John James Audubon and The Birds of America

Mallard Ducks from “The Birds of America”; portrait of John James Audubon (decked out in a wolf-skin coat and other accoutrements of the American frontier) painted in 1826 by English artist John Syme.

Born to French parents in the West Indies, John James Audubon immigrated to the United States in 1803, settling first in Pennsylvania. After marrying a Pennsylvania girl, he relocated to Kentucky and was involved in various business ventures.

From his earliest days, he had always loved the outdoors and had an interest in wild animals. Birds were a particular obsession of his. Life on the Kentucky frontier meant frequent hunting and fishing expeditions in order to keep his family fed (especially when his mercantile business experienced slow spells), but he also kept detailed field notes and made drawings of the wildlife he hunted and observed.

John James Audubon: Virginia Partridge, from “The Birds of America”

John James Audubon: Virginia Partridge, from “The Birds of America” Public Domain

After his business ventures failed, he took several odd jobs in the early 1820s, and also engaged in specimen-collecting trips for an ambitious project he had conceived: to publish a book containing drawings of every species of bird in North America.

Having been turned down by publishers in Philadelphia two years earlier, in 1826 Audubon took his growing collection of paintings to England. To his surprise and delight, the reception he received there was highly enthusiastic: the British were taken perhaps as much with his experience as a genuine backwoodsman on the American frontier as they were with his artwork. Before long, he was a celebrity and had raised enough money to begin printing The Birds of America.

Originally published as a multi-volume set from 1827 to 1838, The Birds of North America was printed in large format (39" x 26") and featured 435 hand colored engravings. The ongoing project was funded via a pay-as-you-go subscription service, with subscribers including such early 19th century luminaries as Britain’s King George IV and other European royalty and nobility, along with Americans Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.

John James Audubon: Schinz's Sandpiper, from “The Birds of America”

John James Audubon: Schinz’s Sandpiper, from “The Birds of America” Public Domain

More affordable editions were printed later by American publishers. Audubon himself continued to oversee this work until his declining health forced him to quit in 1848. After his death in 1851, the legacy was furthered by his widow and one of his sons who followed in his father’s footsteps as a painter of wildlife and an ornithologist.

Today, Audubon’s artwork has become a beloved part of America’s cultural heritage. The Audubon Society was founded by his admirers and and fellow bird-lovers in 1896.

Original editions of The Birds of America are among the most prized books in existence, with complete sets bringing anywhere from $7.9 million to $11.5 million at auctions in recent years.

John James Audubon: Bald Eagle (White-headed Eagle), from “The Birds of America”

John James Audubon: Bald Eagle (White-headed Eagle), from “The Birds of America” Public Domain


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