John J. Audubon, Pl. 229 Scaup Duck

The Birds of America, Havell Edition, 1826-1838

Laura Oppenheimer

John J. Audubon, Pl. 229 Scaup Duck, The Birds of America, Havell edition, 1826-38

Renowned for his legendary undertaking to depict all the birds of America, the images John James Audubon (1785–1851) created for his great work, the Birds of America, are icons of 19th-century art.

The distinctive pattern of the male bird’s whitish back covered with thin black wavy lines in the feathers, its yellow eyes surrounded by iridescent black, brown and green feathers and its contrasting blue bill, tipped in black, are striking details of this print. In the composition, Audubon’s horizontal placement of the birds is accented by the spreading green leaves of grass behind the ducks and linear quality of the bank. The cool colors of the birds’ pale blue feet and bills and fan of green grasses in the near background initiate a subtle visual dynamic in this elegant formal composition depicting a male Scaup Duck on the left and a female with her bill serenely nestled into her back feathers on the right predominantly in warm earth tones.

Today called Greater Scaup, Aythya affinis (Susanne M. Low, Index and Guide to Audubon’s Birds of America) Audubon’s entry in the Ornithological Biography disputes his predecessor in American ornithology Alexander Wilson’s information about this species of duck’s range of habitat, providing new information based upon Audubon’s more extensive exploration in the west. “The opinion, derived from WILSON'S account of the Scaup Duck, that it is met with only along our sea coasts, in bays, or in the mouths of rivers, as far as the tide extends, is incorrect. Had WILSON resided in the Western Country, or seen our large lakes and broad rivers during late autumn, winter, or early spring, he would have had ample opportunities of observing thousands of this species, on the Ohio, the Missouri, and the Mississippi, from Pittsburg to New Orleans.

J. Whatman paper, pristine hand-coloring, excellent condition, 27.825 x 29.625 inches.

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Audubon explored the American backwoods and wilderness to discover, record, and illustrate its avian life. America’s most revered artist-naturalist was born in Saint-Domingue (present day Haiti), the bastard son of Jean Audubon, a French sea captain. The embarrassing fact of his illegitimate birth was hidden by his family until well after Audubon’s death. To escape a slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue, in 1791 the handsome young boy was brought to his father’s home in Nantes, France, where he was raised and cherished by his father’s childless wife, Anne Moynet. In 1803, to avoid conscription in Napoleon’s army, his father sent him to manage Mill Grove, a farm he owned near Philadelphia.

From childhood, Audubon was fascinated by nature, drawing  and studying birds during extended “rambles” in the woods. However, it was not until he was the father of two sons of his own that Audubon fully embraced the life of an artist-naturalist with the support of his devoted wife, Lucy Audubon. In 1820, Audubon left his family in Cincinnati, embarking with a young apprentice, Joseph R. Mason. They crossed the Ohio River to the Mississippi on a flatboat to New Orleans. Mason worked with Audubon from 1820 until 1822, contributing mostly botanical elements to about 55 of Audubon’s paintings. Later in the project, the artists George Lehman, Maria Martin, and his sons Victor Gifford Audubon and John Woodhouse Audubon assisted John James Audubon with botanical backgrounds.

In 1826, he brought his portfolio of primarily watercolor paintings to Great Britain where his work was applauded by the scientific community and admired by the elite classes. There he met the engraver Robert Havell, who was able to undertake engraving Audubon’s great work in the size of life. Together with Havell, J. J. Audubon created the lavish double-elephant-size folio of The Birds of America—completed with the help of family, friends, and other capable assistants.

In Edinburgh, the Scottish engraver W. H. Lizars began to produce the very first plates in 1826. However, after the completion of only ten plates, Lizars’ colorists went on strike. Audubon continued his pursuit in London with Robert Havell, who published The Birds of America from 1827 to 1838. Twelve years in the making, the completed work comprised 435 hand-colored engravings. Havell also retouched Lizars’ original efforts, adding aquatint to the engraving and etching. On those plates, Havell’s name appears alongside that of the Scottish engraver’s.

Audubon sold 186 subscriptions to the complete folio of The Birds of America, each of which commanded the princely sum of $1,000—­the cost of a substantial home at that time. Published on sheets measuring 261/2 by 39 inches, called “double elephant” by the printing trade, the resultant aquatint engravings depict each subject in its actual size and are among the largest ever made. Still, Audubon often altered the larger birds’ natural postures, creatively composing the figure to fit within the dimensions of the sheet.

Of the 186 complete sets produced, more than 100 are intact in library and museum collections worldwide. Since first produced by Havell over 175 years ago, few of the sets have been broken to make individual prints available for sale. Joel Oppenheimer, Inc. specializes in these rare, original engravings, maintaining an extensive inventory, many in exceptionally fine condition.

For further information or to purchase, please call the gallery at 312-642-5300.

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