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John James Audubon, American Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber), Study for Havell pl. 431, 1838. Watercolor, graphite, gouache, black ink, and pastel with glazes on paper, laid on card. New-York Historical Society, Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.431.

NEW YORK, NY.- This spring, the New-York Historical Society concludes its acclaimed series of once-in-a-lifetime exhibitions celebrating the legendary John James Audubon’s original watercolor models for The Birds of America (1827–38). Audubon’s Aviary: The Final Flight (Part III of The Complete Flock) offers an unprecedented opportunity to explore the evolution of Audubon’s dazzling watercolors in the order in which they were engraved. In this final installment of the series of three exhibitions, New-York Historical showcases the final selection of masterpieces from its collection of Audubon’s watercolor models for the sumptuous double-elephant-folio print edition of The Birds of America. The museum holds all 435 watercolor models for its 435 plates, engraved by Robert Havell, Jr., plus an additional 39 avian watercolors of birds by Audubon.

The Final Flight tracks Audubon through the final chapters of gathering the birds that had eluded him, as he also mapped new species and grappled with the latest information from expeditions to the West. Not wishing to lose subscribers, to declare bankruptcy, or to destroy his health, Audubon accelerated his schedule and became extraordinarily inventive in completing his “great work.” Among the more than 180 species depicted, the exhibition includes now extinct birds such as the Great Auk and endangered species like the California Condor. It ends with the American Dipper, for the final Havell plate 435 of The Birds of America, which together with Audubon’s first watercolor model of the Wild Turkey for Havell plate 1 (shown in Part I of The Complete Flock) bracket the North American continent from coast to coast. 

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John James Audubon, Scarlet Ibis (Eudocimus ruber), Havell plate no. 397, c. 1837. Watercolor, graphite, gouache, and pastel with touches of black ink and selective glazing on paper, laid on card. New-York Historical Society, Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.397.

Since Audubon never travelled West of the Missouri River, he depended on the observations and specimens gathered by early explorers of the western territories, such as Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838), as well as the naturalists Thomas Nuttall (1809–1851) and John Kirk Townsend (1786–1859), members of the expedition led by Captain Nathaniel Wyeth (1802–1856) to the Pacific Northwest in 1833–36. Audubon bought a sizeable number of bird skins, specimens and nests from Nuttall in 1836, and then went to Charleston, South Carolina, to paint many of his watercolors of Western species. He continued this work in London, where he consulted specimens of outlier species in private collections and the London Zoological Society. 

Curated by Dr. Roberta J.M. Olson, Curator of Drawings at the New-York Historical Society, the Audubon’s Aviary trilogy allows New-York Historical Society’s visitors the opportunity to view these national treasures sequentially—the same way Audubon’s original subscribers received the Havell prints. Audubon organized his watercolor models and the corresponding Havell plates not by taxonomy, as was the tradition, but according to his judgments, including which watercolors he considered ready for engraving. He believed this order was closer to that of nature, and it was arguably more interesting for his subscribers because they received their prints in groups of five (usually one large, one medium, and three small). Viewed in this manner, the Audubon’s Aviary series examines the struggles and decisions the artist made in order to bring his “great work” to fruition and to successfully market it. 

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John James Audubon, Great Egret (Ardea alba), Havell plate no. 386, 1832. Watercolor, graphite, pastel, collage, gouache, white lead pigment, and black ink with scraping on paper, laid on card. New-York Historical Society, Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.386.

Exhibition Highlights

Part III of The Complete Flock features more than 135 Audubon avian watercolors, including 129 models for fascicles 62–87 (Havell plates 306–435) of The Birds of America, plus six earlier studies of several species that illustrate the development of the artist’s technique. Exhibition highlights include Audubon’s spectacular watercolor portrayals of the following species. 

During the winter of 1836 in Charleston, rushing to complete The Birds of America, Audubon painted an acrobatic tableau of male and female members of the titmouse family: Chestnut-backed Chickadees (Poecile rufescens), Bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus), and Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus). Only one of them, the Black-capped Chickadee, inhabited a part of the country that Audubon knew and he purchased the nest and skins of Western birds that he had not personally observed in nature. Positioning the birds as though drawing a single individual changing positions, the composition moves counterclockwise around the elaborate gourd-shaped hanging nest of the Bushtit. 

The Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) and Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) are among the most colorful species in North America. By combining them in a single work, as was his practice late in the production schedule for The Birds of America, Audubon created a dazzling composition. Since they inhabit the upper canopy of the forest, they are often difficult to see and were more easily heard. At the center of his composition, the artist positioned the flamboyant male Scarlet Tanager in flight to spotlight the bird’s spectacular red back, which is concealed when its wings are folded. 

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John James Audubon, Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea), Havell plate no. 307; sketch of a second bird, ca. 1832. Watercolor, graphite, pastel, and black ink with touches of gouache, scratching out, and selective glazing on paper, laid on card. New-York Historical Society, Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.307.

