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The story behind John James Audubon

Posted on July 08 2019

The story behind John James Audubon

JJ Audubon is in vogue. Like German Ernst Haeckel and Frenchman Adolphe Millot, Audobon's drawings became part of the decoration of many houses around the world. Audubon's best-known work is The Birds of America, considered the most expensive printed book in the world.


Our poster reproduction of Louisiana Heron, one of the 435 drawings of The Birds of America


Our XXL Poster of the stunning American Flamingo.


To understand the history of this beautiful book, you must understand the history of the author. John James was born in 1785 in the Dominican Republic, the son of a French navy captain. Still very young, at 4 years of age, he moved with his father to France. Afraid to be called into Napoleon Bonapart's army, Audubon moves to the United States at Mill Grove in Philadelphia.


John James Audubon, copy of a painting by John Woodhouse Audubon (1841) 

 - source

In the early years of living in Philadelphia, Audubon develops a taste for bird watching and naturalistic bird drawings. Through this interest the author begins to make some experiments on the migration of birds in America, observing which individuals returned to the same place the following year.

After his marriage, Audubon takes on the family business in Louisville, Kentucky. But his frustration with the life of an entrepreneur almost leads to bankruptcy and depression. Audubon decides to dedicate himself to the main project of his life: an entire book destined to the birds of North America through drawings.

While his wife cared for finances and family, Audubon toured the United States to research, study, and design birds.


His obsession with searching for his models in their natural habitats rather than using taxidermized specimens in museums has become a new technique of scientific illustration.


After having most of his drawings ready, Audubon begins to look for publishers for the publication of his work in 1826. However, no publishing house in New York or Philadelphia wanted to risk the project. John James decides to join his wife's savings and travel to Europe to try his luck and publish his work on the Old Continent.

Audubon's work was very well received in the UK, both for the quality of the drawings and for the author's approach. Audubon featured the project dressed as an American pioneer, such as the famous politician and beast hunter David Crocket.


Davy Crockett by William Henry Huddle, 1889 - source


The exotic idea worked, and John James printed about 200 copies of The Birds of America, which contained 435 engravings, on pages as large as 99cm x 66cm. The engravings were arranged in 4 volumes and were published between 1827 and 1838. Each image was hand painted by the author himself in watercolor technique and was accompanied by a volume of text called Ornithological Biographies written by the ornithologist William MacGillivray.

Each book was sold for a thousand dollars, a fortune then, but a success. The British King George IV was one of Audubon's buyers and enthusiasts; upon successful publication, the Royal Academy invited him to become a member of the institution.

After the first edition of the book, John James wanted to make the publication more accessible to the middle class and produced the lithographs in Philadelphia. The second edition was released in 1844 in 1199 copies with reproductions of the Audubon drawings.


The original illustration of the American Flamingo, made by Audubon. 

In 1852, one year after her death, Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America was published. The publication was the last great work of Audubon which was drawn up with the help of his two sons, John and Victor. 

Even today, the beauty of Audubon's designs surprises us. Both the quality of the drawings, the expressiveness of the birds, the detailing of characteristics of each model and the palette used in the publication. Beyond a decoration item, the vintage posters in the Audubon collection tell a little not only the author's story but also the beauty of nature.


Check out the author's special collection on our website. Lovely vintage posters, prints and canvas like the American Flamingo and the Louisiana Heron, you will find clicking here.




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