons were thought to be two separate species (which they’re not), so we’re treated two very large paintings of one fishing from shore and the other enjoying a meal in sight of the Key West skyline across the bay.

Carte–de–visite of John James Audubon. The legacy lives. Courtesy: NYHS

Carte–de–visite of John James Audubon. The legacy lives. Courtesy: NYHS

It’s amazing to consider that JJ started many of these while he was on his journeys, totally outdoing Banksy as a premiere peripetatic creating-art-wherever road warrior. Of course, he did it all without electricity and frequent-flyer miles hauling around gigantic pieces of perfect paper.

Through it’s collaboration with the Cornell Ornithology Lab, the NYHS provides (on the web and on the gallery audio guides) clips of each bird’s distinctive voice. Another nice in-gallery touch is an iPad app that allows visitors to compare each watercolor with the engraved print made in London by Robert Havell, Jr. for the printed books.

Enjoy JJ’s images here.

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