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Audubon’s Aviary: Parts Unknown (Part II of The Complete Flock)

March 21, 2014
May 26, 2014

Audubon’s Aviary: Parts Unknown, Part II of the highly successful tripartite series Audubon’s Aviary: The Complete Flock, will continue showcasing masterpieces from the New-York Historical Society collection of John James Audubon’s preparatory watercolors for the sumptuous double-elephant-folio print edition of The Birds of America (1827–38), engraved by Robert Havell Jr.

John James Audubon, Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), Havell plate no. 211, 1821. Watercolor, oil, pastel, graphite, gouache, black ink, and collage on paper, laid on card. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.211

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.

Audubon’s Aviary Gallery Tour

Roberta Olson
Mon, 04/22/2013 - 11:00
Mon, April 22nd, 2013 | 11:00 am

Note: This event is sold out



This spring, the New-York Historical Society celebrates the sesquicentennial of its purchase of the 470 avian watercolors by Audubon, including the 435 models for The Birds of America, from Lucy Bakewell Audubon in 1863.

Members price: 
Buy Tickets URL: 
Sold out: 

Northern Parula (Parula americana), Study for Havell pl. no. 15

Object name: 
Northern Parula (Parula americana), Study for Havell pl. no. 15
Watercolor, pastel, black ink, graphite, and gouache with selective glazing on paper, laid on card
18 1/2 x 11 5/8 in. (47 x 29.5 cm)
Credit Line: 
New-York Historical Society, Purchased for New-York Historical by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon
Object Number: 
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.

Audubon: National Treasures—Birds of Winter for The Birds of America (1827–38)

January 07, 2013
February 24, 2013

Looking at these four watercolors you are enjoying an experience similar to that of John James Audubon’s (1785–1851) original subscribers to The Birds of America (1827-38). 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.

With Victor Gifford Audubon (1809–1860)
Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta), Havell plate no. 368, ca. 1836–37
Watercolor, graphite, oil, gouache, black ink, pastel, and black chalk with touches of
glazing on paper, laid on card
Purchased for New-York Historical by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon,


Smew (Mergellus albellus), Havell plate no. 347, ca. 1834–35
Watercolor, graphite, pastel, oil, and black ink with scratching out and touches of glazing
on paper, laid on card
Purchased for New-York Historical by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon,

During Audubon’s lifetime American ornithology was in its infancy, and the species of North America birds had not been codified. Nevertheless, some ornithologists considered the Smew common on the East Coast. Like Audubon, the American Ornithological Union today considers the Smew a possible “accidental visitor” or vagrant and an Old World species. It is unlikely that Audubon drew this pair in America, although he claims in the Ornithological Biography to have found one example―the female in the water―many years before he wrote this passage. He could not explain its presence on the Continent. Most likely he executed at least the male flying above the female in this watercolor from a specimen in Great Britain.

Upper Left:

With John Woodhouse Audubon (1812–1862)
Pine Grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator), Havell plate no. 358, 1833–34
Watercolor, graphite, pastel, and black chalk with touches of black ink and glazing
on paper, laid on card
Purchased for New-York Historical by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon,

The Pine Grosbeak, a bird of the boreal forest, is one of the largest “winter finches.” It is found across northern Eurasia and North America, and south into the mountains of western Canada and the United States. It also makes periodic winter irruptions into southern Canada and the U.S. Audubon, possibly assisted by his younger son, John, painted this work during the winter of 1833–34 in Charleston, North Carolina. He wrote that his son had brought back a number of these birds from Newfoundland, which they had visited during their Labrador Expedition in 1833. He depicted the birds perching on branches of the scrub pine. The lower red bird is the male of the species, while the top bird is the juvenile. In the Ornithological Biography Audubon noted that the legs of the older birds of both sexes were covered with sores. “These excrescences are, I believe, produced by the resinous matter of the fir-trees on which they obtain their food . . . and I was surprised that the birds had not found the means of ridding themselves of such an inconvenience.” Note that he depicted the male bird with these sores, and beneath the bird he inscribed the watercolor in graphite with instructions for Havell when engraving it to “pay attention / to make the diseased / legs!”

