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John James Audubon: National Treasures—Summer Swans A-swimming for The Birds of America (1827–38)

July 09, 2013 - October 13, 2013

This installation in our Audubon Niche features a rotating selection of watercolors from John James Audubon's The Birds of America. The current installation includes the Trumpeter Swan and Tundra Swan. 

John James Audubon (1785–1851), Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus), Havell pl. 411, 1838. Watercolor, graphite, oil, black ink, black chalk, and white gouache? with touches of pastel and glazing on paper, laid on card. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.411

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.

 

Creative: Tronvig Group