The New York Historical Society | March 6 – May 10, 2015
In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War and facing family financial hardship, Lucy Bakewell Audubon (John James’s widow) sold her husband’s portfolio of original paintings executed in preparation for his engraved and hand-colored masterwork The Birds Of America (1827 – 38) to the New York Historical Society. Beginning in 2005 until this final show, the Historical Society has been exhibiting the luminous original compositions in a series. The opportunity to view these extraordinary works in the almost 200 years since their inception is a significant one. Against the background of a country long matured of its early republican reverie and grappling with a heavily-clouded American Dream, Audubon’s romantic, yet scientifically accurate incantations of New World flora and fauna can almost revive the spirit of post-Enlightenment optimism that shaped the narrative of revolutionary possibility in his time.
Audubon’s autobiography and single-minded intent in getting The Birds of America (TBOA) published can, in a modern light, be read as its own illustration of what a contemporary progressive artist’s profile might look like. He was born illegitimately in a third world country, travelled to Europe to live with an adoptive and multi-racial “blended” family and emigrated to the United States to wind up making a largely precarious living from his skills as an artist. The lifestyle was itinerant; he exhibited his work in European salons in order to fund what is essentially a collaborative “social sculpture”: TBOA. Despite its subsequent iterations in dilute reproductions as coffee-table diversion, Audubon’s hefty original tome demanded a concerted effort to produce, maintain, and view. An example of a specially designed cabinet that facilitated the turning of its almost 40 × 30˝ pages is on view here, redolent of considered contemplation and committed investment to the art of science and its sentimental education. The sheer physicality of the work was an undeniably life-sized analogue for the natural world that Audubon cherished.
The originals offer an intimate view of the artist’s processes and field notes. He employed a highly inventive array of techniques to achieve the sublime verisimilitude of his feathered subjects. These included graphite drawing, ink, watercolor, gouache, oil, collage, and scratching and scumbling of the surfaces of his compositions. His penciled notations are all over these works, sometimes scientific, sometimes technical, directions for his masterful printer Robert Havell Jr., but also often just quotidian marginalia of a day’s exploration, bringing the artist and naturalist as vividly to life as his birds.
These collected works, besides embodying an ecstatic, Late-Romantic realism, also effectively represent an essential document of early naturalism on par with Charles Darwin’s field diaries. Darwin later quoted Audubon three times in On the Origin of the Species. The uncannily rendered Wild Turkeys, Barred Owls, Golden Eagles, and Mute Swans, along with a vast array of finches, flycatchers, shorebirds, and too many other categories to mention, can at times send a shiver down one’s back, choreographed as they are in the artist’s rhythmic compositional syntax—one that is seemingly inspired in part by the graphic dynamic symmetry of Japanese ukiyo-e prints. One such striking composition pictures the dramatic moment when a Golden Eye Duck male is “winged” by a hunter’s bullet while its female mate brakes in mid-air in a split second reaction. This work directly inspired Winslow Homer’s later painting entitled “Right and Left” (1909) in which two Goldeneyes are killed simultaneously by a shotgun blast. The Homer figuratively ups the ante on the tragic, melodramatic content of his painting in a curiously dispassionate way while Audubon’s original manages to get inside of the bird’s experience of the event. His contemporaries and some ornithologists today have taken Audubon to task for what they deem his dramatic anthropomorphizing of his subjects, but as Roberta J.M. Olson subtly states in the show’s beautiful and informative catalogue, the artist’s poetic license “should be understood as his way of conveying the behavior of the animal orders through human parallels.” Audubon, in other words, didn’t project a maudlin sentimentality onto his subjects, as much as he infused them with a deep empathic understanding of natural selection, procreation, and death.
He did so with a truly photographic memory that aided him in avoiding the academic stylizations of his contemporaries like Alexander Wilson in the United States and John Gould of England. One stunning example of his animated eidetic is evident in a painting of the “Yellow-Breasted Chat” (1829). Here a grouping of males in courtship flight caper over a nesting female in what today would be deemed stop-motion precision. The animate aspect of these works is therefore given priority, formally and technically, to any shallow emotional appeal.
And Audubon’s eye is not the only one handy in these paintings. The conception, execution, and delivery of TBOA was a necessarily collaborative project from its beginning. These contributions came from other artists, writers, and naturalists from both America and Europe. While Audubon was the primary author (but not in every case) of the actual birds, many other artists—including Audubon’s sons and a gifted friend of the family, Maria Martin—executed the equally accomplished backgrounds of his works. Prior to their ultimate goal to be engraved in copperplate (some of which were helpfully exhibited here as well), these works sincerely represent the collaged potential of a social sculpture to capture and transcend the simple illustration of both human and animal nature. The Birds of America project might be looked upon wistfully now with “et in Arcadia ego” echoing in the collective mind of a hemisphere now older, less lush, and considerably more distracted from its native flora and fauna. Contemporary environmental concerns have taken an abstract turn. The macrocosmic narrative of a global metabolism under duress can drown out the quotidian joy of discovering a mockingbird’s nest in a juniper bush. The Brooklyn Rail’s name was partly inspired by the genus of rails, an elusive marsh bird that despite centuries of human encroachment and despoliation, still abides in the brackish estuaries of New York City and its environs. A reconsideration of Audubon’s Birds as a similarly resilient species of collaborative publication can hopefully bring issues of sustainable co-existence closer to home.