New York City, NY
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.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website.
Whether or not you go, Audubon's Aviary: The Original Watercolors for The Birds of America presents all the dazzling watercolors that Audubon painted for these monumental engravings. We are familiar with the prints engraved by Robert Havell Jr., but Audubon’s Aviary illuminates the original masterpieces that were created by Audubon himself and tells the story behind their creation with fresh insights and engaging quotes from his writings. These powerful paintings—all newly photographed using state-of-the-art techniques—possess a startling immediacy, vibrancy, and fluidity that link natural history, art, and a respect for the environment.These watercolors transmit Audubon’s devotion to his craft with their inscriptions and layers of media wrought with a miniaturist’s attention to detail and their revolutionary compositions, which for the first time in history depicted all the birds life-size. Audubon is considered America’s first great watercolorist, introducing innovative approaches developed over a lifetime of study. Even judged alongside today’s technology, his dramatic tableaux remain some of the most spectacular natural history documents and visually arresting works of art ever produced.