Audobon At New York Historical Society

Thursday, March 17, 2005

"Northern Bobwhite and the Red-Shouldered Hawk," an 1825 watercolor, from "Audubon’s Aviary" at the New-York Historical Society.
MUSEUM REVIEW | NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY

A Rare Sighting of Audubon Prepares to Take Flight

By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN

One of the appeals of bird-watching must be the thrill of capturing a fleeting phenomenon, of seizing, at least in memory, an instant that will not soon come again: the rare bird rarely sighted. Notice the way the wings spread, the beak opens in flight, the tilt of the neck. Remember too the texture of the light, the movement of the air, the shape of the leaves. The experience can be cataloged but not captured: melancholy is mixed with the thrill.

A similar sensation may now be felt by Audubon watchers. For after April 3, as birds are returning to local climes with the coming of spring, the New-York Historical Society will be packing up the 40 fragile Audubon watercolors that it has been displaying in its exhibition "Audubon’s Aviary," lay them in flat cases on archival shelves and protect them from the depredations of daily life and light, by forcing them into hibernation for 10 years.

But an Audubonian migration is still going to become an annual ritual because the society’s Audubon collection is the largest in the world. Every year another selection of the 435 life-size watercolors prepared for the naturalist’s masterwork, "The Birds of America," will emerge briefly from their protective housing and be exposed to public view. Eventually, over the next 11 years the entire flock will have an opportunity to display their early-19th-century wings in early-21st-century air.

They have been given a handsome aviary indeed, with the society doing everything to make them feel at home, or rather to make visitors feel they are visiting the birds’ habitat. They are handsomely arrayed in the society’s grand second-floor gallery, the large windows shaded by arboreal images from 19th-century landscape paintings by Asher Brown Durand. In what could have been a mere gimmick, but instead creates an ethereal atmosphere, recorded bird calls from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology are heard when you stand before selected portraits, some sounds as extinct as some of the birds.

Along with informative notes, the exhibit’s curator, Roberta J. M. Olson, has also stocked display cases with biographical material. They may block close views of some paintings but, in exchange, they offer birds that Audubon himself may have stuffed, right next to his muzzle-loading shotgun (for the only way to sketch detail was to rely not on fleeting memory but to have the bird literally in hand and usually dead). Another case shows documents related to Audubon’s peddling of $1,050 subscriptions in the 1830’s to his encyclopedic set of "The Birds of America," a cost equivalent to more than $40,000 today. The last set sold at public auction went for $8 million.

It is tempting to take so much plumage at face value, to relish the colors, the display, the suggestion of a fertile imagination at play in fertile lands. But in the last year three new books have been published about Audubon: William Souder’s skeptical and mildly debunking "Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of the Birds of America" (North Point Press); Duff Hart-Davis’s tale of Audubon’s epic British and European quest, in which the ambition was not to bag birds but subscribers, "Audubon’s Elephant: America’s Greatest Naturalist and the Making of the Birds of America" (Henry Holt); and Richard Rhodes’s stolid biography, "John James Audubon: The Making of an American" (Knopf), which gives Audubon the benefit of most doubts.

Those doubts, though, are intriguing, and are hinted at in this exhibition. Audubon, born in 1785 in what is now Haiti, the illegitimate son of a French chambermaid and a French sea captain and plantation owner, was fully adopted by his father and raised in Revolutionary France, where the Terror left trauma in its wake. He was sent to the fledgling United States for protection. He failed at one commercial venture after another, until his preoccupation with birds led to his liberation. "Studying birds was how he mastered the world and himself," Ms. Olson points out.

But what was that mastery? Audubon was regularly attacked for not being a scientist (a "contemptible imposter," proclaimed his greatest adversary, George Ord). Doubts were raised, for example, about his accounts of a rattlesnake’s strangling a squirrel or his claim of having learned hunting tricks from Daniel Boone. He often failed to credit contributors to his works (the backgrounds of several are here attributed to others). Even relations with his beloved wife, Lucy, were fraught with tensions. It is also difficult to claim him as a pioneer environmentalist, as the exhibition tends to: he noted the gradual disappearance of a "state of nature" with the settling of America, but that was more a sad observation than a demand for preservation.

One reason for the controversies, in fact, is that unlike other naturalists he often sought to portray a bird as if it were glimpsed alive, unposed in its natural setting. One work struggles to display the meeting of two petrels in the turbulent trough of an ocean’s wave; another shows the tumult as a circle of bobwhites frantically disperse under a hawk’s attack.

But his works are also far from being natural. They are artfully composed. The curve of the neck of the "Great Egret" of 1832, for example, precisely matches the bend of its leg; the open mouth of a fish mirrors the open beak of its osprey captor that carries it aloft. Carolina parakeets collect on branches as if according to rules of aesthetic or dramatic form. At the exhibition, a video screen shows films of some birds, partly to demonstrate Audubon’s skill at illustrating them. But it indirectly shows his selectivity: out of the sweep of live action, he carefully constructed poses and settings.

The goals were not purely aesthetic. Audubon wrote an "Ornithological Biography" in which his observations about these birds were collected, the very title demonstrating, as Ms. Olson points out, that he "viewed birds in terms of human characteristics."

In fact, some works are domestic dramas, seeming to echo Audubon’s own role as husband, father, protector; others, more darkly, present that world under threat as Audubon, often away on travels, regularly feared. In his portrait of brown thrashers, in which a snake writhes over a nest, the males ineffectually mount their attacks on the intruder; Audubon said he witnessed the scene and rescued one of its stricken females – with more success, perhaps, than his ornithological counterparts.

Some watercolors are also redolent with moral lessons, like the fables of La Fontaine that Audubon carried with him. His blue jays, for example, the birds brutally smash the shells of stolen eggs; one stretches his beak to catch the dripping yellow fluid. It is difficult to imagine, Audubon wrote, that "selfishness, duplicity, and malice should form the moral accompaniments of so much physical perfection."

In another watercolor, house wrens have their nest in an old top hat through which a branch protrudes; the young stretch out their necks to feed on a spider. Is this a demonstration of animal functions that underlie the human? Did Audubon also prefer to displace the cultivated world and dwell in an imagined natural state? At any rate, Audubon, though much of his youth was spent in France, presented himself to prospective European patrons as if, like the wrens, he had no truck with formal manners. He was the natural American man, who understood that world because he lived in it. That may have helped sell the images as well: evidence of a primal world that still looks uncomfortably like our own.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company | Home | Privacy Policy | Search | Corrections | RSS | Help | Back to Top

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: