John J. Audubon, Plate 281, Great White Heron, The Birds of America:

The Making of One of the Most Iconic Audubon Prints

Laura Oppenheimer
John James Audubon Plate 281, Great White Heron

The signature qualities of John James Audubon's artistry are readily apparent in the stately beauty and powerful drama of Pl. 281 Great White Heron, Ardea occidentalis. He first encountered great white herons during his expedition to the Florida Keys in 1832, correctly observing that they were the largest species of heron in the United States. Though he noticed that, “these herons are sedate,” to create a dynamic composition he depicted the great white heron while feeding, a time of peak activity. In this singular iconic image he captures the thrill and drama of viewing these extraordinarily large birds as they appeared to him in the wild. Of his discovery of herons with pure white plumage, Audubon, exclaimed, "Writers who have subdivided the family, and stated that none of the true Herons are white, will doubtless be startled when they, for the first time, look at my plate of this bird."


Audubon landed on Indian Key on April 24th, 1832, just two days shy of his forty-seventh birthday. A month later, on May 26th, 1832, he painted a glorious portrait of an adult male in spring plumage feeding on a fish, with a city view of Key West in the background, denoting the presence of man in relation to nature, and emphasizing the heron's great size. As the painting was made preparatory for the engraved work, it included instructions for his London engraver, Robert Havell, Jr., written in the foreground, directly on the painting. A stickler for artistic detail, one of his notes reads, "Keep closely to the Sky in depth of colouring! [H]ave the water a Pea-green tint. Keep the division of the scales on the legs and feet white in your engraving—the colouring over them will subdue them enough." A second note says, "finish the houses better from the original which you have" —referring to the view of Key West, painted separately by the Swiss artist, George Lehman (circa 1800–1870). 

John James Audubon Plate 281, Great White Heron
Audubon's instructions to the engraver Robert Havell were written directly on the painting in the area of the large outcropping of rock in the foreground. (Audubon's Watercolors, Plate 281, Great White Heron) 

Audubon first became acquainted with Lehman in 1824 when they were both impoverished artists. At that time, Audubon was collecting and drawing bird specimens near Pittsburgh for a proposed work on the birds of America, and Lehman, a landscape artist, had recently arrived in this country. In 1829, when his folio was being engraved in London, Audubon returned to the United States to paint additional bird subjects and hired Lehman to assist him in drawing backgrounds and plants. Lehman worked for Audubon for two years and nine months, participating in both of Audubon’s Florida expeditions. 

To achieve overall consistency throughout the printed folio and to fit larger birds onto the sheet, Havell made refinements and changes when translating Audubon's painting into an engraved plate, strictly adhering to Audubon's dictate that all of the birds be depicted in their actual size. Audubon's painting of the great white heron covers the paper to the very edge of the sheet. However, for the engraved plate a border was necessary for engraving the title, fascicle and plate numbers, and other pertinent information. In order to accommodate these elements, and fit the great white heron on the sheet in its actual size, which exceeded the rectangle of the plate, Havell allowed the bird's beak to extend whimsically beyond the edge of rectangle into the sheet's border—a dynamic innovation that further animated Audubon's composition and his portrayal of this avian subject as if it might break free from the two-dimensional plane of the sheet and emerge into three-dimensional space.  

John James Audubon Plate 281, Great White Heron
Audubon Plate 281, Great White Heron, (Oppenheimer Field Museum edition of the Havell edition, 1835)

Also, in Audubon's original painting there are two black birds in the distance near the far shore to the left of Key West. You will notice that in the Havell plate these birds are white. Perhaps it was artistic license on Havell's part to echo the white color of the heron’s plumage. He may also have chosen to represent this detail to exploit the graphic possibilities of contrasting the white birds against the dark, pre-dawn sky, emphasizing the enormity of the male white heron in the foreground in contrast to the diminutive distant white birds in the background, and in this way achieve a graphically cohesive and triumphant finished composition in the folio plate.

Renowned as one of the finest nineteenth-century American painters, in his own day, Audubon's work as an artist, author, and ornithologist was celebrated not only for his captivating avian portraits, but for his discoveries on the forefront of scientific endeavor. In An Index and Guide to Audubon’s Birds of America (1988), author Susanne M. Low writes of this plate “Audubon was correct in calling this bird Great White since that is how it was known in his day and until fairly recently.” The current scientific name for great white herons, Ardea herodias occidentalis, takes into account later insights considering this species a color morph of the great blue heron, Ardea herodias. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website, recent research further suggests that these birds are at least a sub species of the great blue heron. And, some preliminary unpublished data suggest they may be a completely separate species. Today, great white herons may be seen at the Great White Heron Wildlife Refuge and Key West National Wildlife Refuge, in the same unique mangrove swamp habitat in Key West that Audubon first witnessed them.

Audubon's Great White Heron is available in antique and modern-day printings of the double-elephant size Havell, Bien, and New-York Historical Society Watercolor editions, and in the miniature octavo editions of the Havell and watercolor editions.