John James Audubon was noted for his expansive studies to document all types of American birds and for his detailed illustrations of birds in their natural habitat. His most widely known piece of work, a color-plate book called Birds of America is considered one of the finest ornithological works ever created. In his lifetime, Audubon identified 25 new species of birds.
Audubon once said, “I felt an intimacy with [birds]…bordering on frenzy [that] must accompany my steps through life.” His father encouraged his interest in nature. “[John James Audubon] would point out the elegant movement of the birds, and the plumage. He called my attention to their show of pleasure or sense of danger, their perfect forms and splendid attire. He would speak of their departure and return with the seasons.”
Audubon learned to play the flute and violin; he also learned to ride, fence, and dance. He loved to walk through the forests and collect various natural objects such as birds’ eggs and nests, of which he sketched crude drawings.
He was committed to find and paint all the birds of North America for eventual publication, aspiring to surpass even the great work of the poet-naturalist Alexander Wilson. He began work on Birds of North America and tried to paint one page a day, traveling across North America to find new species. Sometimes he sold extra artwork to raise money for more paints. When at last, after many years of work, he finished the book, he could find no one in North America willing to publish his expensive project, so he followed the advice from his wife, Lucy Audubon, and sailed to England. Here his works were received with great enthusiasm, and he was lionized as “the American woodsman”. In England he was able to raise up enough money to begin publishing his book.
Birds of America consists of 435 hand-colored, life-sized prints of 497 bird species, made from engraved copper plates. Printed on sheets measuring about 39 by 36 inches (660 mm), the work contains just over 700 North American bird species. The cost of printing the entire book was $115,640 (over $2,000,000 today). The magnificent creation took more than 14 years of field observations and drawings, along with Audubon’s single-handed management and promotion to ensure its success. A reviewer wrote, “All anxieties and fears which overshadowed his work in the beginning had passed away. The prophecies of kind but overprudent friends, who did not understand his self-sustaining energy, had proved untrue; the malicious hope of his enemies, for even the gentle lover of nature has enemies, was disappointed; he had secured a commanding place in the respect and gratitude of men.”
Sadly, all but 80 of the original copper plates were melted down when Lucy Audubon, in desperate need of money after her husband’s death, sold them for scrap to Phelps Dodge Company.
Audubon’s method of painting was, at the time, new to people. He would shoot a bird with fine shot and prop them in a natural position with wire, instead of stuffing them and standing them in rigid positions as most ornithologists do. He most often painted them in their natural habitats, instead of the stiff representations of birds painted by other artists such as Alexander Wilson. He preferred to paint them engaging in activities such as hunting or singing. Using primarily watercolor and smoothing the feathers with chalk, his painting methods began to improve as he worked until he decided to scrap some of his earlier paintings and start anew with his new found skills. All of the species were drawn life sized, which is why, in some of the paintings of large birds, the subjects are in rather contorted positions, for Audubon had to struggle to fit them within the page boundaries.
Audubon’s health began to fail in 1848, and on January 27th, 1851, he died in his family home. However, his legacy lives on still, inspiring many ornithologists and artists. Many places have been dedicated to him:
- The homestead Mill grove in Audubon, PA is open to the public and contains a museum presenting all his major works, including Birds of North America.
- The Audubon Museum at John James Audubon State Park in Henderson, Kentucky houses many of Audubon’s original watercolors, oils, engravings, and personal memorabilia.
- In 1905, the National Audubon Society was incorporated and named in his honor, Its mission “is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds…”
- On December 6th, 1010, a copy of Birds of North America was sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $11.5 million, a record price for a single printed book.