The Complete Audubon – HistoryMiami puts the spotlight where it belongs


Audubon considered his prints to be his “finished” artwork; each bird portrait began with an original painting, typically showing only one species of bird, often without any background. Near the end, trying to include as many species as possible without adding too much to subscriber’s costs, Audubon had Havell put together a number of multiple-species plates based on quickly drawn watercolors of multiple species in unnatural situation, or sometimes based on multiple watercolors. These plates are generally illustrative and artificial in their composition, not typical of Audubon’s artistic and naturalistic approach.

PL 355 MacGillivray's Finch

PL 355 MacGillivray’s Finch. Audubon initially mistook these seaside sparrows for a new species, and named them for William MacGillivray (who assisted him with his technical writing). The birds were drawn by Audubon’s younger son John Woodhouse Audubon and the butterflies were drawn by Maria Martin.

In most cases Audubon was the sole artist of the bird portraits, but a small number were painted by others. Audubon credits his younger son John Woodhouse Audubon for specific birds in his letter-press (published separately as his five-volume Ornithological Biography). The birds by Audubon’s son are often less skillfully drawn, reflecting John Woodhouse Audubon’s youth and inexperience as a painter. Some scholars speculate that other artists contributed to the bird portraits, e.g., George Lehman, one of Audubon’s background artists, has been suggested as the painter for the Roseate Spoonbill.

Although Audubon was fully capable of painting landscapes and plants, he employed other artists to assist him with those aspects of his final compositions. These artists were never acknowledged on the print, although their contribution might be noted in Audubon’s letter-press or is apparent to scholars for other reasons (e.g., through examination of the original watercolors). Among the contributing artists were Joseph Mason and Maria Martin (both talented botanical artists; Martin is also contributed some insects), George Lehman and Robert Havell (each contributing landscapes as well as plants), and to a lesser extent Victor Gifford Audubon (Audubon’s eldest son, a landscapist). It is possible that John Woodhouse Audubon contributed plants or background elements as well as birds.


Background detail showing the city of Charleston by George Lehman (from PL 231 Long-billed Curlew).



PL 111 Pileated Woodpecker


Each print was made by the application under pressure of a copper plate that was first etched and engraved by the printer with image and text, then inked and applied under extreme pressure to a large piece of paper. As was typical of prints appearing in books, the plates (as such prints are called) have writing on them to identify their proper order in the series, significant aspects of the subject (e.g., bird names, plant names, sex or age of subjects), and credits to Audubon and the printer. The watercolor on each print was applied by hand by professional colorists, most likely with each colorist adding one or two colors based on a pattern print, and one person adding finishing touches at the end. In spite of the use of these pattern prints, colors are known to vary quite a bit over the time frame of production, often intentionally so, but also perhaps due to the chemical composition of the paint (which probably changed somewhat from batch to batch) or other materials such as glazes that were used to make some areas stand out.


PL 113 Blue-bird

PL 113 Blue-bird

In Audubon’s day, etching and engraving techniques were grouped under the rubric of “engraving,” hence the printer credits on the plates say the plates were “engraved.” Engraving, a skilled technique that involves use of a specialized tool called a burin, seems to have been used mostly for text. The images were made using etching, techniques that use acid to control the darkness of lines and other areas. Using one or more original paintings as a basis, the printer (or workers under his immediate supervision) traced a composition on to a piece of paper, then transferred the image from the paper to a copper plate covered with a protective substance that served as a “mask.” By scratching with needles and using other techniques to remove or compromise the mask, the plate would be bathed repeatedly in acid. In between baths, different areas of the plate might be masked to prevent further etching of the metal. The length of exposure to the acid determined the darkness of lines and aquatinted areas.

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