It feels like blasphemy to admit it, but I have for some time felt over-Auduboned. In the world of ornithological and environmental studies, reproductions of John James Audubon’s work abound. Coffee mugs, posters, websites: he’s everywhere. Overexposure produces ennui. Surely North American bird art has more to offer than the endless repetition of these 19th century engravings?
A visit to the recently opened exhibition at the New-York Historical Society cracked my armor, snapping my senses out of their laziness. The exhibition is the first of a three part celebration of the watercolor studies that Audubon painted in preparation for the engravings that in turn produced his famous double-elephant-folio, The Birds of America (1827–38). The paintings have a stunning vivacity and range of feeling. Unlike so many reproductions, these works are alive with Audubon’s hand.
What struck me most was his grand ecological statement: the bird cannot be understood, or felt, or even seen apart from its relationships with other species. Audubon make this case with compelling vigor. As a naturalist, I was also impressed by the sensory truthfulness of his work. The years that he spent tramping the woods and fields shine through.
Of course, Audubon’s style is one of exaggeration: four thrashers defending a nest, one bird swooning into roll-eyed death as the snake slides upward. A spike-crested osprey cries out as it carries away a fish whose mouth echoes the bird’s scream. But though this melodrama sometimes skates on the edge of sentimentality or absurdity, his intimacy with the lives of the birds keeps the paintings grounded in each species’ character, even as his flamboyant emotion takes flight.
The exhibition also has a copy of one of the original double-elephant printings. A magnificent book, the product of meticulous engraving on copper plates, followed by hand-tinting by dozens of colorists. One of the original copper plates is also on display. It was rescued from the melting pot after Lucy Audubon sold it for scrap years after her wandering husband, whom she had propped up financially for years, had died. This copper plate, although it is not centrally displayed, is a significant part of the exhibition. It hints at the costs of Audubon’s obsession.
If you’re in New York, I strongly encourage you to visit this important exhibition. To learn more about the show and its context, I recommend Edward Rothstein’s excellent review in the New York Times. And the exhibition’s catalog is a work of art in its own right.
Addendum: Part II is showing in the summer of 2014. Reviewed in the NYT here. Bring on Part III! (Date not yet announced.)