In this intimate gallery, visitors have the unique experience of viewing John James Audubon’s spectacular watercolor models for the 435 plates of The Birds of America (1827–38) with their corresponding plates from the double-elephant-folio series, engraved by Robert Havell Jr. The gallery features monthly migrations in publication order that showcase the artist’s creative process and his contributions to ornithological illustration. Other works from New-York Historical’s collection, the world’s largest repository of Auduboniana, illuminate Audubon’s process, and bird calls courtesy of The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology animate the environment. Curated by Roberta J.M. Olson, curator of drawings.
See other extraordinary Audubon birds come to life on New York City streets through the Audubon Mural Project.
Shop at the NYHistory Store! Browse Audubon-themed gifts, like the book Audubon's Aviary: The Original Watercolors for 'The Birds of America,' which traces the story behind Audubon's classic with new discoveries, fresh insights, and engaging quotes from Audubon's own writing.
Exhibitions at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the Seymour Neuman Endowed Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. WNET is the media sponsor.
Bird of the Month: Northern Mockingbird
The Northern Mockingbird, which is a staunch defender of its nests and is known for its varied songs, enjoys a widespread and stable population. However, in the nineteenth century, people kept so many mockingbirds as cage birds that they nearly vanished from parts of the East Coast. People took nestlings out of nests or trapped adults and sold them in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis, where, in 1828, these extraordinary singers could fetch as much as $50. One-third of all bird identifications are made not from sightings but from their signature calls and songs. But mockingbirds make it very difficult because not only do they sing a medley of their own songs, but as their name implies, they imitate those of other birds and animals.
On June 23, 2017, Damien Mitchell rendered with spray paint this powerful mural of the Peregrine Falcon, inspired by Audubon’s watercolor and plate 16 of The Birds of America. It is part of the Audubon Mural Project is a public initiative of the National Audubon Society, in partnership with the Hamilton Heights art gallery Gitler &_____. The mural project is energized by recently findings from the National Audubon Society that nearly half of all North American bird species face dire threats to their survival by 2080 due to global warming. Learn More >
Damien Mitchell (1985–)
Peregrine Falcon: 752 St. Nicholas Avenue, 2017
Photograph credit: Mike Fernandez/Audubon
John James Audubon
Arguably the greatest American artist-naturalist, John James Audubon (1785–1851) was the legendary rara avis who created The Birds of America (1827–38). Born in the French colony of Saint Domingue (Haiti), Audubon was the illegitimate son of Jean Audubon, a naval and merchant marine captain, and Jeanne Rabine, a French chambermaid who died six months after his birth. The cloud of illegitimacy would haunt him throughout his life and perhaps drive his genius. In 1788, during the French Revolution, Audubon’s father sent him to his home in Nantes, where he raised by his stepmother and where his incurable passion for nature was sparked as he began to draw birds. In 1803, his father dispatched him to America to oversee the family’s property at Mill Grove outside of Philadelphia, thus preventing his conscription into Napoleon’s army. Audubon immediately fell in love with America’s wildlife, becoming a champion of his adopted country and a citizen in 1812. A few months after his arrival, he met English-born Lucy Bakewell, who he married in 1808. After trying various professions on the frontier, as well as fieldwork observing and drawing birds along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, the self-taught artist decided to dedicate himself to depicting all the birds of North America. Failing to find an engraver in Philadelphia, Audubon sailed for England in 1826, where in Edinburgh he engaged William Home Lizars to etch the plates for The Birds of America. After ten plates, Lizars’s colorists went on strike, forcing Audubon to seek another engraver. In London Audubon found the printmaker Robert Havell and his son, Robert Havell Jr., who proved to be his ideal collaborator.
The success of The Birds of America is a fascinating story of entrepreneurship and heroic dedication. The work ensured the immortality of Audubon, the self-styled “American Woodsman,” who remained in England until 1839 to finish the task and to complete the Ornithological Biography, the text for The Birds. Returning the US to live in New York City, eventually at Minnie’s Land, he and his sons produced multiple octavo editions of The Birds of America, adding new species, as well as The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1845–48). Already by the late 1820s, Audubon was concerned about the disappearance of the American wilderness and some avian species. His appreciation of the natural environment finds expression in the organization named for him, Audubon, formerly the National Audubon Society. Founded in 1905, the national institution succeeded the Audubon Society of New York, which was founded in 1886 by the conservationist George Bird Grinnell, who had been tutored as a youth by Lucy at Minnie’s Land.
Image: Allen & Horton Photographers, Boston (after a miniature of 1831 by Frederick Cruickshank), Carte-de-visite of Audubon, ca. 1861–62. Photographic reproduction on paper, laid on card. New-York Historical Society Library, Gift of Daniel Parish Jr., 1903