John James Audubon (1785-1851)
Born in Haiti and educated in France, John James Audubon (1785-1851) settled permanently in the United States in 1806, at the age of 21. After several business failures, he found occasional employment as a taxidermist, portrait painter, and drawing teacher, while he pursued his "Great Work," a comprehensive artistic record of North American birds. From the 1820s on, Audubon devoted himself to recording North American birds and animals, including many new species that he identified. Together with his sons and other collaborators, he published volumes filled with superb illustrations and engaging narrative.
Audubon spent much of his life in the wild sketching and searching for new species. He often presented himself as a backwoodsman, publicizing accounts of his experiences with nature as a means of securing patronage for his publications. A natural showman, he moved easily between the worlds of the frontiersman and the romantic artist. With enthusiasm and imagination, Audubon developed a style of self-promotion that appealed to some but left others--particularly his scientific competitors--questioning his accuracy and ability.
Audubon's views as artist and naturalist presented a dramatic contrast to those of other naturalists of his time. He aimed to show each species as close as possible to life size and engaged in a natural pose or activity. Other ornithologists offered stylized views that served as visual records of scientific characteristics for study. Even in the wild, Audubon worked to achieve as much realism as possible. He developed flexible wire supports to hold his specimens and drew them shortly after he killed them to retain the most lifelike color and body mass.
Audubon's life work involved his entire family. His wife, Lucy, supported the family by teaching while he traveled in search of new species and patrons. His sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse, also artists, helped prepare and publish Audubon's major works. They painted backgrounds and assisted with publishing the various editions of The Birds of America. The Rev. John Bachman of South Carolina, whose two daughters married Audubon's sons, was a naturalist in his own right and an important collaborator within the family circle.
After the deaths of her husband and both sons, Lucy Audubon attempted to pay off publishing debts and support her grandchildren by selling some of her husband's drawings and copper plates. She approached various institutions, including the Smithsonian. The New-York Historical Society bought Audubon's original drawings--which Lucy called "my husband's Idol"--in 1863. The proceeds went to cover the debts incurred in publishing the chromolithograph edition of The Birds of America. In 1871, Lucy was forced to sell the copper plates for scrap. A number were saved and distributed to museums by Phelps, Dodge, and Co., a copper firm. NMAH has seven original plates in the Graphic Arts collections, plus a number of prints from several editions of Audubon's work.
Audubon and the Smithsonian
Audubon enjoyed a close friendship and professional association with American naturalist Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887). From 1840 until 1847, when Audubon's health declined, the young Baird spent many happy hours visiting the great man, studying his collections. Audubon's sons maintained the association with Baird after he joined the Smithsonian Institution in 1850, first as Assistant Secretary to 1850, then as Secretary, or chief executive officer. Many items in the Smithsonian's collections of North American birds and animals can be traced to the Audubon-Baird relationship. As a center for the study of natural history, the Smithsonian valued its Audubon connections.
The London engraving firm of Robert Havell produced "The Birds of America" from Audubon's original drawings. Professional printmakers used traditional intaglio methods, including engraving, etching, and aquatint, to prepare the copper plates. The designs--cut below the surface of the plate--were then printed on a hand press and colored by hand.
Engraving involves the use of a metal-cutting tool, or burin, to cut lines into the plate. The resulting grooves hold the ink for printing the design.
Etching employs the corrosive action of acid to produce the design. The etcher first scratches the design with a needle through a wax ground on a prepared metal plate and then immerses the plate in acid. The acid eats into the areas of the plate exposed by the scratches, forming recessed lines that will hold ink for printing.
Aquatint, used for shading and tonal areas, is produced by the action of acid around tiny grains of rosin dusted and melted onto the plate. The acid eats around the edges of the rosin powder, creating grainy surfaces that, when printed, reproduce the tones of watercolor drawings.