Audubon explored the American backwoods and wilderness to discover, record, and illustrate its avian life. America’s most revered artist-naturalist, John James Audubon (1785–1851), is renowned for his extraordinary undertaking to record the birds of America. The images he created are icons of 19th-century art. Fascinated by nature since childhood, it was not until 1819, when he was the father of two sons, that Audubon fully embraced the life of an artist-naturalist. In 1820, Audubon left his family in Cincinnati, embarking with a young apprentice, Joseph R. Mason. Mason worked with Audubon from 1820 until 1822, contributing mostly botanical elements to about 55 of Audubon’s paintings. Later, the artists George Lehman, Maria Martin, and his sons Victor Gifford Audubon and John Woodhouse Audubon assisted John James Audubon with botanical and landscape backgrounds.
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John James Audubon Biography
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 26 1/2 by 39 1/4 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.Return to top of page
Audubon Editions Comparison
Below are 4 images of John James Audubon's rendering of the Wild Turkey, Male. They are displayed in chronological order based on the date of their creation. The first is the original watercolor John James Audubon created in 1825 as the preparatory artwork for the Birds of America. The second is the resulting hand-colored engraving William Lizars and, later, Robert Havell rendered from Audubon's watercolor reference in 1827. The third is the royal octavo edition produced by Bowen and Co. in 1839. The fourth is the chromolithograph Julius Bien created in 1858.
39 1/4 x 26 1/4 inches, produced 1825. Audubon's rendering of the Wild Turkey. When you read "Drawn from Nature" on an Audubon print, this is the drawing being referred to.
Havell & Lizars edition hand-colored engraving
Sheet size: 39 1/4 x 26 1/2 inches, plate size: 38 1/8 x 25 1/2 inches, produced 1827. This was original engraved by William Lizars. It was later re-worked by Havell.
Octavo edition hand-colored lithograph
Sheet size: 10 1/4 x 6 1/2 inches, produced 1839. This miniature was created by J.T. Bowen and co. in 1839.
About the Havell Edition
John James Audubon’s work synthesizes his intimate knowledge of his subjects with his immense artistic ability. Therein lies his genius and the reason he is recognized today as a great American artist. Hailed in his lifetime for his artistic achievement, Audubon’s stature as an artist has continued to increase, and his work remains unchallenged as the superlative example of its genre.
In Edinburgh, the Scottish engraver W. H. Lizars began to produce the very first plates for The Birds of America in 1826. However, after the completion of only ten plates, Lizars’ colorists went on strike, and Audubon was forced to continue his pursuit with another engraver.
Audubon’s search led him to Robert Havell, a renowned London engraver. The completed work, The Birds of America, comprised of 435 hand-colored engravings, was 12 years in the making, and was published from 1827 to 1838. Havell also retouched Lizars’ original efforts, adding aquatint to the engraving. On those plates, Havell’s name appears alongside that of the Scottish engraver’s.
Audubon sold 175 subscriptions to 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 inches by 39 inches, called “double elephant” folio by the printing trade, the resultant 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.
A maximum of 200 complete sets of The Birds of America were produced. Of those, more than 100 are intact in library and museum collections worldwide. In the more than 175 years since they were first printed by Havell, 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.
About the Bien Edition
Seven years after their father's death, Audubon's sons began an American edition of The Birds of America with Julius Bien, a New York-based printer who was pioneering the field of chromolithography. Bien transferred the images from Havell's copper plates onto lithographic stones. As many as six printing stages with additional hand-drawn lithography and coloring were used to reproduce subtleties found in the Havell engravings.
Produced between 1858 and 1860, the Bien edition of Audubon's Birds of America is the largest and most valuable color plate book ever published in America, and the rarest of all Audubon folios. Also of double-elephant dimensions (26 1/2 x 39 1/4 inches), this edition represents one of the finest examples of early large-scale color printing. The new technique of chromolithography was perceived as an advancement in print-making technology that promised to achieve effects entirely different from engraving.
Recent research has confirmed that more than one printing occurred and distinct quality differences can be discerned between the first printing under the auspices of Audubon’s son, John Woodhouse Audubon and chromolithographer Julius Bien, and later partial sets that were inferior and subsequently printed and sold. As a result, a distinction in quality can be made between a superior first edition printing during John W. Audubon’s lifetime and later printings of inferior quality. These various printings were previously unidentified and lumped together causing confusion in the market for Bien prints.
The Bien Edition, also to be sold by subscription, was begun in 1858. However, production was brought to a halt by the advent of the Civil War and only 150 plates on 105 sheets were completed. The Audubon family was unable to sell the edition or recoup their losses. Consequently, in 1863, Lucy Audubon sold 471 of John James Audubon’s original watercolors, of which 435 were preparatory for The Birds of America, to the New-York Historical Society for $4,000. Today, this collection of Audubon’s watercolors is considered to be priceless.
About the Octavo Edition
Audubon’s desire to make The Birds of America more affordable and widely available prompted him in 1839 to begin the first octavo edition, which was printed and hand colored by J. T. Bowen in Philadelphia. Employing a new invention, the camera lucida, the images were reduced in size, rendered in intermediate drawings by Audubon and his son John Woodhouse, and then drawn onto lithographic stones. These miniatures exhibit a remarkable amount of attention to quality and detail, as well as a meticulous fidelity to the larger works. Some compositional changes were made in order to accommodate the smaller format.
