Friday, February 29, 2008

Review of "Audubon's Aviary: Portraits of Endangered Species" at the New York Historical Society

Fragile paintings of fragile birds -- Whereas the famed Scott's Oriole dazzles birders and non-naturalists alike in Union Square as it winters there, marking a first in New York, just uptown a cadre of birds also has made an unlikely appearance – albeit of the watercolor kind.

The New York Historical Society (NYHS) perched several of John James Audubon's paintings, and plays respective bird calls recorded by Cornell's Lab of Ornithology, on its second floor.

"Audubon's Aviary: Portraits of Endangered Species," is necessarily brief, running from Feb. 8 to Mar. 16, 2008.

"The Audubon works on display in the exhibition are the original watercolors. They can only be shown for six weeks every decade because of light degradation," explained Gerhard Schlanzky, director of exhibitions at the NYHS.

The Historical Society owns 435 Audubon watercolors, purchased from Audubon's widow, Lucy Bakewell Audubon, in 1863.

"Portraits of Endangered Species," as the name reveals, includes paintings of birds that were once strong in number, but have since declined, become threatened species or, worse, fallen prey to extinction.

The exhibit also features success stories, such as the Bald Eagle, of which J.J. Audubon captured in paint an immature one and properly identified it as such, but referred to it as a "White-tailed eagle."

As one who regularly consults field guides and bird books, including the beautifully-illustrated Audubon and Sibley editions, prior to attending the show I was tempted to think that I had seen such pictures before. But even the best books are not nearly the same.

The paintings are stunning. And that is with or without the magnifying glasses the Historical Society provides, to your right while walking in the doorway.

Make no mistake: These are not merely bird images. Rather, they are bona-fide pieces of artwork with astounding detail, a fact that a magnifying glass may highlight but is by no means required to appreciate.

Before you put that looking glass down, though, examine closely the spectacular Whooping crane's head and don't miss the baby alligator in the background which, the placard beside this painting contends, Audubon likely added in later.

Walking around and enjoying each I was struck by the vast geography Audubon covered in his years studying and painting birds. Like the Whooping crane, his picture of the Peregrine falcon was completed in phases, with two birds from different regions of the country. Impressive, indeed!

When "Portraits of Endangered Species" closes, I'm told by Roberta Olson, Ph.D., curator of drawings at NYHS, the works "are stored away in dark archival storage." That is done according to guidelines established by the American Association of Museums.

If you missed or just want to relive it, ten of the watercolors, along with MP3 recordings of corresponding bird calls, are available on
the NYHS' Web site for the exhibit.
"The bird calls stay up indefinitely; they move from current exhibitions to past exhibitions on the website," Olson explained.

This latest showing is the fourth in a five-part series, including installments titled "Audubon's Aviary," "Natural Selection," and "Birds of Central Park."

A fifth and final installation, "Audubon's Aviary: Something Old, Something Borrowed, Most Things New," is currently being planned.

"It will explore Audubon's indebtedness to the tradition of ornithological illustration from the sixteenth century and his incredible innovations," Olson said.

Exact dates have not yet been set, other than to say it will be in roughly the same time slot next year. I'll keep in touch with the folks at NYHS and report back to you when the dates become solidified.

With a little more than two weeks left of the current showing I recommend attending. It's well worth the $10 non-member price of admission, to say nothing of the other programs on display. And while you're in New York City, head down to Union Square and
see "Scotty" the Scott's Oriole before he, like Audubon's watercolors, flies away to somewhere else. If you do make it, drop me a line and share your impressions.— Tom Sullivan is editor of The Observer.

Audubon's Aviary, Portraits of Endangered SpeciesThe New-York Historical Society170 Central Park WestNew York, NY 10024(212) 873-3400