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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,
1863.17.368

Right:

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,
1863.17.347

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,
1863.17.358

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,
1863.17.380

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,
1863.17.368

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.

 

Creative: Tronvig Group