Don’t walk. Don’t run. Fly to the New-York Historical Society. There you will see the greatest painter of birds of all times, John James Audubon (1785–1851.) He was the first to paint life-size birds, the first to show birds hunting, preening, courting and flying. His revolutionary paintings pleased two audiences: scientists were drawn to their accuracy and ordinary people to their beauty.
The third installment is the last of his Masterwork The Birds of America: 435 engraved watercolors he created between 1827 and 1838. Docent Linn Karl shared her voluminous knowledge about Audubon’s life, as colorful as any of his paintings.
John James Audubon was born in Haiti in 1785, the illegitimate son of a Haitian chambermaid and a French sea captain. By the time Audubon was three, his father moved him to France because of inheritance laws. Once there, his father’s legal wife adopted him. Early on, Audubon showed a love of nature and drawing birds.
When he was 19, his father shipped him off to Pennsylvania so he wouldn’t have to fight in Napoleon’s wars. He met and married his next-door neighbor, Lucy Bakewell. Though he earned a meager living by teaching art, dancing and fencing, by 1820 he’d amassed enough paintings to start looking for exhibit backers.
He found those backers in England and Scotland. He was known as “the American woodsman” who created “miraculous work.” He raised enough money to publish Birds of America. The Kings of France and England were both supporters.
It was time to meet the birds as we walked around the gallery: the American Flamingo, the Great Grey Owl, the American White Pelican – all ornithological icons. How could such lush, crisp details come from a human hand?
Audubon’s success didn’t last throughout his life. Taste in art changed, and as he grew older, his eyesight started failing and he sank into dementia. He died in 1851 and by 1863, Lucy was penniless. She sold all his watercolors to the New-York Historical Society for $4000.
This body of work is considered one of the supreme achievements of American Art and the crown jewel in the Society’s collection. The exhibit closes on May 10th, so don’t miss out on this exquisite bird’s eye view.
Call 212-873-3400 or visit nyhistory.org