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Drawn from Nature: Art, Science, and the Study of Birds

Birds of America

John James Audubon’s Birds of America

John James Audubon, born in Haiti to a French sea captain and raised in France, immigrated to America in 1803 and spent the next two decades collecting bird specimens and perfecting his skills as an artist. Audubon published nearly 200 copies of Birds of America from 1828 to 1834, selling prints via subscription. The artwork was printed on double elephant paper, measuring approximately 39 X 29 inches.

Portrait of Audubon in Audubon, John James, and Lucy Green Bakewell Audubon. The Life of John James Audubon, the Naturalist. New York: G. P. Putnam & Son, 1894.View Source

Audubon’s Octavo Edition

Between 1840 and 1844, John James Audubon published a smaller version of his double elephant folio Birds of America. The seven-volume set, which became known as the royal octavo edition, was about one-eighth the size of his original publication. The octavo edition included 500 plates and corrections that Audubon made in the double elephant folio. He also added new species that he had missed earlier or discovered in the western U.S. during a trip up the Missouri River in 1843.

painting by John James Audubon of two Wood Thrushes, the female partially hidden by a tree branch

Audubon’s paintings are well known for his portrayal of birds in their natural habitats as depicted in this illustration of two Wood Thrushes, the female partially hidden by a tree branch. He added “Drawn from nature by J.J. Audubon” at the bottom of each plate to emphasize the fact that he had studied the living bird to make his paintings. John James Audubon. The Birds of America from Drawings Made in the United States and Their Territories, Volume 3. New York, J.J. Audubon; Philadelphia, J.B. Chevalier, 1841. View Source.

Audubon’s Ornithological Biography

Bird descriptions in the octavo edition came from Audubon’s Ornithological Biography, a five-volume set that he published from 1831 to 1839 to complement the double elephant folio. The descriptions are often lengthy and filled with personal observations from the field. In describing the Hermit Thrush, he wrote more than seven paragraphs about the habits, range, and nests of the species before turning to physical descriptions of the male and female.

excerpt of John James Audubon. The Birds of America from Drawings Made in the United States and Their Territories

John James Audubon. The Birds of America from Drawings Made in the United States and Their Territories, Volume 3. New York, J.J. Audubon; Philadelphia, J.B. Chevalier, 1841. View Source.