Audubon’s Original Watercolors on Display at the New York Historical Society

New exhibit features paintings by one of America’s great naturalists and artists.  

John James Audubon didn’t just aim to paint birds—he wanted them to come to life on the canvas.

In a new exhibit at the New York Historical Society Museum & Library, visitors can hear the birds sing as they view the lifelike avian renderings. Literally—visitors carry handheld devices that provide the call of each painted bird in the gallery.

The exhibit, Audubon’s Aviary: Parts Unknown, is the second installment of a three-part series celebrating the watercolors of Audubon Society’s namesake. The gallery, which considers Audubon as an artist-naturalist, a world citizen, and a celebrity in an expanding nation, also includes videos of the birds Audubon painted.

The gallery shows the progression of Audubon’s work by displaying the watercolors (from The Birds of America series) in the order they were engraved, says drawings curator Roberta J.M. Olson. The majority of the paintings depict either waterbirds or waders.

Unlike other artists working at the time, the winged subjects of Audubon’s paintings are life-sized. His paintings also include an attention to detail that far surpassed his contemporary’s work, Olson says. In fact, many of the paintings are so detailed that you can see layers of paint, sometimes as many as 20 on one work.

Standing before the life-size painting of Audubon’s tricolored heron, I get the sense that this majestic-looking wader is making its way toward the water, looking back over its shoulder, perhaps at a companion, just out of my sight.  

“There’s a before, during, and after,” Olson says of Audubon’s paintings. Attention to habitat, plumage, and bird behavior, create scenes almost photographic in their detail. “He wanted to put you in the field,” Olson says. Now, two centuries later, he’s still accomplishing that goal.

Audubon’s Aviary: Parts Unknown is on view from March 21 and will run until May 26.