Audubon Bien Ed. Pl. 280 White-headed Pigeon
Original Antique Print
Julius Bien Chromolithograph, 1860
About the Audubon 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 printer who was pioneering the field of chromolithography. Bien transferred the images from Havell’s copper plates onto lithographic stones. Then as many as nine printing stages, with additional hand-drawn lithography and coloring, were used to reproduce the subtleties of the original engravings.
Also of double-elephant dimensions, this edition represents one of the first successful employments of the chromolithographic process and remains one of its finest early examples. The new technique of chromolithography promised to achieve effects entirely different from engraving. It was not perceived as an imitation of engraving, but as an advancement in print-making technology.
For the Bien Edition, the images were transferred from copper plates to lithographic stones by means of a wetted sheet of transfer paper. Although economic motives were a factor, the technique of transferring engravings onto litho stones was in use at the time as a method of capturing the fine lines of engravings onto porous limestones which would not otherwise have lent themselves to that kind of linear detail.
There was another advantage to transferring the Audubon images rather than reprinting from the existing copper-engraved plates. The plates had been used to print 200 sets and had begun to wear. By transferring the images to lithographic stones, Julius Bien and John Woodhouse Audubon preserved details in the plates that would have quickly diminished in quality had they been used again for a second edition of The Birds of America.
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 were completed. The Audubon family, unable to sell the edition or recoup their losses, found their fortune greatly diminished. 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.