Middle Left:

Boreal Owl (Aegolius funereus), Havell plate no. 380, 1832
Watercolor, graphite, pastel, and black chalk with touches of black ink on paper,
laid on card
Purchased for New-York Historical by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon,

This small owl of the boreal and montane forests is found throughout Alaska and Canada, as well as across northern Eurasia. In the lower forty-eight states it inhabits only the mountains of the West and the extreme northern area of Minnesota, although it is an occasional winter visitor to other northern states. Audubon used the same male model of this owl species, which lacks ear tufts, from the back and from the front. Because he learned that the female was larger than the male, he showed her from the back with her wings open and feathers fluffed. He procured his model at Bangor, Maine, on the Penobscot River, but wrote that he was unacquainted with the bird’s habits, “never having seen another individual alive.”

Lower Left:

With Victor Gifford Audubon (1809–1860)
Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta), Havell plate no. 368, ca. 1836–37
Watercolor, graphite, oil, gouache, black ink, pastel, and black chalk with touches of
glazing on paper, laid on card
Purchased for New-York Historical by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon,

Audubon positioned his trio of the species in a panoramic landscape with one bird in summer plumage at the left, a juvenile in transition at the center, and one in snow-white winter plumage at the right. Rendered from skins, they form a frieze across the page that conveys movement, almost like stills of a movie. In his Ornithological Biography Audubon noted that he had not seen this species alive. Feather-footed Ptarmigans are extremely hardy birds, making themselves at home well above the Arctic Circle. They run in large flocks, feeding off mosses, lichens, and grasses on windswept hillsides. In some localities Ptarmigans are called “Grouse,” and in others vice versa, creating confusion about their identities. Audubon painted all three birds in Britain about 1836–37, while his older son Victor Gifford probably executed the landscape, mostly in oil.


Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and Thirties New York

June 21, 2013
September 01, 2013

With his calligraphic brushstrokes and densely cluttered, multi-figured compositions, Reginald Marsh recorded the vibrancy and energetic pulse of New York City. In paintings, prints, watercolors and photographs, he captured the animation and visual turbulence that made urban New York life an exhilarating spectacle. His work depicted the visual energy the city, its helter-skelter signs, newspaper and magazine headlines and the crowded conditions of its street life and recreational pastimes.

Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), Twenty Cent Movie, 1936. Egg tempera on composition board, 30 x 40 in. (76.2 x 101.6 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Purchase 37.43 © 2011 Estate of Reginald Marsh / Art Students League, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Reproduction, including downloading this work, is prohibited by copyright law without written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

His subjects were not glamorous or affluent New Yorkers, but those in the middle and lower class—Bowery bums, burlesque queens, Coney Island musclemen, park denizens, subway riders and post-flapper era sirens. Marsh was fascinated by the crass glamour, gaudiness and sexuality these city inhabitants exhibited in public, as well as by the humanity expressed by those living under severe economic and social duress. His technical combination of choppy brushwork and thinly applied tempera created the effect of a continual surface flickering, which causes the eye to move without rest from place to place across the painting. Marsh heightened this sense of agitated and accelerated movement by means of asymmetrically framed scenes and avoidance of an obvious focal point. The result was a sequential unfolding of episodes across his canvas surfaces, which evoked the transience, motion and vitality of New York City in the 1930s.


This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts

Audubon’s Aviary: Part I of the Complete Flock

March 08, 2013
May 19, 2013

For more information on Audubon’s Aviary: Parts Unknown (Part II of The Complete Flock), open March 21-May 26, 2014, click here.
To celebrate the sesquicentennial of the New-York Historical Society’s purchase of the Audubon avian watercolors and the the release of the lavishly illustrated book Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for “The Birds of America”―published by the New-York Historical Society and Skira/Rizzoli and winner of a 2013 New York Book Show Award—the New-York Historical Society plans a sweeping three-part exhibition to showcase every masterpiece from its unparalleled collection of John James Audubon’s preparatory watercolor models for the sumptuous double-elephant-folio print edition of The Birds of America (1827–38). Over three years Audubon’s Aviary: The Complete Flock (Parts I–III), will feature all 474 stunning avian watercolors by Audubon in the collection, alongside engaging state-of-the-art media installations that will provide a deeper understanding of the connection between art and nature.

John James Audubon (1785-1851), Great Egret (Ardea alba), 1821. Watercolor, graphite, pastel, gouache, white lead pigment, black ink, and black chalk with selective glazing on paper, laid on card. New-York Historical Society, Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.18.30

The trilogy Audubon’s Aviary: The Complete Flock is a once-in-a-lifetime series (2013–2015) that will explore the evolution of Audubon’s dazzling watercolors in the order in which they were engraved. Visitors to New-York Historical will have the unique opportunity to view these national treasures sequentially and in their entirety for the first time—the same way his original subscribers received the Havell plates.

Audubon’s Aviary: Part I of the Complete Flock will open with a fascinating look at the self-taught Audubon’s development of his innovative signature depictions and experimental media. To elucidate this early chapter in his life, New-York Historical will supplement its own rich holdings (dating from 1808) by borrowing a selection of the artist’s rare, earliest pastels: eleven from Houghton Library of Harvard University and and fifteen from the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle de la Rochelle, Collection Société des Sciences Naturelles de la Charente-Maritime, in France. The French pastels were only discovered recently and have never been seen outside of La Rochelle. These “early birds” capture Audubon’s youthful excitement about drawing birds while in France and during his first years in America. They also reveal important new discoveries about the renown artist-naturalist’s methods and his early career drawing birds. Following his introduction of early pastels into which Audubon gradually introduced watercolor, the exhibition will feature over 220 of the artist’s avian watercolors, including the first 175 models engraved in The Birds of America.


Exhibition Closures:

April 20: Audubon's Aviary closes at 3 pm

April 25: Audubon's Aviary closes at noon

Lincoln’s and Other Sparrows for The Birds of America

May 13, 2009
December 03, 2009

The New-York Historical Society, which holds all 435 dazzling preparatory watercolors for John James Audubon's The Birds of America (1827-38), continues to showcase a thematic selection of these masterpieces, rotating them to ensure that these national treasures remain available to future generations.

Lincoln's Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii), Havell plate no. 193, 1833, John James Audubon, 1785-1851, Watercolor, graphite, pastel, and gouache with touches of black ink and selective glazing on paper, laid on card, Credit Line: Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.193

Sparrows: Good Things Come in Small Packages

Generally, sparrows tend to be small, plump brown-grey birds with short tails and stubby, powerful beaks. The differences between sparrow species can be subtle. Although they are primarily seed-eaters, they also consume small insects. A few species scavenge for food around cities and, like gulls and pigeons, will happily eat virtually anything in small quantities. Sparrows are physically similar to other seed-eating birds, such as finches, but have a vestigial dorsal outer primary feather and an extra bone in the tongue. The Old World true sparrows are indigenous to Europe, Africa and Asia. In Australia and the Americas, early settlers imported some species which quickly naturalized, particularly in urban and degraded areas. House Sparrows, for example, are now found throughout North America, in every state of Australia except Western Australia, and over much of the heavily populated parts of South America. American sparrows, or New World sparrows, are in a different family, Emberizidae, despite some physical resemblance to their European cousins, such as the seed-eater's bill and frequently well-marked heads.

Paintings >


The New-York Historical Society houses an outstanding collection of over twenty-five hundred American paintings—primarily portraits, genre scenes and landscapes—dating from the colonial period through the twentieth century, as well as a select number of European works. It includes the personal collection of the New York merchant and pioneering art patron Luman Reed, as well as the collection of Robert L. Stuart, another nineteenth-century New York philanthropist and art collector.


Drawings >


One of the jewels in the Museum’s crown is its drawing collection, numbering over 8,000 sheets. Collected since 1816, this distinctive trove is the country’s earliest public drawing collection. It is also one of the finest, whose strength resides in its unparalleled late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century material to furnish a comprehensive survey of American art from its inception, dominated by European artists, up through the 1860s, by which time native-born artists had asserted an American identity.


Highlights >


The New-York Historical Society Museum and Library houses a treasure trove of materials relating to the founding of our country, the history of art in America, and the history of New York and its people. The Museum houses more than 60,000 works and artifacts, including fine art, decorative art, historical artifacts, and ephemera. Fine art holdings include renowned Hudson River School landscapes; masterpieces of colonial and later portraiture; John James Audubon’s watercolors for The Birds of America; an encyclopedic collection of sculpture; and much more.



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