Audubon, John James

The Greatest & Best Known Book of American Ornithology
John James Audubon (1785-1851)
From: The Birds of America
London: Robert Havell, 1827-1838
Hand-colored aquatint and copperplate engravings
Paper size approximately 34" x 26 1/4"

 

Audubon’s Birds of America is unique in the world of art due to its combination of scientific accuracy and aesthetic appeal. America’s first true naturalist was a self-made man whose life work not only serves as the greatest document of nineteenth-century American natural history, but is also a testament to the creative American spirit.

Untutored in either ornithological study or painting, John James Audubon (1785-1851) was motivated from his boyhood by his love of rendering birds in their natural setting. Born in what is now Haiti and raised in France, Audubon arrived in America in 1803 at the age of eighteen. He soon began traveling widely east of the Mississippi, working at various jobs and all the while pursuing his passionate avocation of sketching and observing the habits of birds. His dream was to compile a volume of colored prints depicting in actual size all of the birds of North America. As his portfolio grew, Audubon traveled to Philadelphia, the publishing capital of the young nation at the time. Unable to find financial support and an engraver equal to his task, Audubon sailed to England in 1826 to realize his dream.

The first exhibition of the paintings of Audubon, who was encouraged to bill himself as the “American woodsman,” was met with public and critical acclaim in Liverpool, and Audubon gradually gathered financial support for his project. W. H. Lizars of Edinburgh was contracted as Audubon’s engraver, but after completing only ten of the Birds of America plates, Lizars resigned. Robert Havell and Sons of London took over for Lizars in 1827, and they continued to engrave and hand color Audubon’s Birds of America for the next eleven years. Havell completed the Birds of America in the double elephant folio size in 1838. Scholars estimate that only 175 complete folios of all 435 plates were published in all.

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