Audubon’s Birds of America Focus Gallery
In this intimate gallery, visitors have the unique experience of viewing John James Audubon’s spectacular watercolor models for the 435 plates of The Birds of America (1827–38) with their corresponding plates from the double-elephant-folio series, engraved by Robert Havell Jr. The gallery features monthly migrations in publication order that showcase the artist’s creative process and his contributions to ornithological illustration. Other works from New-York Historical’s collection, the world’s largest repository of Auduboniana, illuminate Audubon’s process, and bird calls courtesy of The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology animate the environment. Curated by Roberta J.M. Olson, curator of drawings.
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.
Bird of the Month: Prothonotary Warbler
The name “Prothonotary” refers to a group of official scribes in the Catholic Church who wore bright yellow hoods that the species’s plumage evokes. Characterized as a “golden flashlight in the dim understory of swampy woodlands,” the Prothonotary belongs to the family of Wood Warblers. Prothonotary Warblers, which have declined in the past with the clearing of southern swamp forests, continue to decrease due to the loss of forested wetlands and mangroves native to its Central and South American wintering grounds. Nevertheless, the species is still fairly common in its remaining habitat and has been helped in some areas by conservationists putting up birdhouses. Often called a “swamp warbler” in the southeast, the bird is also found surprisingly far to the North along rivers.
Image: John James Audubon (1785–1851) with Joseph Mason (1808–1842), Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea), Study for Havell pl. 3, 1821. Watercolor, graphite, pastel, and gouache with touches of black ink and selective glazing on paper, laid on card; 18 1/8 x 11 7/8 in. Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon,1863.17.3
John James Audubon
Arguably the greatest American artist-naturalist, John James Audubon (1785–1851) was the legendary rara avis who created The Birds of America (1827–38). Born in the French colony of Saint Domingue (Haiti), Audubon was the illegitimate son of Jean Audubon, a naval and merchant marine captain, and Jeanne Rabine, a French chambermaid who died six months after his birth. The cloud of illegitimacy would haunt him throughout his life and perhaps drive his genius. In 1788, during the French Revolution, Audubon’s father sent him to his home in Nantes, where he raised by his stepmother and where his incurable passion for nature was sparked as he began to draw birds. In 1803, his father dispatched him to America to oversee the family’s property at Mill Grove outside of Philadelphia, thus preventing his conscription into Napoleon’s army. Audubon immediately fell in love with America’s wildlife, becoming a champion of his adopted country and a citizen in 1812. A few months after his arrival, he met English-born Lucy Bakewell, who he married in 1808. After trying various professions on the frontier, as well as fieldwork observing and drawing birds along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, the self-taught artist decided to dedicate himself to depicting all the birds of North America. Failing to find an engraver in Philadelphia, Audubon sailed for England in 1826, where in Edinburgh he engaged William Home Lizars to etch the plates for The Birds of America. After ten plates, Lizars’s colorists went on strike, forcing Audubon to seek another engraver. In London Audubon found the printmaker Robert Havell and his son, Robert Havell Jr., who proved to be his ideal collaborator.
The success of The Birds of America is a fascinating story of entrepreneurship and heroic dedication. The work ensured the immortality of Audubon, the self-styled “American Woodsman,” who remained in England until 1839 to finish the task and to complete the Ornithological Biography, the text for The Birds. Returning the US to live in New York City, eventually at Minnie’s Land, he and his sons produced multiple octavo editions of The Birds of America, adding new species, as well as The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1845–48). Already by the late 1820s, Audubon was concerned about the disappearance of the American wilderness and some avian species. His appreciation of the natural environment finds expression in the organization named for him, Audubon, formerly the National Audubon Society. Founded in 1905, the national institution succeeded the Audubon Society of New York, which was founded in 1886 by the conservationist George Bird Grinnell, who had been tutored as a youth by Lucy at Minnie’s Land.
Image: Allen & Horton Photographers, Boston (after a miniature of 1831 by Frederick Cruickshank), Carte-de-visite of Audubon, ca. 1861–62. Photographic reproduction on paper, laid on card. New-York Historical Society Library, Gift of Daniel Parish Jr., 1903