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Art and nature vie in Audubon's birds

Some of the most stunning watercolor drawings ever made are on permanent display in New York, but few New Yorkers - and even fewer out-of-towners - are aware of it.

They are the original watercolors made by John James Audubon for his monumental and revolutionary ''Birds of America,'' the most famous of all published works on birds.

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It's an extraordinary collection, owned by the New York Historical Society here and exhibited by them on a rotating basis. Of the 435 watercolors made by Audubon for ''Birds of America,'' the society owns 433. The most recent acquisition, a study of the California Condor, entered the collection as a gift 15 years ago. Despite all efforts to locate the other two, they have not turned up and are presumed lost.

Those on hand, however, are in excellent condition, thanks largely to the fact that 432 of them have been in the society's possession for well over 100 years and so have been well cared for.

The story of how the society acquired them begins in 1835. Audubon had always been keenly aware of the value of his work, and he had wanted it preserved in a public collection. In that year he conceived the idea of giving the originals to the United States Congress, but his passing in 1851 occurred before final plans for the transfer could be put into effect.

In February 1863, his widow, after discarding the idea of selling them to the British Museum, sent a dozen of the watercolors to the New York Historical Society in the hope they would buy them. Although its board of trustees recognized their importance, the society lacked funds for such a purchase. Not wanting to lose them, however, the board appointed a ''rescue committee'' of 15 influential members to attempt to secure all the drawings by special subscription.

A brochure detailing the contents of the collection was sent out, and within three weeks the entire sum needed for its purchase had been pledged.

The society, quite naturally, is proud of its Audubon collection, showing as much of it as it can as often as possible. Currently, one large gallery has been given over to many of Audubon's best and best-known studies, and officials plan to always have some of his watercolors on public display.

Viewing these generally large and richly detailed studies is always a treat, but never more so than when they are as handsomely installed as they are at present.

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Audubon was a fascinating figure. In his best work, one senses a dramatic tug of war between Audubon the naturalist and Audubon the artist. Although the careful and precise naturalist usually wins out (but often only by the merest margin), the more flamboyant and provocative artist within him always makes a significant contribution - and occasionally even wins. Unlike other natural-history artists who limit themselves to precise depictions of particular birds or animals, Audubon found the means to transform them into dramatic examples of their kind. In giving us one eagle or tern, he would capture all eagles or terns.

I've always thought his ''Snowy Egret'' one of the most beautiful and haunting images of 19th-century American art - and certain others, most particularly ''Whooping Crane,'' ''White Pelican,'' ''Golden Eagle,'' and ''Arctic Tern,'' among the most classically perfect of all paintings of birds. They are so extraordinary, as a matter of fact, that one cannot help wondering what Audubon might have accomplished had his goals been purely artistic, or had he had the benefit of certain 20th-century techniques and inventions.

But that is all conjecture. What we actually have in his art is remarkable enough and is more than likely to outlast whatever today's more ''advanced'' bird illustrators are producing. The latter may have the benefit of photography for accuracy and the example of such artists as Audubon for inspiration, but none so far has even come close to matching Audubon's monumental achievements.

At the New York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, for an indefinite period.

Fuertes vs. Audubon

I disagree with those who insist Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927) is America's greatest painter of birds, surpassing even Audubon in the quality of his art. True enough, he may have been more knowledgeable in certain areas, more warm and lifelike in his depictions, and more of a technical virtuoso than Audubon. But ''greater'' and more important an artist, definitely not.

The controversy over which one is superior is brought into sharp focus by the fact that a small but comprehensive exhibition of Fuertes's work is on view at the American Museum of Natural History here. Since this museum is only one block away from the New York Historical Society, comparisons between the art of Audubon and Fuertes can easily be made.

The visitor to this exhibition will find several Audubon prints (indicating Fuertes's early passion for, and debt to, that earlier artist); over 90 watercolors, drawings, and illustrations of birds, animals, and insects by Fuertes; and a dozen works by artists influenced by him.

The first impression is of great informality and warmth. The technique is quite broadly painterly, the colors are soft and warm, and some of the quicker and more informal watercolor sketches are extraordinarily effective. Fuertes was especially good at painting eyes and feathers, and he had the knack of making his subjects appear alert and very much alive.

It is easy to see why Roger Tory Peterson, a contemporary natural-history painter, could say, ''To one who knows birds, there is far more latent life in a Fuertes bird, composed and at rest, than there is in an Audubon bird wildly animated.''

Perhaps, but it is also true that many of Fuertes's paintings are blandly illustrational and occasionally even somewhat cute. Both artists were excellent at what they did, but Audubon, as an artist, was far superior to Fuertes. To a naturalist, Fuertes may be the more accurate and his paintings more lifelike, but to an art critic, Audubon will almost certainly be the finer artist.

At the American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street, through Oct. 2.

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