John James Audubon

26 April 1785 – 27 January 1851

A naturalist and artist who changed the way we see the natural world

Painter and naturalist John James Audubon is widely considered to be one of the greatest bird artists of all time. He changed the way we see the natural world.

Even as a boy, Audubon was obsessed by birds. He said: “I felt an intimacy with them… bordering on frenzy.” His fascination covered every aspect of the birds’ appearance and habits – from their movements and plumage to their migration and nesting habits.

Birds of America is the result of Audubon’s mission to paint every bird in North America. 

Born on his father’s sugar plantation in Haiti in 1785, he was raised in France by his father and French step-mother, following the death of his own mother.

North American native birds

In 1803, Audubon’s father sent his son to the US to avoid conscription in the Napoleonic Wars. This was a decision that would change the course of Audubon’s life forever.

In America, Audubon began his mission to study, draw and catalogue North America’s native birds – a project which would later become his greatest work, the book Birds of America.

Unconventional methods

Using his own unconventional methods, Audubon worked tirelessly to draw birds in their natural poses.

Having killed the bird, he used wires to hold the bird in a lifelike pose, often depicting them feeding or hunting.

This was a very different approach to other artists at that time who opted to draw stuffed birds in rigid poses.

Audobon’s ambition and unorthodox methods made him unpopular in the American art world. He discovered no engraver to publisher would work with him.

Touring around England

Undeterred, Audubon looked further afield, travelling to England in 1826. Here he was received warmly by the British who loved Audubon’s depictions of North American birds and the landscapes in which they lived.

Audubon toured England and Scotland, selling subscriptions for his artwork, raising the funds needed to publish his masterpiece Birds of America.

Return to America

Audubon returned to America in 1829 and continued his expeditions, finding and drawing yet more birds. In his lifetime, Audubon identified 25 new bird species and is also thought to be the first person in America to band birds – tying yarn to their legs to prove that they returned to the same nesting spots each year.

In 1841, Audubon bought a 20-acre estate in northern Manhattan. By 1848, his health was beginning to fail. Audubon died at his family home in January 1851.

Birds of America is the result of Audubon’s mission to paint every bird in North America. The book, which was first published in sections between 1827 and 1838, consists of 435 hand-colored life-size prints made from engraved plates.

True life-size drawings

When creating his masterpiece, Audubon was determined to represent each bird with a true life-size drawing. As a result, each plate measured around 39.5 inches tall by 28.5 inches wide. With larger birds, such as the flamingo or the heron, this often meant contorting the specimen into particular positions with necks bent down, as though hunting or feeding. The collection also includes six birds which are now extinct.

The original edition of Birds of America was printed on handmade paper using copperplate etching, engraving and aquatint techniques with color applied by a large team of colorists. The original edition is sometimes called the Havell Edition after its printer or the ‘Double Elephant Folio’ in reference to its size.

Most expensive published book

In March 2000, a copy of Birds of America sold at auction at Christie’s for $8.8 million, setting a new record for the sale of any book at auction. Since then, a complete copy of the first edition sold at Sotheby’s for over $11 million.

From the tiny goldfinch to the imposing vulture; Audubon’s collection captures the unique character of each bird, making his work just as popular today as it was when first published.

Own your own Audubon giclée print

Now Heritage Arts offers you the chance to own beautiful giclée prints from the complete set, providing you with a true copy of the original work.

Taken from the original editions, each is printed in the original Double Elephant Folio size, preserving the life-size quality of each bird – exactly as Audubon intended.

Each one is printed on age-resistant paper using fine art digital printing processes which resist fading for 100 years. Printed with the highest possible resolution, these are indistinguishable from the originals. We even capture the aged character of the 175-year old paper.

The size, colors and distinctive style of these Audubon giclée prints create an eye-catching feature for any wall – giving you years of enjoyment as you appreciate how Audubon captured the spirit of each bird, with his unmatched passion and talent.