Some time around 1820, French-American artist and naturalist, John James Audubon (1785-1851) started work on a personal project to paint every bird species located in North America, using unique methods and materials as well as extensive field observations. It was a tremendously challenging and costly endeavor, and many doubted Audubon’s ability to pull it off. In fact, the idea would seem a little wild & crazy even today with 21st century technology. But, Audubon was no ordinary guy. He was also totally committed to finding and illustrating every bird in North America for publication, working more than 15 years toward his goal and raising cash by teaching, selling art works, taking oil painting commissions, hunting and selling animal skins, and conducting exhibitions and demonstrations.
The result of Audubon’s work is The Birds of America, first published in England as a series of 87 sets of prints between the years 1827 and 1838. Now considered to be the greatest study of birds in history as well as one of the greatest examples of book art, the original publication included 435 hand-colored, life-sized prints of North American birds on handmade paper that were produced from copperplate etchings and engravings with water-coloring applied by assembly-line colorists. An accompanying text (‘Ornithological Biography’) was written by Audubon and the Scottish ornithologist William MacGillvray and published separately in five volumes (1831-1839).
The cost of printing the first edition of The Birds of America was an amount equivalent to more than $2 million US dollars in today’s money. Audubon financed the massive print project with pre-paid subscriptions, but only the wealthy could afford the subscription price which limited the publication to no more than 200 complete sets. Consequently, more affordable editions were later produced using lithography and published during the mid-19th century.
“The Birds of America’ will then raise in value as much as they are now depreciated by certain fools and envious persons.” — John James Audubon
Almost two centuries later, Audubon’s bird art is still captivating and revered among birders and art collectors, and his influence on ornithology and natural history has been widespread and enduring as The Birds of America and Ornithological Biography significantly contributed to the understanding of bird anatomy and behavior. Watching the short video, ‘Audubon’s Birds of America’ from the Lost Birds Project, you’ll get a sense of the massive beauty of these works of art as David W. Carson, curator of the History of Science Collection at Cornell University, conducts a private viewing of The Birds of America.
Six of the birds illustrated by John Audubon in The Birds of America are now extinct, and many more are endangered. Also — According to a recent study, North America has lost more than a quarter of its entire bird population during the past 50 years. [North America Has Lost 3 Billion Birds, Scientist Say by Nell Greefieldboyce (NPR, September 19, 2019)] ⇒⇒ Learn how you can help by visiting the National Audubon Society’s Action Center.
A copy of the complete The Birds of America series is available FREE of charge for viewing and high-resolution downloading via ⇒⇒ the National Audubon Society’s digital library, courtesy of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove in Audubon, Pennsylvania and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection. Be sure to check it out, and let John Audubon inspire your own creative work.
Audubon’s personal copy of The Birds of America is held within the Stark Museum of Art Rare Books & Manuscripts Collections in Orange, Texas. An original, complete series is on public display (one page is turned each week) in the Audubon Room of the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. It was purchased by the university in 1839 for the astonishing price of $970 (equivalent to approximately $80,000 today). Undoubtedly, a wise investment. In December 2010, a complete first edition from a private collection was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in London for US$ 11.5 million (a record breaking auction price).
Other permanent public display locations: Trinity College (Watkinson Library) in Hartford, Connecticut; University of Pittsburg (Hillman Library); Liverpool Central Library; Woodstock Inn in Woodstock, Vermont; and the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University (Ewell Sale Stewart Library) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Look around– there are surely more opportunities for viewing a first edition as there are currently 107 held by institutions, and many periodically offer special exhibits.
The Life of John James Audubon: The Naturalist (1869) [FREE ebook] The primary source material for this biography was Audubon’s notes and journals, written/edited by Lucy Green Bakewell Audubon and Robert Williams Buchanan. The JJ Audubon image is an engraving by H.B. Hall based on a portrait by Henry Inman that appears in the book.
John James Audubon – The Making of an American (2004) by Richard Rhodes*
Audubon’s ‘Birds of America’ at Yale: Creating a masterwork one feather at a time. Article by Mike Cummings, Yale News, June 30, 2015
“Ornithological Biography” or an Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America Vol 4, (1838) by John James Audubon [FREE ebook].
Featured photo of Columbian Hummingbirds is from plate 425 of The Birds of America
Wikipedia: The Birds of America
If you just can’t get enough about birds, there’s more here ⇒ Bird ID Challenge (test your birding skills); Birdsong Melody (the music and magic of the mockingbird); The California Brown Pelican; and Fast and Fearless (the Hummingbird).
Audubon was the first, but there’s a new illustration of birds to get excited about! The Wall of Birds* tells the remarkable story of artist Jane Kim’s 2,500 square-foot mural celebrating the diversity and evolution of birds at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It took her 2 1/2 years to create the one-of-a-kind, life-size mural showcasing all 243 modern families of birds, and the book “is a visual feast, essential for those who love art, birds, and our natural world”.
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