Celebrating John J. Audubon, a naturalist who rendered science into art

In celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of John James Audubon, the New-York Historical Society and the American Museum of Natural History here are sponsoring two major exhibitions devoted to the great American naturalist. The former has put ``Audubon's Birds of North America: The Original Watercolors'' on display, while the latter has mounted ``John James Audubon: Science into Art.'' Although it has never been a secret that the Historical Society bought 432 of the 435 watercolors painted by Audubon for ``The Birds of America'' from the artist's widow, and that one of the three missing originals turned up as a gift to the society in 1966, the public at large has had only two previous opportunities to see the collection in its entirety since its acquisition in 1863.

As can be imagined, 433 pictures take up a great deal of space. The society has managed to show them all at this time by shuffling some of its other exhibits about, and by hanging groups of watercolors in various hallways and galleries throughout its building. The result is a truly extraordinary demonstration of that artist's genius for depicting birds in a manner both remarkably true to the originals and stunningly effective as works of art. Later painters of birds such as Louis Agassiz Fuertes and Roger Tory Peterson may have rendered their subjects in a more precisely ``realistic'' fashion, but none equaled Audubon in the creation of images that haunt the imagination as well as serve as guides to the identification of individual birds.

His ``Snowy Egret'' remains one of the most stunning and beautiful of all 19th-century American works of art on paper -- and certain others, most particularly ``Arctic Tern,'' ``Whooping Crane,'' ``White Pelican,'' ``Golden Eagle,'' and ``Wild Turkey Gobbler'' exist more as impressive representations of their species than as lovingly detailed depictions of individual flying creatures.

I cannot recommend this exhibition highly enough. It will remain on view at the New-York Historical Society through Sept. 14.

``John James Audubon: Science into Art,'' one block away at the American Museum of Natural History, focuses on that artist's overall achievements. It includes original ``Birds of America'' copperplates; several original prints issued between 1827 and 1838; two new, hand-colored prints pressed from their original, restored plates; a video loop documenting the process used for the restoration; illustrations by Audubon, his sons, contemporaries, and predecessors; and memorabilia ranging from his palette and portfolio to artifacts from his last expedition on the Missouri River in 1843.

Also on view are several of Audubon's mammal paintings, including ``American Porcupine'' and ``Swift Fox''; a model of a specimen mounted on a gridded board in preparation for painting; several painted copies of his prints by Joseph Bartholomew Kidd; and some volumes illustrated by contemporary and earlier artists specializing in the depiction of birds.

This exhibition is also highly recommended -- especially if it is seen in conjunction with the one at the Historical Society. It will close July 21.

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