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. .
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.
The visitor can inspect the now extinct passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet. In place of the long-silenced parakeet's song, the exhibition plays a recording of a close relative. The recording that accompanies the passenger pigeon is a facsimile—a reconstructed sound created by Timothy Barksdale of Birdman Productions. Barksdale started with recordings of the white-winged dove, a still-living relative of the passenger pigeon. "He chose this because [the dove's call] has a reverberant quality, so it propagates well," says Greg Budney, the curator of audio at Macaulay. "But because the passenger pigeon had a larger body, [Barksdale] took the step of slowing the recording to lower the pitch." To hint at the experience of hearing a massive flock of the highly social pigeons, Barksdale layered several calls from different individuals with the sound of wings flapping and wind soughing through trees. "He took a really thoughtful approach," Budney says. "You have the sense of birds moving around you."
The audio enlivens the vividness of the original watercolors. Audubon preferred to sketch from either living or recently killed birds because he perceived the colors to be muted and dull in stuffed specimens. The artist posed his dead birds in lifelike poses on a board strung with wires "on which the specimen could be impaled," Olson wrote in Audubon's Aviary: The Original Watercolors for the Birds of America, a book that complements the exhibition. "The bird was probably manipulated further into position by skewers."
The drama of those poses earned Audubon criticism from his contemporaries, who compared his "lurid" birds with those of the Scottish-American ornithologist Alexander Wilson. The more traditional Wilson commonly depicted his birds in stiff profile. Audubon himself publically scorned Wilson's work, an act that likely cost him subscribers in the U.S., according to Olson. Wilson was perhaps an easy target because he died in 1813, years before Audubon would announce his quest to paint every bird in America.
Olson contends that Audubon had an eidetic memory—commonly called photographic memory—because the sometimes astounding positions of his birds have been verified by contemporary videos and photographs captured via telephoto lenses. One of Audubon's most criticized poses was that of a particular yellow-breasted chat. In the watercolor four males (or perhaps one male in three different poses) appear to court a female sitting on nest. One of the male birds appears, wings thrown open, head extended with legs stuck out. The unnaturalness drew enough censure that Audubon instructed his engraver to leave it out of the plate for the book. Olson disagrees, countering that photographs show that the pose is "exactly what the males do when they are in their ecstatic mating dance." Audubon knew well these disputes. His painting of the northern mockingbird shows a nest attacked by a rattlesnake. His critics claimed that rattlesnakes neither climb trees nor have fangs that curve out, but later observation would prove them wrong on both counts.
Both Audubon and his nemesis Wilson made undeniable contributions to ornithology. Wilson described 26 new species in his nine volumes of American Ornithology. Audubon identified a similar number, and his copious notes, published separately from The Birds of America, added field observations vital to the study of nature at the time. Audubon wrote that he strived to depict the bird's behavior along with its anatomy. He did so by recording body measurements as well as habits, calls, diet and even what they tasted like.
Perhaps Audubon's contemporaries were uncomfortable with the artist’s ability to capture the birds' emotion, Olson ponders. Are Audubon's birds cartoonish and anthropomorphic or is their depiction an accurate representation? "If you look at eyes in birds they do look at you," Olson says. "He felt that and he communicated with them." It’s not so difficult to double check. The undecided can simply set up a bird feeder and watch for moments of avian drama and beauty.