Monumental "Birds of America" remains a huge natural history bestseller - and no wonder!

John James Audubon: portrait by John Syme, 1826
John James Audubon: portrait by John Syme, 1826Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
A rare copy of naturalist and artist John James Audubon’s epic book, Birds of America, just sold at Sotheby’s auction for more than $10 million. That’s an enormous sum considering the book is essentially a work of natural history illustration. Also known as the Double Elephant Folio because of its large size, the massive tome opens to 4 feet across and contains hundreds of plates of exquisitely drawn, life-sized paintings of birds in their natural settings. It’s considered one of the greatest collections of natural history illustrations in the world, and I have to admit, after researching the story behind this stunning collection of work, and its creator, I understand why it's so valuable.

Flamingo: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICA
Flamingo: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICACourtesy Wikimedia Commons
In the early 19th century, the Haitian-born Audubon (1785 - 1851) traveled across the eastern and central United States -often alone, sometimes with an assistant- to gather images of over 500 known species of bird. He would often draw them from life, but sometimes killed his avian subjects and posed them with wires in order to capture them on paper. The latter technique guaranteed the birds wouldn’t fly off. He used all sorts of media considered unconventional at the time to create his masterpiece images. Backgrounds were created sometimes by the artist himself but more often by several assistants.

Virginian Partridge: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICA
Virginian Partridge: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICACourtesy Wikimedia Commons
Audubon developed his deep interest in birds and natural history as a child growing up in France. At age 18 he arrived in the United States (as an illegal immigrant, mind you) where he honed his passion in ornithology in the woods surrounding the family property near Philadelphia. White Gerfalcons: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICA
White Gerfalcons: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICACourtesy Wikimedia Commons
During his early days in America he worked at improving his drawing techniques, and became skilled at specimen preparation and taxidermy, even working for a time in that capacity at a museum in Cincinnati. On a return trip to France he met naturalist Charles-Marie D’Orbigny who schooled him in scientific methods of research and offered tips to improve his taxidermy skills.

Canada Goose: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICA
Canada Goose: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICACourtesy Wikimedia Commons
The book Birds of America was a well-planned venture long before it finally came to fruition. Audubon had the title in mind when he set about in 1820 to paint every known bird in America. His goal was to eventually produce a body of work that would far surpass any other in existence. And he did exactly that. For nearly three years he roamed down the Mississippi River and across the American frontier searching out specimens to paint, sometimes purchasing them from local hunters.

Mourning doves: from BIRDS OF AMERICA
Mourning doves: from BIRDS OF AMERICACourtesy Wikipedia
At the time Alexander Wilson was considered the leading ornithologist and painter of birds. He had cataloged most known birds in the country but his renderings were somewhat stiff and lifeless. Audubon worked persistently to make the birds in his drawings come to life, placing them in their natural ecosystems, often in active and dramatic poses. A single illustration would sometimes portray several species of bird.

Natural history illustration was and remains to this day crucial in disseminating scientific knowledge about the natural world. Detailed illustrations, graphics, and photographs help convey what's being explained in the text. Sometimes all the facets come together perfectly. Such is the case with Birds of America; its high regard is based on both its level of visual artistry and scientific information.

Since American printers couldn’t accommodate the oversize plates he insisted upon using, Audubon traveled to Great Britain where his paintings (and he himself) became an overnight sensation. The Brits were eager to learn anything about the new American frontier, its people and environs. The book’s original edition was printed by engraver Robert Havell (and son) starting in 1826. The process of engraving and printing all 435 plates took a dozen years and cost Audubon $111,640, a huge sum for the time. He financed the initial printing mainly through advance subscriptions, exhibitions, and lectures (a teen-aged Charles Darwin attended one of these).

Golden Eagle: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICA
Golden Eagle: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICACourtesy Wikimedia Commons
Initially, four title pages were sent to subscribers (including King George IV, an admirer of Audubon). Prints were then issued in groups of five with the idea the buyers – if they chose to do so - would bind them together at their own cost. Each separate illustration was printed in black and white using etching and aquatint techniques on large copper plates 39 x 28 in dimension. They were then each hand-painted by an army of colorists, a technique common in the 19th Century. An accompanying volume of text titled Ornithological Biographies was later added for each of the four plate volumes. The biographies match the illustrations in their scope. Audubon (aided by ornithologist William MacGillivray) gives a detailed description of each bird’s features (including drawings of internal organs), their behaviors, and the environments in which they lived.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICA
Ivory-billed Woodpecker: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICACourtesy Wikimedia Commons
Audubon originally published about 750 copies of Birds of America of which only 219 copies are extant today. Of those, only 119 complete copies exist, most of which are in museum and library collections. Eleven copies are in private hands and this latest intact volume is one of two to be auctioned in the last decade. Over the years, many of the original editions were broken up and sold as individual illustrations. But with so few intact editions available now their value has skyrocketed against the amount single prints would attract.

After his death, Audubon’s wife sold most of the original paintings reproduced in Birds of America to the New York Historical Society for $4000! Luckily for us, the originals are occasionally put on display there, and that would be something to see. Audubon’s final project titled Vivaraporous Quadrupeds of North America was completed posthumously by his sons.

You'd be hard pressed to name a work of as monumental as Birds of America in terms of art and science, as it's considered by many to be one of the most important natural history books in existence. And Audubon was served well by it both financially and the worldwide acclaim it brought him. He was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Linnaean Society, and was only the second American to be named a fellow by London's Royal Society (Ben Franklin was the first). Charles Darwin made three mentions of Audubon’s work in his own book On the Origin of Species. The ornithological organization the National Audubon Society is named in his honor. Not a bad legacy for a backwoods kid who just loved birds.

Complete Birds of America (with biographies) at Univ. of Pittsburgh
Book auction story
Audubon bio
The Havell Edition
Audubon Minnesota
St. Paul Audubon Society

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Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

rockywp's picture
rockywp says:

He managed to draw them pretty well I would say.

posted on Tue, 12/14/2010 - 12:01am

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