Audubon, More Than Meets The Eye

Above are 2 sandwich terns, They are named for the Sandwich Islands,not because they have yellow "mustard" stained, tipped bills.
Above are 2 sandwich terns, They are named for the Sandwich Islands,not because they have yellow “mustard” stained, tipped bills.

This spring The New York Historical Society is showing Audubon’s Aviary: Parts Unknown (Part ll of the Complete Flock) a three part series showing John James Audubon’s original paintings which will culminate next spring. I saw Part l last spring and responded then as a birder. This year I found that there was more to his work than what met the eye.                                                    


My wife and I, having gotten to the museum early, have the exhibit practically to ourselves. A painting of the pectoral sandpiper engages me despite being painted in dull colors. However there is something real about the richly colored sand, the opened clamshells and the sea. There is also a small stain on the painting which reminds me of my battered notebooks that I use on the beach.


There are lithograph-like details in another sandpiper picture, the willet. The bird’s gray bill and legs bring it to life. In my mind’s eye I see it walking on the beach, then as it flies the unmistakable bold white and dark underwing pattern flashes like twin airplane propellers. I can even hear its piercing call.


In a painting of three American golden plovers, shorebirds that I’ve seen in Hawaii, there is field guide-like accuracy of detail. A side view of one walking looks like a wooden model, while another is creeping up with wings partially spread out. A third plover is drawn from the top down with striking detail of the crown of its head, back and outspread tail. Unreal.  There is a painting of seabirds, black guillemots, that is similar in minute detail of the back and sides of these birds. I cannot but think that these pictures are the forerunners of drawings in 20th century field guides.


There’s a painting of two isolated Wilson’s plovers. My wife and I saw these birds early last winter for the first time, mixed in with lighter snowy plovers and black-bellied plovers. To tell them apart, start with the Wilson’s thicker bill. I study Audubon’s picture of the Wilson’s using it as my field guide. Learn from the master.



Audubon used a position board with horizontal and vertical lines as a background grid to bring birds to life. He draped birds in action poses using skewers, pins and painted backgrounds in which the bird lived. The result is vividness and boldness. Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and The Making of ‘The Birds of America’ by William Souder relates how he had the basic idea in a dream, got up and rode his horse to a town five miles away for wires in various gages. I can feel his sense urgency and hear his mount’s hooves clattering.


Some paintings bring a moment to life. There’s a great white heron on a bank, legs bent, wings partially raised, long neck down and curved with bill open. This is how these birds hunt for fish. In another painting of a great white egret, the bird’s legs are dramatically bent, its feet spread like yard rakes, and its eye on a fish held tightly in its upward tilted yellow bill. A painting of a golden eagle shows the raptor, a white hare held in its talons, with the bird’s head held up and its tongue showing.


Other paintings show the beauty of birds both bold and subtle. A large painting of a chick-feeding brown pelican takes hold of me. The oxblood sweep of the back of its neck, its frosty yellow head, the red around the eye, the enormous bill which resembles wood and the gray/silver back are exactly what one sees in the field. There is the rich beauty of the king rail’s rust colored breast. The common or Florida gallinule, now called the common moorhen, shows the striking red part of the bill and the red forehead shield of this black duck-like swimmer. There is also the greenish leg which I’ve never noticed. The subtle red neck of the red-throated loon contrasted with its suede gray back makes me want to see this bird!  Then there’s the sanderling, which I see every day in Florida whose wings are darker in this summer painting than in its duller winter plumage.


There are paintings which appear to be of families. A family of spruce grouse shows the male whose black breast with black and white striations stands in contrast to the duller brown female. The group stands against a background of vegetation and cheerful red berries. There’s a group of horned larks sitting on what appears to be a prairie, with striking black “mustaches” and crescents on their breast and foreheads. I wonder if Audubon painted families because he spent so much time away from his. However it may be my imbuing these scenes with a warmth and joy that I feel when looking at them.


At some point the paintings begin to blend as one in detail, beauty and excitement. I have the fatigue that comes after two plus hours in an exhibition that I call “museumitis” and just don’t want to look anymore.


I complain to my wife, who stopped earlier, that there are a number of paintings where there are whole or half shells in beach scenes and one with a black-crowned night-heron, with its eye inches from a live crab. On beaches shells are likely to be shattered fragments and I’m skeptical about seeing a night-heron inches from a live frog in plain sight. She reminds me that there’s such a thing as artistic license and to give a Audubon a break. Before we eave my eyes sweep over the gallery. There’s more than just what meets the eye here. There’s a sense of history, inventiveness and greatness. You can feel it in the air. We’ll be back next spring to discover more.


The Exhibition at The New York Historical Society, 212-873-3400 ends May 26th 2014.

Michael Givant
Michael Givant is a columnist for Anton Media Group. His column A Bird's Eye View is popular among local birdwatchers and photographers.

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