John James Audubon Publishes His Illustrated Birds of America (1827-1838)

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John James Audubon Publishes His Illustrated Birds of America (1827-1838)


Prior to 1827 the few published descriptions and illustrations of North American birds had been done in workmanlike but not definitive fashion. French-American artist-naturalist John James Audubon (1785-1851) changed this with the publication of his Birds of America, first in a limited elephant folio edition for wealthy subscribers and institutions and later (1840-44) in a smaller popular edition. This work forever changed the way in which Americans perceived their avian fauna.


From the mid-eighteenth century on, visitors to the British colonies in North America, and later the United States, wrote books and articles describing the birds and other fauna and flora they found there. English naturalist Mark Catesby (c. 1679-1749), in his Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Island (1731-1743), described and illustrated the animals and plants he encountered. He is considered a pioneering ornithologist, having depicted 109 birds. Catesby also enjoys a reputation as America's first ecologist. He was, however, primarily a botanist. Nevertheless, more than 75 modern bird species are based in whole or in part on his descriptions. His illustrations, however, while reasonably accurate, lacked inspiration.

English naturalist Thomas Pennant, who never visited North America, described, in his two-volume Arctic Zoology (1785), 17 birds collected by Captain James Cook (1728-1779) in the Bering Strait and western Alaska region and another 83 found by various collectors in and around Hudson Bay. Pennant's illustrations were often romanticized and not always accurate. He also included many species from northern Europe and some previously described from the United States, while giving coverage to other vertebrates. Additional comments were contained in a 1787 Supplement volume. In subsequent years, naturalists and explorers from several European nations added considerably to these lists.

Scottish-born Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) published seven volumes of his American Ornithology between 1808 and his death in 1813. Two final volumes were brought out by his friend, Philadelphia businessman-naturalist George Ord. Wilson carefully described 278 birds, 48 of them new to science, but his travels were for the most part limited to the eastern seaboard of the United States, and his illustrations, though workman-like and generally accurate, lacked distinction.

The English explorer-naturalist Sir John Richardson and his colleague William Swainson, in their Fauna Boreali-Americana, part second, The Birds (1831), admirably described and illustrated 240 Canadian species, many from the western provinces, setting a high standard not equaled until later in the nineteenth century.

Several factors combined to make Audubon's project a defining work for its time. The Elephant Folio edition of his Birds of America depicted 489 birds (later increased to 500 in the popular edition), nearly twice as many as had appeared in Wilson's books. He covered more ground than any of his predecessors in the United States, visiting the south central and midwestern states and territories, as well as the eastern seaboard. He also traveled to Quebec and Labrador and went up the Missouri River. His artistic talents were far superior to the skills of those who had come before him. Also, the geographical distribution of many of the birds he described ranged into the Middle West and Great Plains areas, then little known to the general public. Finally, he later made a point of bringing his work to the attention of interested Americans and Europeans by selling subscriptions to his book.

Growing numbers of explorers, travelers, military men, and settlers were moving into the central and western territories during the 1820s and 1830s. Birds and other wildlife were the subject of curiosity to these and other Americans. American publishers were becoming more numerous and some of their efforts more ambitious. From this time on, prompted in part by Audubon's work, the great variety and range of American animal and plant life began to draw more than casual attention from American and European naturalists. Increasing numbers of these scientists were doing their own research in the field.

Audubon seems not to have had much formal art training, though he possessed a natural genius. For many years, it was thought that he studied with French portrait painter Jacques Louis David in Paris, but Audubon's modern biographers do not believe this is true. For nearly 20 years, from his first arrival in Pennsylvania in 1803, Audubon gradually perfected his technique, shooting birds and animals, arranging his specimens with the use of wires and pins, drawing them skillfully, and sometimes practicing his taxidermic skills. His first trip to the central plains took place in 1807. Unfortunately, limitations of time and money prevented him from ever seeing and depicting the birds of the Far West. Audubon's efforts to support himself, his wife, and their two sons (two daughters died in childhood) by means of various business ventures ultimately resulted in bankruptcy. Lucy Audubon became a teacher to help support the family, and Audubon himself made and sold portraits of various persons to bring in needed income. But not all blame for his business reverses can be attributed to Audubon. He and his partners also suffered from commercial interruptions brought about by President Thomas Jefferson's embargo on American exports between 1807-09, the War of 1812, and from periodic worldwide and domestic economic adversities. Brief employment as a taxidermist at a museum in Cincinnati ended when the director admitted he could not pay Audubon's salary, though he praised Audubon's abilities as an artist and taxidermist.

