John J. Audubon, Pl. 371 Cock of the Plains, Birds of America, Havell Edition, 1827–1838, Hand-colored Engraving

$17,000 this week only (list price $22,000). Offer expires 9-4-2017

Laura Oppenheimer


John J. Audubon, Pl. 371 Cock of the PlainsThe Birds of America, Havell edition, 1827–1838, Hand-colored engraving

Acquire a superb Havell edition aquatint engraving by John J. Audubon, Plate 371, Cock of the PlainsTetrao urophasianus (Bonap.), available this week only at a substantial discount. The current name is greater sage grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus (Bonaparte).

A female (left) and a male (right) are depicted on a grassy plateau overlooking a plain and mountains in the distance. Audubon did not explore the western United States. The birds, depicted in fine detail, were executed by J. J. Audubon from specimens he purchased from naturalists Thomas Nuttall (1786–1859) and John Townsend (1809–1851). They collected most of the western birds Audubon depicted while they were on the Nathaniel Wyeth Expedition to the Oregon Country in 1834. It has been suggested that Audubon's son, Victor Gifford, contributed the grassy habitat in the foreground of the picture plane. The mountains and plains behind the birds in the background were added later, probably by the engraver, Robert Havell, Jr.   

Townsend and Nuttall, and others, also contributed eye-witness accounts that Audubon included in his text description of the habits and range of this bird. In the Ornithological Biography, Audubon writes,

Although the Cock of the Plains has long been known to exist within the limits of the United States, the rugged and desolate nature of the regions inhabited by it has hitherto limited our knowledge of its habits to the cursory observations made by the few intrepid travellers who, urged by their zeal in the cause of science, have ventured to explore the great ridge of mountains that separate our western prairies from the rich valleys bordering on the Pacific Ocean. Two of these travellers, my friends Mr. TOWNSEND and Mr. NUTTALL, have favoured me with the following particulars respecting this very remarkable species, the history of which, not being myself personally acquainted with it...

"Tetrao Urophasianus, Pi-imsh of the Wallah Wallah Indians, Mak-esh-too-yoo of the Nezpercee Indians, is first met with about fifty miles west of the Black Hills. We lose sight of it in pursuing the route by the Snake river until we reach Wallah Wallah, on the banks of the Columbia, near the mouth of Lewis river. This bird is only found on the plains which produce the worm-wood (Artemisia), on which plant it feeds, in consequence of which the flesh is so bitter that it is rejected as food. It is very unsuspicious, and easily approached, rarely flies unless hard pressed, runs before you at the distance of a few feet, clucking like the common hen, often runs under the horses of travellers when disturbed, rises very clumsily, but when once started, flies with rapidity to a great distance, and has the sailing motion of the Pinnated Grouse. In the autumn they frequent the branches of the Columbia river, where they feed on a narrow-leaved plant. At this time they are considered good food by the natives, who take great quantities of them in nets. J. K. TOWNSEND."

A richly hand-colored engraving in pristine condition. Engraved, printed, and colored by R. Havell & Son in London, J. Whatman paper, 1837, double-elephant size, 25.5 x 38.625 inches.

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 nineteenth-century art. 

References: An Index and Guide to Audubon's Birds of America, Susanne M. Low, 1988, page 159; Ornithological Biography, or an account of the habits of the Birds of the United States of  America, John James Audubon, 1838, Vol. IV, page 503; The Original Water-color Paintings by John James Audubon for the Birds of America, Vol. II, 1966, Plate 399, Sage Grouse; The Birds of America, John James Audubon: The Bien Chromolithographic Edition, Joel Oppenheimer, 2013, page 37.

 $17,000 this week only (list price $22,000). Offer expires 9-4-17.

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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 1838Twelve 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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