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Did Audubon paint all of The Birds of America?

John James Audubon’s Birds of America is widely regarded as one of the finest ornithological works ever created. This monumental collection of 435 life-size prints depicting 489 bird species found in the United States is a true masterpiece that combined Audubon’s skills as an artist, naturalist, and adventurer. The beautifully illustrated and meticulously detailed images captivated the world when they were first published as a series between 1827 and 1838.

However, a question that has long surrounded this pioneering work is whether the ambitious 19th-century naturalist and painter completed all of the illustrations single-handedly. The scope and scale of The Birds of America was so vast that it seems almost inconceivable for one man to have produced the entire collection unassisted.

The Preposterous Undertaking of The Birds of America

To truly appreciate the magnitude of Audubon’s achievement with The Birds of America, one must understand just how preposterous the undertaking was at the time. The collection comprises 435 hand-colored, life-sized prints of 489 bird species, depicting birds of various sizes, from the smallest woodpeckers to the tallest wading birds and raptors.

These weren’t just sketches or paintings

Audubon employed a unique artistic method that involved meticulous fieldwork trapping and studying live birds, creating sketches and compositions, and then arranging and wire-manipulating the actual dead bird specimens into naturalistic poses. He would then render the pictures using a variety of watercolor techniques on large sheets of paper, working under a tight schedule to capture the birds before they decomposed.

The final plates were produced through a complex printmaking process involving etching, engraving, and aquatinting. At a time when most natural history publications relied on crude approximations or illustrations based on stuffed birds, Audubon’s lifelike and scientifically accurate depictions were revolutionary.

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Challenges

The colossal scale and labor involved in this undertaking are hard to fathom. Audubon worked for over a decade, crisscrossing the American frontier multiple times to study the birds in their natural habitats. He produced over 1,000 individual compositions during a time when materials and resources for such an endeavor were extremely limited. The double-elephant folio size of the prints, at roughly 39 by 26 inches, made them the largest books created in the world at that point.

Considering these monumental challenges, combined with the sheer quality and naturalistic sophistication of the final illustrations, it seems highly unlikely that Audubon could have accomplished this entirely alone. 

The Assistants and Collaborators Behind the Masterwork

While there is no doubt Audubon was the principal artist and driving creative force behind The Birds of America, evidence indicates he did rely on assistants and collaborators to varying degrees. Some of the key individuals involved include:

Joseph Mason 

An engraver who assisted with transferring hundreds of Audubon’s compositions onto copper plates for printmaking. While Audubon rendered many of the etchings himself, Mason is confirmed to have engraved over 100 plates based on Audubon’s drawings or instructions.

Robert Havell Jr. and Robert Havell Sr

The London-based engraving firm of Robert Havell Jr. re-engraved several plates based on Audubon’s original drawings and oversaw the printing and hand-coloring of the entire series in England with the help of dozens of skilled colorists and printers. The elder Havell also trained his young sons to assist with coloring and printing.

Maria Martin and other Assistants

Archival evidence indicates Audubon employed young students and amateur artists like Maria Martin to assist with transcribing and preparing his drawings for printmaking. These assistants would have aided with tasks like duplicating drawings, arranging compositions, and potentially rendering preparatory drafts.

Audubon’s family

His wife Lucy, and their two sons Victor and John, periodically assisted their father in the field and studio. Audubon’s skills as a taxidermist and bird bander were self-taught through trial and error. His sons would have learned many aspects of these skill sets through assisting him over the years.

Hunting Guides and Field Assistants

During his frontier expeditions, Audubon relied on skilled hunters, trackers, and explorers to help locate and capture bird specimens. While not artists themselves, these field hands enabled much of Audubon’s source material.

How Much of The Birds of America Did Audubon Paint Himself?

Using historical evidence and accounts, we can form a good estimate of how much of the actual drawing and painting Audubon completed unassisted versus with collaboration:

Drawings/Watercolor Illustrations

The majority of the original drawings and watercolor illustrations used as sources for the printed plates are believed to have been rendered solely by Audubon. He is confirmed to have produced over 1,000 individual watercolor compositions in total for the series. A small portion of these may have involved contributions from studio assistants transcribing drawings or preparing underworkings, but the principal composition and artistry were Audubon’s.

Etching/Engraving of Plates

Audubon completed a significant number of the etched plates himself, but Joseph Mason and Robert Havell Jr.’s engraving firm are confirmed to have re-engraved or copied over 100 plates based on Audubon’s drawings and instructions. Audubon’s role was providing the source illustrations and overseeing the plate production.

Hand-Coloring

The labor-intensive hand-tinting and coloring of the printed sheets was completed entirely by teams of skilled colorists and printers employed by the Havell firm. Audubon did provide color specifications and oversight but did not physically color any of the printed plates himself.

So, in terms of percentages, Audubon can likely be credited with rendering around 80-90% of the original drawings, compositions, and some etchings used in the production of The Birds of America plates. The remaining 10-20% drawing work was re-engraved or re-composed by others based on his illustrations. And while he art-directed the final printed plates, Audubon had no direct hand in the printing or coloring.

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Audubon’s Genius and The Birds of America Legacy

Regardless of how much direct illustration work Audubon completed himself versus with assistance, his genius as a naturalist, adventurer, self-trained artist, and promoter is undeniable. The Birds of America book was a revolutionary and unparalleled publishing achievement for its time.

Audubon’s dedication to depicting all subjects in vivid life poses from direct observation was groundbreaking. His compositions showcased birds in characteristic plants and settings, bringing an ecologically holistic context. The scientific accuracy and artistic quality remained unmatched for generations after the illustrations’ original publishing. Even today, the splendid watercolor illustrations remain iconic examples of ornithological art and natural history.

In producing this magnificent work, Audubon also pioneered and promoted an early model of combining science, exploration, and public education through the patronage of arts. His efforts paved the way for other ambitious natural history projects and cemented his role as one of America’s preeminent naturalists and painters.

Conclusion

While Audubon had assistants contributing to the printmaking and production process, the principal brilliance and vision behind The Birds of America was his alone. Audubon’s persistent spirit of discovery, coupled with his artistic talents, ensured Audubon’s Birds of America will be admired and studied for centuries to come.Welcome to Arader Books! We’re the special book part of Arader Galleries, found mainly at our fancy building on 1016 Madison Avenue in New York City. Here, we’ve got old books you won’t find just anywhere.

Uneeb Khan
Uneeb Khan
Uneeb Khan CEO at blogili.com. Have 4 years of experience in the websites field. Uneeb Khan is the premier and most trustworthy informer for technology, telecom, business, auto news, games review in World.

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