Bookmarks: A Breif History of The Birds of America

artist book: a work of art realized in the form of a book.

The definition may sound simple, but the world of artist books can be a bewildering place. From the familiar pairing of images and text, to sculptures created out of paper and complicated bindings that create a performance each time the book is opened, nearly anything can be called an artist book if there is intention and consideration. This series showcases artists from different realms of the art world exploring the structure and meaning of the book.

Volumes of  The Birds of America

Volumes of The Birds of America

Birds of America by John James Audubon (1785-1851) is not only one of the world’s most recognizable books, but has also been lauded as the most expensive book. Fetching anywhere from $7.9 to $11.5 million on the auction block in recent years, only 119 complete copies exist from Audubon’s first edition of the text. An outstanding achievement of its time—aesthetically, artistically, and scholarly, Birds of America was produced and published to the highest caliber of standards available in the late 1820s, and its production very nearly bankrupted Audubon in the process. This is the story of its production.

plate 87, Flordia Jay

In the early 1820’s, John James Audubon, a Kentucky general store owner and immigrant from Haiti, met Alexander Wilson, a naturalist who aspired to become to publish the first book that documented all of the birds of North America. Realizing that he was a far more adept artist than Wilson, Audubon decided to set forth with his own ambitious project. For three years, Audubon traveled North America observing birds in their natural habitat, hunting them, and making scale renderings in watercolors in his studio.

While his goal was to paint and categorize all of the birds of North America, Audubon stopped at 435 paintings after he had exhausted most of his personal resources. By this time, he had depicted over 1,000 species of birds, each recreated in life-size. Unlike his predecessors, Audubon illustrated the birds in their natural habitat, often in motion—mating, feeding, or hunting. However, this controversial approach to his subject, along with his boastful proclamations that his book was superior to the well-respected work by Wilson, did not earn him any clout with American publishers and ornithologists of the time and he was unable to find a publisher.

Out of options in the United States, Audubon decided to bring his work to England.  He immediately found an audience with the Royal Institution, who mounted an exhibition of his watercolors. Over the course of the next few months, Audubon traveled, regaling French and English members of high society with tales from the American frontier. An expert at marketing, he played to Europeans’ fascination with the Americas, often making appearances in a bear skin coat with bear grease in his long hair. Through these antics, and a series of public exhibitions, he was able to cultivate a subscription base for his book.

Plate 39, Crested Titmouse

However, the cost to produce the book proved to be astronomical. Insisting on only the best materials, Audubon instructed that the book be printed in aquatint (the most expensive and highest quality printing process of the time), that it should be printed on Whatman double elephant folio paper (the largest and most sumptuous sheet available to ensure that the birds were rendered in life-size), and that only the best engraver take on the task of transferring his work to the page, in this case, the renowned Robert Havell. Even with guaranteed subscribers from the English and French royal families, Audubon realized that he could not produce the book all at one time, and thus it was released in a series of subscriptions.

The original subscribers in England, Europe and North America received only five pages of the book at a time packaged in individual tins. Each shipment contained five plates—one large bird, one medium bird and three small birds. With each book consisting of 435 hand-colored plates, it took eleven years (1827-1838) for subscribers to receive the entire book. The 26 ½ by 39 ½ inch pages were typically bound together by their owners, usually into four volumes, each weighing over sixty pounds. The cost was approximately $850 US Dollars per book, and subscribers paid per shipment. By the end of 1838, only 87 complete sets of the book had been issued. To avoid the requirement of supplying England’s libraries with free copies, the text was issued separately and was written by Audubon and William MacGillivray, under the title Ornithological Biography, or, An Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America. The additional text brought the cost of the book (with plates) to approximately $1,000, a truly prohibitive price for most.

To date, The Birds of America is still considered one of the seminal ornithological texts produced. Now known for its spectacular artworks, later editions of the book helped to disseminate the text throughout Europe and North America, solidifying John James Audubon’s popularity, fame and his place in history.

plate 50, Swainson's Warbler

plate 250, Arctic Turn

Elizabeth K. Harris is the Director at Louis K. Meisel Gallery. She holds an MA in Visual Arts Administration from New York University and has co-authored two books on art. She likes looking at books more than reading them.