In December 2010, The Economist magazine estimated that, when adjusting for inflation, five of the ten highest prices ever paid for printed books were paid for copies of John James Audubon’s Birds of America. Consisting of 435 life-sized plates (later expanded to 500), the monumental work has become an icon of natural history illustration, described by Christie’s as “the greatest of all bird books, [and] arguably the highest achievement of ornithological art.”
Born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), Audubon emigrated to the United States in 1803. By 1820 his interest in natural history developed into a stated intention to paint every bird in North America. In an era before photography, accurate representation of wild birds required the collection of dead specimens, but rather than drawing these in stiff positions, Audubon used threads or wire to pose the birds as he had observed them in the field.
Finding support from American publishers lacking, he traveled to the United Kingdom in 1826, where he partnered with the animal engraver Robert Havell Jr. and his father, Robert Havell Sr. The original double elephant folio, or Havell Edition of Birds of America (from which this print is reproduced), measured 39.5 inches tall by 28.5 inches wide, and was funded by subscription; sets of five prints being issued every month or two. From 1827-1838, they published the complete series of 435 prints at the expense of $115,640 (or more than $2 million in today’s money), employing a team of over fifty colorists who worked in assembly line fashion.
In the process of creating one of the world’s most beautiful books, Audubon also contributed significantly to the understanding of bird anatomy and behavior, identifying 25 new species and documenting six that have since gone extinct. He is quoted three times in Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species.