Audubon's Soaring Birds of America

Audubon's Soaring Birds of America   by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Christie's.

When American Wildlife painter John James Audubon was young he was an avid sportsman and enjoyed shooting his share of birds.  In blood up to his elbows is how it is sometimes described.  He took far more specimens than he needed for his portraits and anatomical studies.

My drawings at first were made altogether in watercolors, but they wanted softness and a great deal of finish.
— John James Audubon

It took time for Audubon to develop his bird-obsessed conservation conscience.  In the end his goal was to depict every species of bird on the North American continent.  

In an era when there were no game laws, no refuges, no national parks, no attention paid to the environment, it was Audubon who ultimately wrote powerfully about the urgency of protecting the environment.  As he aged and traveled he could see the trend of negligence on the horizon.  Many of his words were prophetic.    

“A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children,” he said.  Audubon’s life was about living in harmony with nature and he’s considered to be the greatest painter of American wildlife.

Audubon made publishing history with his extra-large; double elephant folio of the “The Birds of America.”  He insisted on the huge format so that even the Wild Turkey could be shown life-size.

He was a self-taught naturalist and writer.  Early on he failed at running a number of small businesses in frontier towns along the Ohio River.  His real passion was always birds and he spent years searching for and painting every species he could locate.  His goal was to assemble a state-of-the-art illustrated account.

All he needed was money and no one in America backed him.  He knew the project would be difficult to do and expensive.  So the 41-year-old sailed across the Atlantic to England in 1826. 

It was a British Family, the Rathbones of Liverpool who supported him in the project’s early stages.   Novelist Sir Walter Scott met Audubon a few months into his stay and described him as acute, handsome and interesting. 

Audubon’s monumental work consisted of 435 hand-colored, life-size prints, made from engraved copper plates of various sizes depending on the size of the image. They were printed on sheets measuring about 39 by 26 inches.  The work contained just over 700 North American bird species. 

The cost of printing the entire work was $115,640.  Audubon sold oil-painted copies of the drawings to make extra money to publicize the book.

Audubon’s approach to painting the birds in his illustrations was simple.  He would attach a freshly shot bird with pins, skewers and wire to a board he constructed and arrange it in the position he wanted to depict.  Next he put a grid behind the bird and another on his sheet of paper so he could get accurate dimensions.  Then he drew and painted the birds before their colors began to fade.

“My drawings at first were made altogether in watercolors, but they wanted softness and a great deal of finish,” he said.

After “The Birds of America” Audubon did a sequel “Ornithological Biographies.”  This was a collection of histories of each species written with ornithologist William MacGillivray.  The two books were printed separately.  Both were published between 1827 and 1838.

On January 20, Christie’s, New York, sold a copy of Audubon’s “The Birds of America” for $7.9 million.  The Duke of Portland set had 435 hand-colored engravings in a four-volume set of double-elephant folios over 3 feet high. 

The set was acquired by William Henry Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, the fourth Duke of Portland after 1838.  The condition and colors were excellent.   


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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