Tuesday, January 24

Audubon’s engravings.
French- American naturalist, ornithologist and artist John James Audubon (1785-1951) was born in the French colony of Santa Domingo, later known as Haiti. He was son of a sea captain, Jean Audubon and a servant girl on a sugar plantation. His mother Jeanne Rabin died when he was not yet a year old. His father cared for him a couple of years then sent the child to France to be raised by his middle-aged wife Anne. This selfless woman lovingly raised John and nurtured and provided him education.

Hare Indian dog. Plate CXXXII.
(Click to enlarge or download)

When he was a boy he enjoyed wandering through the woods, collecting things from nature, and watching the birds. He began to draw pictures of birds and animals.
When he was eighteen years old his father either sent him or went with him to America to his plantation Mill Grove in Pennsylvania possibly to avoid conscription into Napoleon’s army.

White-headed eagle.Plate XXXI.
(Click to enlarge or download)

He continued to draw. He changed from the use of pastels to watercolors. He taught himself through trial and error specializing in birds.
His marriage in 1808 to Lucy Blackwell, an English woman and neighbor, added stability to his life and she was a constant source of encouragement to him. They had four children. Their two daughters died when they were babies, but their two sons lived to adulthood. The sons, Victor and John, became artists and help their father with the painting of the backgrounds for his birds. They were also active in the publication of his works.

During his early days in America he worked at improving his drawing techniques, and became skilled at specimen preparation and taxidermy, even working for a time in that capacity at a museum in Cincinnati
Audubon was the first person to start bird-banding studies in America. He tied lightweight strings to their legs, and he could track their travels as they nested, left the area, and then returned to the nest.

Yellow-billed Magpie.

He travelled across the eastern and central United States -often alone, sometimes with an assistant- to gather images of over 500 known species of bird. He would often draw them from life, but sometimes killed his avian subjects and posed them with wires into life-like positions in order to capture them on paper. The latter technique guaranteed the birds wouldn’t fly off. He used all sorts of media considered unconventional at the time to create his masterpiece images. Backgrounds were created sometimes by the artist himself but more often by several assistants. These paintings reflect Audubon's love and fascination with the beauty and dynamics of American birds and the rest of their natural heritage. He printed them on large sheets of paper labeled "Double Elephant Folio" because of its large size. The resulting monumental book was called Birds of America that was a well-planned venture long before it finally came to fruition, it took him 12 years to complete his ambitious work. Audubon had the title in mind when he set about in 1820 to paint every known bird in America. Each species is illustrated showing male, female and juveniles in their natural habitat, exhibiting typical behavior and not only does he give us high definition and painstakingly observed scientific detail, he also depicts each species with such beauty, that he seems to reveal some kind of fundamental truth. His goal was to eventually produce a body of work that would far surpass any other in existence. And he did exactly that. For nearly three years he roamed down the Mississippi River and across the American frontier searching out specimens to paint, sometimes purchasing them from local hunters.
Since American printers couldn’t accommodate the oversize plates he insisted upon using, Audubon traveled to Great Britain where his paintings (and he himself) became an overnight sensation. The Brits were eager to learn anything about the new American frontier, its people and environs. The book’s original edition was printed by engraver Robert Havell (and son) starting in 1826. The process of engraving and printing all 435 plates took a dozen years and cost Audubon $111,640, a huge sum for the time. He financed the initial printing mainly through advance subscriptions, (including King George IV, an admirer of Audubon),exhibitions, and lectures (a teen-aged Charles Darwin attended one of these).

Jumping mouse. Plate LXXXV.
(Click to enlarge or download)

Audubon originally published about 750 copies of Birds of America of which only 219 copies are extant today. Of those, only 119 complete copies exist, most of which are in museum and library collections. Eleven copies are in private hands and this latest intact volume is one of two auctioned in 2010 for more than £7.3 million. It’s the most expensive book in the world and maybe the most beautiful.

Townsends Rocky Mountain Hare.
Plate III.
(Click to enlarge or download)
Audubon also applied his methodology and artistry to create a record of the Native American mammals. He published a large book of animal drawings, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America which became an immediate success on publication, illustrated many frontier mammals never before seen or depicted. Sadly, Audubon died before the publication of his final project and  was completed posthumously by his son, John Woodhouse Audubon. The legacy of Audubon to the world was in these two superb works on American Birds and  Quadrupeds which have come to signify a love of all wild creatures and the environment, epitomized today by the Audubon Society, as well as  immortalized worldwide in publications and the stamps of over 60 countries.
As you can see Audubon combined scientific observation and exquisite beauty.

If some of you are interested in these engravings, just email me. I will give some of them for free until 31st January 2012. After that date you will be able to purchase them at a symbolic price, sure we will reach agreement.