Like the Havell Edition, Audubon’s first octavo edition was sold by subscription and distributed in parts five at a time. However, the octavo editions were issued in correct phylogenic, or species order. These prints also bear the plate number in the upper right-hand corner and the sub-scription number in the upper left. The first edition of approximately 1,200 sets was completed in five years from 1839–1844.
Though the first edition remains the most desirable, several octavo editions of both the Birds and Quadrupeds were produced. A second edition of the Birds was published in 1856 by Audubon’s son, Victor Gifford. The octavo edition of The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America was first published between 1849 and 1854.
About the Quadruped Edition
John James Audubon’s last major accomplishment was the creation of The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America which was produced in collaboration with the Reverend John Bachman, who wrote the accompanying text. With the aid of his son, John Woodhouse, Audubon embarked on a final drawing expedition up the Missouri River in the summer of 1843 to document and depict the four-legged mammals of North America.
Produced from 1845 through 1848 by the distinguished Philadelphia print maker, John T. Bowen, the set of 150 black and white lithographs was completely hand colored. Lithography proved an excellent medium for depicting the tactile realism of the mammals’ fur. These prints were published in imperial folio size, measuring 22 inches by 28 inches. Acclaimed as the definitive nineteenth-century work in the field of American mammalogy, the expressive and gracefully balanced compositions, drawn from nature, bear the unmistakable stamp of Audubon’s artistry.
The Quadrupeds are lesser known and presently more affordable than other Audubon editions. However, the value of a complete folio continues to rise. In time, this will undoubtedly affect the value of individual prints. Joel Oppenheimer, Inc. maintains an excellent selection of first edition imperial folio prints of The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.
About Audubon's Watercolors
The images created by John James Audubon (1785 – 1851) are icons of nineteenth-century American art. Though renowned for the double-elephant folio of The Birds of America published from 1827 to 1838, the original watercolors Audubon made preparatory for that publication are less familiar. These fragile treasures reside in the New-York Historical Society, New York City’s oldest museum. Yet, it is these stunning watercolors that most authentically convey the virtuosity of Audubon’s artistic vision of the cycle of avian life in nature.
Regarded as one of the greatest nineteenth-century American painters and naturalists, Audubon’s talents developed in tandem. His fascination with birds and the natural world began early in childhood. The artistry of his bird studies also evolved alongside his scientific curiosity, which in turn inspired innovations in his painting style. Audubon’s greatness as an artist is derived in part from his self-styled working methods. Using multiple media, he conquered the dynamics of composition and color while at the same time expressing the artistically refined character of a living bird with scientific exactitude. These complex pieces often combined collage cutouts from earlier watercolors in the final composition.
Audubon’s mature work was executed on the American frontier during solitary expeditions and, at times, with the aid of an assistant. Joseph Mason (1808 – 1842), a gifted young apprentice, painted botanical elements and backgrounds from 1820 to 1821. The Swiss landscape painter, George Lehman (c. 1800 – 1870), and the artist Maria Martin (1796 – 1863), sister-in-law of Audubon’s friend and collaborator John Bachman, painted some plants and backgrounds as well. In the small world of nineteenth-century American natural history art, friends and family alike contributed to Audubon’s consummate goal of identifying, painting, and publishing his monumental work depicting all the birds of North America. His artistic achievement would illuminate that world brilliantly for the enthusiastic viewer, art connoisseur, naturalist, and scientist.
The prints in Audubon’s Watercolors: The Complete Avian Collection of the New-York Historical Society© are astounding facsimiles, re-creations of the watercolors that Audubon painted from 1808 – 1838. Many bear handwritten instructions to the engraver, as well as other notations. Working in partnership with the New-York Historical Society, we are publishing all 434 original watercolors preparatory for Audubon’s great work, The Birds of America, in an actual-size first edition printing. In addition, included in this edition are 40 alternate images that have never before been published as fine art images.
Our collaboration with the Society to produce a special edition of 50 prints from their renowned collection of Audubon’s original watercolors began in 2005. The result of that effort, Audubon’s Fifty Best Watercolors©, was the first ever actual-size fine art printing of his original watercolors. Building on the success of that achievement, the enormous task of re-creating their entire collection of original Audubon avian watercolors as a limited-edition fine art printing was begun in 2009. All 50 prints from Audubon’s Fifty Best Watercolors are included in The Complete Avian Collection.
These magnificent works are now available for collectors to own and enjoy. Museums and libraries, including the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, Nevada Museum of Art, and New-York Historical Society have acquired this landmark in American painting and natural history art for their collections for public viewing and scholarly study. Printed with archival pigments on 100% rag watercolor paper, these prints directly capture the artist’s hand and fundamental vision unlike any other publication. Each image is individually sized to match the dimensions of the original watercolor. So exact is our printing process that every nuance of the original watercolors is conveyed. This priceless collection of American art, hailed in Audubon’s day as an unparalleled document of natural history, has never before been available for collectors to own. Audubon’s Watercolors: The Complete Avian Collection offers collectors a unique opportunity to own a virtual replica in printed form of Audubon’s historic original watercolors.