Considered by many to be the most splendorous bird of prey and termed a “superb Falcon” by Audubon, the Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) is the largest falcon in the world, with a wingspan of 48 to 64 inches. During medieval times, royalty alone could use the Gyrfalcon for hunting. These rare birds live farther north than any other members of the falcon family and breed on the Arctic tundra, which explains their white plumage. Audubon depicts two savage-looking Gyrfalcons from a single female bird that he had observed only in captivity, placing them in a stark habitat against a dark blue sky to make them stand out in relief. 

Audubon’s noble Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa) seems to turn her head to look at us, with large facial discs around yellow eyes, implying the bird’s ability to move in an instant. This posture is typical of owls, which can rotate their heads 270 degrees or more to gain wide-ranging peripheral vision of possible prey. This pose was selected by Audubon to illustrate the subtle, monochromatic, almost hallucinatory barred plumage patterns on the bird’s dorsal and ventral sides and its feathered legs, rendered so subtly by Audubon in multimedia that we feel that we could touch their softness. An inhabitant of boreal forests of the northern hemisphere, the Great Gray is North America’s largest owl with a wingspan of five feet, although its body mass is smaller than that of either the Snowy Owl or Great Horned Owl.

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John James Audubon, Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa), Study for Havell pl. 351, ca. 1834–36. Watercolor, graphite, pastel, and black ink with scratching out and selective glazing on paper, laid on card. New-York Historical Society, Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.351.

Audubon spotted several flocks of American Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) in the Florida Keys and finally obtained specimens from Cuba. This iconic image has been termed a national treasure in its own right and represents one of four species of flamingos native to the Americas. Condensing the large bird’s physical characteristics to fit the double-elephant-size paper, Audubon found a creative way to depict the great bird’s actual size as though feeding and about to walk off the page. To create this image, Audubon applied watercolor in the traditional manner, in layers of thin washes of color, which appear under magnification as overlapping tidal edges. To render the brilliant pinks that flamingos acquire from the carotenoids in their diet of plankton, Audubon built up layers of media and glazing, a technique more common with oil pigment. 

The Final Flight, the swan song of the tripartite series, features audio birdcalls and songs of nearly every species provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to demonstrate the importance of birdsong for species identification, as well as video footage of a selection of species to underscore Audubon’s extensive field observations and the cinematic nature of his portrayals. iPads located in the exhibition galleries feature the Havell plates for comparison with the watercolors, which reveal major departures from his watercolor models and changes in Audubon’s creative process.

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John James Audubon, American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), ca. 1831. Watercolor, graphite, gouache, black ink, and pastel with scraping and touches of glazing on paper, laid on card. New-York Historical Society, Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.18.36.

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John James Audubon, American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), Study for Havell pl. 311, ca. 1831–32. Watercolor, graphite, pastel, and black chalk with touches of black ink, scratching out, and scraping on paper, laid on card. New-York Historical Society,Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.311

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John James Audubon, Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors), Study for Havell pl. 313, 1822; 1830s. Watercolor, oil, pastel, black ink, and graphite with selective glazing on paper, laid on card. New-York Historical Society, Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.313

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John James Audubon, Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), Study for Havell pl. 321, ca. 1831–32; 1836. Watercolor, graphite, gouache, and black ink with touches of glazing on paper, laid on Japanese paper. New-York Historical Society, Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.321

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John James Audubon, Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga), Study for Havell pl. 316; sketch of a neck and head, 1822; 1836. Watercolor, black ink, graphite, pastel, and collage with scraping and selective glazing on paper, laid on card. New-York Historical Society, Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.316.

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John James Audubon, Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica), Study for Havell pl. 346, ca. 1834. Watercolor, graphite, pastel, black ink, black chalk, and gouache with scratching out and selective glazing on paper, laid on card. New-York Historical Society, Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.346.

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John James Audubon, Green Heron (Butorides virescens), Study for Havell pl. 333, ca. 1821–22. Watercolor, graphite, collage, pastel, gouache, and black ink with scratching out and selective glazing on paper, laid on card. New-York Historical Society, Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.333.

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John James Audubon, Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis), Study for Havell pl. 329; sketch of a feather, 1821; 1830s. Oil, graphite, watercolor, black ink, and pastel on paper, laid on card. New-York Historical Society, Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.329.

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John James Audubon, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron(Nyctanassa violacea), Study for Havell pl. 336, 1831. Watercolor, graphite, pastel, black ink, collage, black chalk, and gouache with touches of white lead pigment, scratching out, and selective glazing on paper, laid on card . New-York Historical Society, Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.336.

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John James Audubon, Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus), Study for Havell pl. 326, 1833. Watercolor, graphite, pastel, black chalk, black ink, collage, and gouache with scratching out and scraping on paper, laid on card. New-York Historical Society, Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.326.