America through the Eyes of a Bird: John Audubon
John-James Audoban is now regarded as perhaps one of the finest naturalists of early American history, and is quotes no less than three times by Charles Darwin in his Origins of the Species. Originally named Jean-Jacques Audoban, the naturalist and painter was born to the French colony of Saint-Dominigue (now Haiti) in 1785, during the tumultuous quest for American independence from the British. During the American Revolution and the uprising of the former slaves of Haiti, Jean-Jacques’ father brought his children back to France during the times of the starting French Revolution, where, for a time, they were insulated from the chaos and unrest by their wealth and status. Jean-Jacques emigrated however, at the earliest opportunity, back to America to avoid conscription into the Napoleonic Wars, and there started a new life as a painter and a businessman (shipping and exports).
Whilst all of the above is doubtless interesting to the historian and the collector (Audoban was a witness or a participant to many of the important events of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, including the Great New Madrid earthquake of 1811, the Panic of 1819 as well as meeting frontier explorer Daniel Boone) – it was his ‘hobby’ for which he is remembered.
Thankfully for us, Audoban was mostly terrible at business, and earned his money painting death-bed portraits and remembrances. This allowed him and his wife to go on hunting trips to shoot with fine shot many of the continents unique bird species, before life-posing them to paint in watercolour, chalk, and gouche. These paintings became known as the famous Birds of America which is still considered one of the most important ornithological works of the country to date.
In 1825-6, word of his impressive collection of bird portraits was spreading, and Audoban travelled to England to exhibit and make sales of his future work. He had conceived of a vast compendium of natural depictions, for which he sold subscriptions (advances on future work). What sets Audoban’s work out from the field is that he posed his studies in life-like ways (using wires) and painted directly from life, in the field; most naturalist painters only previously painted stuffed taxidermy animals. Audoban’s work has a remarkable life-like quality which holds true even to this day.
For the collector, the oldest collected copies to be found of his Birds of America date from the 1870 reissue (collecting together all of the subscription volumes into one work) about thirty years after they first appeared in print. This version, from Lockwood & Son is available with 500 colour bird plates for no less than thirty five thousand US dollars.
Do not despair however, as there are many other fine opportunities for the collector: The Birds of America has been continually represented in Special and Collected Editions by Fine Art Publishers, including the University of Texas (1993) available for under three hundred US dollars, and American Heritage Publishing (1966) for under five hundred US dollars, featuring an attractive leather-bound cover, and over 400 reproduced colour prints of the original paintings.
Audubon, John James. The Birds of America. Audubon J.J. (1871). From Drawings Made In The United States And Their Territories. - The Quadrupeds Of North America; 11 Volumes; 655 Hand-Colored Lithographed Plates With Colour Tinted Backgrounds After Audubon By W.E. Hitchcock, R. Trembly And Others, Printed And Hand-Finished By J.T. Bowen.
Audubon, John James. Delineations of American scenery and character. G.A. Baker and Company New York (1926). With An Introduction By Francis Hobart Herrick
Audubon, John James. Journal of John James Audubon. Club of Odd Volumes, Boston (1929). Howard Corning; 2 Volumes; 225 Copies.
Audubon, John James. Letters of John James Audubon. The Club of Odd Volumes, Boston (1930). Edited By H. Corning; 2 Volumes; 225 Copies.
Audubon, John James. The Birds Of America. Macmillan Co, N.Y. (1953). With An Introduction And Descriptive Captions By William Vogt.
Audubon, John James. The Original Water-Colour Paintings for The Birds of America. American Heritage Publishing (1966). 431 Exact Reproductions In Full Color From The Collection At The New York Historical Society; With An Introduction By Marshall B. Davidson; 2 Volumes.
Audubon, John James. The Birds of America. Ariel Press, Leipzig (1973). A Selection Of Plates Facsimile; 2 Volumes; 1000 Copies.
Audubon, John James. American Wildlife Heritage. Volair Limited, Kent, OH (1977). American Wildlife Heritage: Selected Birds Of America (Vol. 1) , Selected Quadrupeds Of North America (Vol. 2) , American Wildlife Heritage (Vols. 3-10) , Plus Index (Vol. 11) - Eleven (11) Volume Set; 5000 Copies.
Audubon, John James. The Complete Audubon. Volair Books, Kent (1979). A Precise Replica Of The Complete Works Of John James Audubon Comprising The Birds Of Ameirca (1840-44) And The Quadrapeds Of North America (1851-54); 5 Volumes.
Audubon, John James. Audubons Birds of America. Abbeville Press, Incorporated (1981). The Audubon Society Baby Elephant Folio; Peterson, Roger Tory, and Virginia Marie Peterson; 2500 Copies.
Audubon, John James. Audubons Great National Work. University of Texas Press, Austin (1993). The Royal Octavo Edition Of The Birds Of America; 1,500 Copies.
Audubon, John James. Audubons Birds of America. Abbeville Press (2003). Editor-Roger Tory Peterson Institute; The Audubon Society Baby Elephant Folio
Audubon, John James. The John James Audubon portfolio. Edition De La Main Fleurie, Pascal (2004). A Selection Of The Original Drawings And Watercolors Used In The Making Of Birds Of America Accompanied By A Choice Of Audubons Writings; 2 Volumes; Edited With A Introduction By Ben Forkner; 2500 Copies.