Audubon's chance meeting with several contemporaries may have influenced his decision to become a full-time bird artist. Alexander Wilson and Constantine S. Rafinesque, two active naturalists, had at different times visited Audubon's store in Kentucky. Wilson was peddling his bird books, which Audubon did not buy, while Rafinesque sought information concerning local wildlife. Audubon thought his artistic abilities superior to Wilson's, although he was intrigued by the amount of information his visitor had collected and the literary manner in which he wrote about birds. Rafinesque was a scientist, not an artist, who spread himself too thinly across many disciplines. He frequently published descriptions of new species of plants and animals he had identified, some on tenuous grounds. Many scientists of his time thought this activity somewhat irrational and did not take Rafinesque seriously.

Audubon, who had gradually been accumulating several hundred of his drawings and paintings, began to see that his fascination with birds might be translated into a project that would interest a wider audience, while also bringing in needed income. In 1820 Audubon and his wife decided that he should take the plunge and compile a book about American birds. Several years followed, during which Audubon created many new paintings, and in 1824 he took a portfolio of them to Philadelphia, the nation's center of scientific research. There and in New York, a number of prominent naturalists praised his work and encouraged him to get it published. But Audubon also needlessly antagonized several key individuals, among them friends and supporters of Wilson's who in turn influenced Philadelphia engravers and printers not to help Audubon with his book. Audubon concluded that he had no alternative but to get the project published in England.

With high hopes Audubon scraped funds together for a trip to England in 1826. He soon secured the backing of scientists and socially prominent persons there, many of whom subscribed to his Birds of America. Their advance payments made publication possible, though some subscriptions ultimately lapsed or were not paid for. Audubon had to support himself by painting, often of extraneous subjects. After several false starts, Robert Havell Jr. of London was engaged to engrave the plates, and he worked rapidly and well to complete the project.

While he was in Europe, Audubon received much praise for his work, and he was elected to a number of scientific societies. Several Atlantic crossings followed over thirteen years, as Audubon went back to America to find and paint more of the birds he needed for his project. Some were derived from study skins procured by others; ultimately, 489 birds were depicted in 435 plates.

In 1830 William MacGillivray, a young Scots naturalist, was hired to polish Audubon's English and help the older man prepare copy in the proper scientific manner for his Ornithological Biography, the five-volume text that was to accompany Audubon's plates. Audubon also had to be reminded of the necessity of preparing museum study specimens of his birds as a basis for his bird descriptions. The elephant folio edition of the Birds of America was finally completed in 1838. A Synopsis, with corrections and additions, appeared in 1839. Audubon and his sons, both competent artists in their own right, then turned their attention to the publication of a smaller, "popular" American edition (7 volumes, 1840-1844), in which Audubon's text was finally combined with his plates. Ultimately, the 435 plates in the elephant folio edition rose to 500, matching the number of birds described. Background details were very much simplified. Though still expensive, nine editions of this smaller edition were published, the last in 1871.


Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), the eminent French anatomist and paleontologist, termed Audubon's Birds of America "the greatest monument ever erected by Man to Nature." Audubon's pictures and text take the reader back to a time when American birdlife was in many ways different. There were many more birds a century and a half ago; some species then numerous have since become extinct.

Though much of the scientific information accompanying Audubon's Birds has been revised over the past 150 years, his bird drawings, increasingly in demand, have often been reprinted. Sets of the original engravings have been broken up and the individual prints sold for very large sums. Audubon's reputation as a distinguished early American artist is secure. Many persons enjoy the dramatic spirit and color of his birds and mammals. For others, his work exemplifies their nostalgic feelings about American wildlife in the early years of the Republic. Audubon also enjoys some standing as a pioneering conservationist, though his concern with preserving American wildlife developed relatively late in life.


Further Reading


Audubon, John James. Birds of America. 7 vols. New York: Dover Publications, 1967.

Audubon, John James, and John Bachman. TheQuadrupeds of North America. 3 vols. New York: Arno Press, 1974.

De Latte, Carolyn. Lucy Audubon. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Ford, Alice. John James Audubon. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.

Fries, Waldemar. The Double Elephant Folio: The Story ofAudubon's Birds of America. Chicago: The American Library Association, 1973.

Herrick, Francis H. Audubon the Naturalist. Rev. ed. New York: D. Appleton Century, 1938. Reprint in two volumes, New York: Dover Publications, 1968.

Low, Suzanne. An Index and Guide to Audubon's "Birds ofAmerica." New York: American Museum of Natural History and Abbeville Press, 1988.

Shuler, Jay. Had I The Wings: The Friendship of Bachman and Audubon. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1995.

Tyler, Ron. Audubon's Great National Work: The RoyalOctavo Edition of the Birds of America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.


Allen, Elsa Guerdrum. "History of Ornithology before Audubon." Transactions 41 (1951): 387-591.

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John James Audubon Publishes His Illustrated Birds of America (1827-1838)

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