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John James Audubon: National Treasures

This installation in our Audubon Niche features a rotating selection of watercolors from John James Audubon's The Birds of America. These three works depict Audubon's ability to suggest the time of year and weather through more than changing plumage, foliage, and rare landscapes. Ahead of his time, Audubon, who is considered America’s first great watercolorist, was revolutionary and his art  experimental. In fact, his watercolors are timeless, which is why they speak to us today.

Least Tern (Sternula antillarum), Havell pl. 319, 1821; ca. 1833. Watercolor, collage, graphite, and gouache with touches of black ink and black chalk, and scratching out on paper, laid on card, 21 3/8 x 15 in. (54.3 x 38.1 cm). Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.319


January 14–March 9: Birds of Winter from The Birds of America (1827–38)

The double-elephant-size The Birds of America (1827–38) contains 435 plates, engraved by Robert Havell Jr., with images of 1,037 individual large birds and over ninety-nine smaller ones in the backgrounds. There are 1,026 individuals in the foregrounds of the extant watercolors that Audubon used as models; he sometimes instructed Havell to add others to the backgrounds. In aggregate they represent just under five hundred species (a number that constantly 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.

Please note that the exhibition Audubon’s Aviary: Part II of The Complete Flock (March 21–May 26, 2014) will include many of the water birds from his southern travels and on the Labrador Expedition. It will feature the watercolor models for Havell plates 201–305 (fascicles 36–61). Part III of The Complete Flock (March 13–May 10, 2015) will highlight his final groups (fascicles 62–87), when he was rushing to complete his quest and, therefore, represented western species to bookend the North American continent.

Creative: Tronvig Group