Currently on display at New-York Historical is the final installment of the three-year series featuring all of John James Audubon’s original watercolor models for The Birds of America. Because of their fragility, this is your last chance to catch these stunning works. So don’t miss out—come see Audubon’s Aviary: The Final Flight and perch with flock (through May 10).
Considered America’s first great watercolorist, John James Audubon pioneered innovative artistic techniques and for the first time ever rendered his feathered subjects life-size. He was a French immigrant (born in present-day Haiti) who became an American citizen in 1812 and responded to major developments of his time: among them the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and Manifest Destiny. The push westward opened up new frontiers, and with them, new flocks of avian species for him to catalogue and master.
But Audubon’s ambitious project to paint the birds of America required assistance. In the Old Master tradition, his assistants worked anonymously under his name, including the self-taught artist, Maria Martin Bachman. She was the sister-in-law, and later the second wife of John Bachman, an impassioned naturalist, a Lutheran pastor, and life-long friend of Audubon. Her personal letters paint the picture of a well-educated, literary, and artistically talented woman. Upon his first visit to the Bachman’s Charleston abode in 1831, Audubon noticed her gift with watercolors. He began supplying her with paints, teaching her new techniques, and encouraging the gifts of “our little sweetheart.” Over the years, her abilities in painting exquisite flowers soared. She contributed to the watercolor models for Audubon’s most famous project The Birds of America. It is thought that she collaborated with him on at least 30 watercolors (he credited her with nine), embellishing them with both flowers and insects.
Because their collaborations were virtually seamless, with Audubon designing the composition, it is often very difficult to know where Audubon’s hand ended and Martin’s began. In her lifetime, Martin became South Carolina’s only recognized female artist. Unfortunately, she has not been studied outside of her association with her husband and Audubon, but luckily for us, her gift has been immortalized through the watercolors she painted with Audubon.