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06.06.03 Audubon, John James, ornithologist, his Journals (2 volumes, 1897) and The Birds of America (published 1827 through 1838 in England, consisting of 435 large paintings in a “Double Elephant Folio,” afterward republished in many ways).

Notes Concerning the Author/Painter

Some viewers of the Society web-site will think that John James Audubon was either a Frenchman or a Northerner, and be surprised to see him listed among Southern scientists.  They will argue that he was born in Saint-Dominque (later Haiti) and spent time with his father’s family in France before immigrating to America.  Or they will argue that he had a home in Manhattan and is buried there.  But we will counter that many emigrants arrived in the United States and settled in the South and took on the culture of the Southern people.  Those we rightfully classify as Southerners.  And we will counter that he did not purchase the home in Manhattan until late in life, at age 54, long after he had completed his masterpiece of ornithology, The Birds of America.  Yes, Audubon settled with his family in Kentucky from age 23 to age 54, with extended times in Missouri and the lower Mississippi Valley and a few years in England overseeing the publication of and promotion of The Birds of America.  As a result, we of the Society proudly classify Audubon as a Southerner.

Abstract of The Birds of America

Although, beginning the study of birds and drawing them as a teenager in France, it was not until age 35 that he began his intense effort toward classifying, characterizing and illustrating the birds of America, approaching the subject as both an ornithologist and as a painter/illustrator.  On October 12, 1820, he left Kentucky and traveled down the Mississippi River to Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.  For each bird, he located a new specimen in its natural habitat, killed it with unusually small bird shot, arranged the specimen in a life-like pose and commenced to illustrate it in color, complete with an appropriate natural background, using water-colors mostly to colorize the work.  He painted at 100 percent scale.  Big birds took a lot of room, small birds much less, allowing him to paint groupings of small birds in one painting.  He painted on sheets approximating 39 by 26 inches.  He kept detailed journals, which are a separate aspect of his contribution to ornithology.

With the help of his wife Lucy, Audubon travelled to England in search of help in publishing his group of over 300 paintings, arriving there in the fall of 1826, at age 41.  He was successful, remarkably successful.  The result was the publication of The Birds of America, 435 hand-colored, life-size prints of 497 bird species, made from engraved copper plates and printed on sheets measuring 39 by 26 inches.  The principal printing technique was copperplate etching, but engraving and aquatint were also used.  Then watercolour was added by hand, using a team of colorists, sometimes numbering as many as 50.  The work contained just over 700 North American bird species.

Prints were issued in sets of 5 every month or two.  In 1838, at the end of the 13-year project, 435 plates (87 sets of 5) had been issued at a total cost of $870 per customer.  The plates were published unbound (without text to avoid having to furnish free copies to public libraries in England).   It is believe that the total count was about 200 complete sets of individual paintings.  At the conclusion of the publication, Audubon was 53 years old — time to retire from the intense field work.  It was then that he purchased a home in Manhattan.

For information about these birds, people were directed to Audubon’s journals and books published separately.

The paintings were magnificent, illustrating what could be achieved by a naturalist before the age of color photography.

Abstract of The Journals of John James Audubon, 2 Volumes published in 1897 and other Publications:

Audubon’s journals provide an interesting first-hand account of Southern society during his life.  The published material on Audubon is immense.  Besides his journals, which have been published in several editions, for his own writings readers might consult Audubon, Writings and Drawings, 1999 and The Audubon Reader, 2006.

Availability of this Work

The original folio of paintings is rather hard to obtain, certainly beyond the means of this reviewer.  On December 6, 2010 a complete set of the folio sold at Sotheby’s for $11,500,000.  But you can view this work through modern printing and imaging technology, as printed books and e-books.  And you can obtain copies of Audubon’s field journals and species characterizations through reprints.  Just go to the internet and compose inquires that interest you.