Audubon’s Birds of Prey and the missing hunter

Audubon's Golden Eagle and the missing hunter

The largest bird of prey in America is the Golden Eagle. Audubon painted the bird in all its glory, flying over cold icy peaks, clutching a Northern Hare in its strong talons.

In the bottom left-hand corner of the original painting, a hunter is seen crossing the log over the icy ravine, with a rifle and a large bird slung over his shoulder.

This hunter is thought to be a self-portrait of the artist. However, when the engraver Robert Havell finished preparing the book, this figure was deleted from the plates. No one knows if this was simply an error, or if Audubon asked him to erase the man.

John James Audubon Birds of America Plate 181 Golden Eagle Giclée Print
Audubon's Golden Eagle. Plate 181
Audubon's Birds of Prey and the missing hunter
Is this a self-portrait of Audubon?

Beyond a few mysteries, there is also a lot we do know about Audubon’s method and painting process, thanks to the diaries he wrote during his travels.

Audubon's Birds of Prey painted life size

Audubon painted 435 birds for his book Birds of America. He wanted to display all the birds life size and he therefore painted on Double Elephant Folio (DEF) paper. The size of this paper is approximately 38 x 26 inches (99 x 66 cm). 

The Bird of Washington is a good example of this. As you can see, the large predator, which was named after America’s first president, barely fits on the page with his proud demeanour. 

Yet here too is a mystery. Although Audubon wrote in his diary that he had killed and stuffed the bird, no remains of the Bird of Washington have ever been found and it has therefore never been recognized as a true species. As a result it is believed that Audubon possibly invented the bird to attract buyers for his book. 

Audubon Birds of America Plate 011 Bird of Washingon
Audubon's Bird of Washington. Plate 011

Nevertheless, the bird is beautifully depicted. Audubon placed the bird on top of a rocky outcrop, giving the bird an even more proud and majestic attitude. Also the bird’s claws are drawn in great detail, and even though the bird has turned its head the other way, it is watching you closely. There is no escaping it.

Audubon's method of painting the large raptors

Audubon developed a technique of his own to paint the birds. On his travels, he studied the birds of prey for several days in a row. Moreover he made extensive notes in his journal about the bird’s food, how the bird hunted and behaved in the air, flew between the trees and stood on the ground. He noticed the differences between male and female, and he observed the behaviour between the birds and their young during the breeding season.

Fish Hawk, or Osprey, Plate 81. John James Audubon – Birds of America – High quality Giclee Print
Audubon's Fish Hawk or Osprey. Plate 081

Next, he needed to obtain actual specimens so that he could get a closer look at the plumage, the claws and the beak. He sometimes caught small birds alive, but most of the time he shot the large birds, being careful not to damage the plumage. Audubon was a skilled hunter, and, in this era, it was customary to fill the stomach with what nature offered you. 

His preferred method of taxidermy was to mount the birds in a natural posture, based on what he had previously observed and sketched in the wild. This was in contrast to the usual method of many ornithologists, who prepared and placed the specimens in a rigid position. 

Audubon’s birds look lifelike and in action, as you can see in the illustration of the Fish Hawk or Osprey.

The publication of the Birds of America

Wanting to publish his watercolour paintings in a book, Audubon found an engraver based in London, Robert Havell Jr, who was willing to work with him on the Birds of America. Havell initially made engravings and aquatints (an etching technique) on copper plates. The printed sheets were then coloured by a large team of artists and watercolourists, following the template provided by Audubon’s original paintings.

Copper plate engraved by Robert Havell Jr.
John James Audubon Birds of America Plate 106 Black Vulture, or Carrion Crow Giclée Print
Finished aquatint of the BlackVulture
or Carrion Crow. Plate 106

Teylers Museum in Haarlem owns the original edition

Original Audubon's Birds of America in Teylers Museum
Original Birds of America in Teylers Museum

After the death of his father, John James Audubon’s son travelled across Europe to promote the Birds of America and he managed to sell copies to several institutions. Most illustrations were bound into books, but it is said that an English countess had rooms decorated with Audubon’s paintings!

Today there are only 119 complete copies of the original Birds of America in circulation, and the Teylers Museum in Haarlem has a copy. 

We are proud to let you know, that Heritage Prints received permission
to make high-quality facsimile giclee prints of Teyler's Havell edition.

Choose one of Audubon's 17 Birds of Prey

You can place an order by clicking on the Print you like best. 
The paper size is Double Elephant Folio.  

If you have any questions, please contact us.