A portrait of John James Audubon shows the artist and naturalist in a dark wolf-skin cloak, cradling a gun and sporting curly dark hair that was likely smoothed back with bear grease. The picture was painted during Audubon's 1826 trip to England and Scotland, when he was playing up his role as the American woodsman to raise money for his opus, The Birds of America. Once completed, the collection included 435 prints of birds flying, eating, perching and fighting. Audubon is still lauded for his contributions to the fields of ornithology and art.
In the U.K. Audubon drummed up enough subscribers to support his project and found an engraver skilled enough to translate his original watercolors to hand-colored prints. As Audubon worked, The Birds of America was mailed to subscribers in sets of five prints. Each installment included one large, one medium and three small birds. Bound together, the original collection of prints is called the "double elephant folio" because the handmade paper pages are one meter tall by 72.4 centimeters wide. The size allowed Audubon to depict even large birds life-size. Less than 200 copies of the elephant folio were ever made. At the time, each subscriber paid approximately $1,050 over 13 years—from 1827 through 1838. That was then—in 2010 a copy sold for $11.5 million in auction.
Yet far more valuable are the original watercolors on which the prints are based. Those paintings are currently being shown as a three-part series by the New-York Historical Society. The first part is on view at the society's museum in Manhattan until May 19. It showcases more than 200 Audubon watercolors, including the first 175 that were engraved in The Birds of America. Parts II and III will follow in other exhibitions during the next two years. Also on view are some of Audubon's early drawings and paintings along with other objects from the society's Audubon collection, such as letters and a beaded coin purse made by the artist's wife, Lucy Bakewell Audubon. .
View a video slideshow featuring Audubon's paintings.
Audio recordings of each bird's chirp, screech or song accompany the paintings. Visitors to the exhibition can carry a small portable audio device and punch in the corresponding number for each watercolor to hear a tweet or caw. "[Audubon] made birds live on the page, so to speak," says show curator Roberta J. M. Olson, who is also the curator of drawings at the Society. "If you blink, you expect them to fly out at you or you expect them to be in a different place. The sound is part of that."
The birds featured in the exhibition also come alive in a short video at the entrance to the first gallery—the moving images and recorded calls are all courtesy of The Macaulay Library at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology and Birdman Productions. Often the video frames match Audubon’s depictions: the artist's Mississippi Kite holds a large beetle in its talons; in the video, the large gray bird feasts on a beetle while perched on a telephone wire.