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The Birds of John James Audobon

Composed of over 400 images of beautifully posed and realistically detailed birds, the book Birds of America was the culmination of fourteen years of effort of ornithologist, naturalist and painter, John James Audobon.

Audobon was actually born a Frenchman on the island of Haiti but at the age of three, he moved with his family to France where he grew up. Although his father intended that his son become a naval officer, John James failed the entrance exam and had to find another way of making a living. At the age of eighteen, John James set sail for the United States to live at the Audobon family farm near Philadelphia where his father hoped he would earn a living for himself by developing the lead mines on the estate. But the mine business was soon deemed to be a risky venture and he instead moved to Kentucky to open a general store. In Kentucky, Audobon married and started a family and after several years, his fortunes had risen and fallen. After moving to Cincinnati to take a job as a naturalist and taxidermist, Audobon made a commitment to himself to paint all the birds of North America and to publish it.

Audobonís interest in birds was not just a passing fancy nor was he ill-prepared to embark on an endeavor of this nature. Audobon had always enjoyed a love of birds and had made crude sketches of them as early as he could remember. As a child in France, he loved roaming the woods and often brought home bird eggs and nests. By the time he was an adult, he enjoyed hunting and watching birds as well as sketching them. He studied birds in their natural environment and learned what sort of birds inhabited various types of habitats as well as how a birdís physical characteristics defined its behavior. Audobon learned the art of taxidermy and became proficient in scientific methods of research. He even created a nature museum in his own home, containing not only birds but other animals as well. While in Kentucky, Audobon met up with Native American tribes and joined their hunting expeditions, learning their methods and admiring their affinity with nature. Audobonís love of birds and his faithful recording of their physical characteristics had indeed been both a source of enjoyment and driving force in his life for many years. Audobon had already amassed about 200 drawings of birds by the time he considered publishing his work. He was about thirty-five years old.

Once Audobon came up with the goal of painting the birds of North America, he set out by himself to roam the country in search of birds. He spent several years separated from his family, traveling from town to town, attempting to paint a bird each day. As his skills improved, he even began to repaint his previous works. He supported himself during this time by making portraits and giving drawing lessons. In 1824, he returned to Philadelphia and attempted to have his work published. But he received little interest from American publishers. It wasnít until another two years later when he took his drawings to England that he was received with great enthusiasm. The British went wild about his images of nature in backwoods America and Audobon himself was seen as a woodsy frontiersman. Audobon toured England and Scotland to promote his work and raised enough money to begin his publishing endeavor.

The original edition of his book was engraved in aquatint, a method of etching that used a powdered resin to etch the drawing onto a copper or zinc plate so that it could hold ink. The plate was run through a printing press along with a sheet of paper so the ink could be transferred to the paper. Finally, the prints were painted with water colors. The book was entitled Birds of America and it contained 435 life-sized prints of Audobonís birds. Today, Birds of America is considered by many to be one of the most splendid picture books ever published.

Audobon had a special method for painting birds. First, he would use only fine shot to kill them so to minimize damage to the bird. Then, contrary to common practice at the time, he would use wires to pose the bird in a position the bird might have assumed while living, before sketching it. The poses he chose were often those of feeding or hunting. Audobonís sketches portrayed birds in their natural habitats, often including their nests, which was unusual at the time. He often depicted both males and females of each species as well as their young. Sometimes he showed more than one species in a single sketch. He also at times included predators in his drawings. Audobon used several layers of watercolors for his sketches but often used colored chalk or pastels to achieve the look of softness required for feathers. At times, he also used gouache, a heavier type of paint with greater reflective qualities.

Audobon continued to sketch after the success of Birds of America and made several excursions to the western United States in search of more bird species that he had not yet portrayed. He also wrote a book called Ornithological Biographies with a well-respected ornithologist that detailed the life histories of each of the species in Birds of America. Audobon also began a book on mammals called Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Although Audobon did not live to see it published, it was completed by his sons and son-in-law and published in his name posthumously.

Although Audobon had no role in creating the Audobon Society, he inspired its creation though his dedication to faithfully portraying wildlife and his interest in the natural environment.

To flip through the pages of Birds of America, click here and then click on ďpage 001.Ē You can also see Audobonís birds grouped in various categories by clicking here.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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