Parts Unknown will consider Audubon as an established artist-naturalist, a world citizen, and a celebrity in an expanding nation—no longer the young Frenchman who created the “early birds” displayed in the first installment. This once-in-a-lifetime exhibition follows Audubon into uncharted territories—geographic, artistic, and scientific—as he encountered and mapped new species and grappled with the disappearing illusion of America’s infinite wilderness. It galvanized his awareness about the necessity of conserving species and habitats. Most of the watercolors in Parts Unknown (studies for Havell plates 176-305) depict water birds, many of which are among Audubon’s most spectacular and largest birds, with numerous studies begun during his southeastern explorations and on his Labrador Expedition.
The exhibition is accompanied by the lavish book Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for “The Birds of America” (published by New-York Historical Society and Skira/Rizzoli), which sheds new light on the artist. It has garnered many awards, among them: Outstanding Permanent Collection Catalogue Prize of 2013 (by the Association of Art Museum Curators) and the 2013 Henry Allen Moe Prize for Catalog of Distinction in the Arts. This once-in-a lifetime trilogy explores Audubon’s dazzling watercolors in the order in which they were engraved, affording visitors the unique opportunity to view them sequentially, like his original subscribers, and in their entirety. Audubon organized The Birds of America not by traditional taxonomic order, but according to his aesthetic and practical judgments. He believed this manner of presentation was closer to Nature’s own. Calls and songs of each species provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, together with video footage, will demonstrate the importance of birdsong for species identification and underscore Audubon’s extensive field observations that animated his great work, The Birds of America.
View Curator Roberta Olson discuss selected works on our YouTube page.
Swans are the largest members of the waterfowl family Anatidae (genus Cygnus) and among the largest flying birds. The largest species, including the Trumpeter Swan, can reach a length of over 60 inches and weigh over 33 pounds. Their wingspans can almost reach ten feet. No wonder that they presented a real challenge to ornithological illustrators. Compared to closely related geese, they are much larger and have proportionally larger feet and necks. The sexes are alike in plumage, but males are generally bigger and heavier. The Northern Hemisphere species when mature have pure white plumage but the South Hemisphere species are mixed black and white. The Australian Black Swan is completely black except for white flight feathers.
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.