At the dawn of ornithology, 16th-century artists aspired to portray birds lifesize, but the largest paper available measured roughly 11 x 16 inches, allowing only smaller species to be depicted lifesize. Three hundred years later, John James Audubon was able to depict, for the first time, larger species thanks to technological innovations that perfected high-quality, large-size watercolor paper with a smooth surface.
Featuring 28 works from two time periods, Big Bird: Looking for Lifesize contrasts a group of exceptional European watercolors from the 1500s—which were recently featured to great acclaim in an exhibition in France—with spectacular examples of the rarest jewel of the New-York Historical Society’s extraordinary Audubon collection: the cache of watercolor models by Audubon in the special folio series The Birds of America, engraved by Robert Havell Jr. In contrast to the 16th-century artists, Audubon portrayed species lifesize on double-elephant-size-paper, around 40 x 26.5 inches.
Audubon’s watercolors display his brilliant contributions to ornithological illustration and his inventive use of the medium, while the 16th-century “portraits” document one of the most complex, early scientific efforts to catalogue natural phenomena taxonomically. This fascinating exhibition is as much an aesthetic journey as it is a demonstration of how technological innovation—of something even as simple as paper—can influence art and our understanding of nature.
The Audubon watercolors were purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, and the sixteenth-century avian works were the gift of Nathaniel H. Bishop.
Exhibitions at the New-York Historical Society are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.