Audubon's Spectacular Birds of America

In 1819 the charismatic French-born naturalist and artist John James Audubon set off on a journey through the young country to illustrate and describe birds throughout much of the central and eastern United States. Although Audubon occasionally drew from mounted specimens, he preferred to wire his freshly shot models into lifelike positions and then paint them immediately. Unable to find a printer for his illustrations in the United States, in 1826 Audubon took his collection to England, where the illustrations were enthusiastically received. The original edition of Birds of America, known as the "œdouble-elephant" folio because of its large dimensions (39 x 26 inches), was published in four volumes between 1827 and 1838. Together the volumes contained 435 hand-colored etchings with engraving and aquatint; there was no descriptive text.

Wanting his masterwork to be accessible to a wider audience, Audubon subsequently issued this small-format edition of Birds of America with text adapted from his Ornithological Biography, written in collaboration with ornithologist William MacGillivray and published as a seven-volume set in Philadelphia between1840 and 1844. The hand-colored lithographs are by J.T. Bowen from engravings chiefly by Havell, Jr., after Audubon's drawings. Today Audubon's masterwork stands as the most famous and beloved illustrated book on a natural history subject ever published.


John James Audubon. The Birds of America, from Drawings Made in the United States and Their Territories. Philadelphia, 1840-44. The New York Public Library, General Research Division.


More Images from Audubon's Birds of America

Collection Guide: Classic Illustrated Zoologies and Related Works, 1550-1900

About the General Research Division

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