Publisher's Preface

The definitive website on wildbirds & nature

Birds of America

By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.


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Publisher's Preface

In 1803 a handsome young Frenchman arrived in America eager to explore a new land rich in promise and boundless opportunity. That young man was John James Audubon.

Intent upon establishing himself as a successful businessman, Audubon opened a small general store in Louisville, but this and several other attempts at commerce yielded nothing but debt. His love for roaming the wilderness and painting birds proved too distracting. Finally, in the summer of 1819, Audubon chose art over business, a decision which proved to have far-reaching consequences.

For the next 20 years Audubon labored in relative obscurity until The Birds of America reached completion. Containing 435 life-size, hand-colored aquatint etchings, this single work established the standard for wildlife art. To this day, it remains without equal in scope, grandeur, and overall artistic excellence.

In 1839, shortly after he had completed the first Folio edition of his great work, Audubon saw that a smaller edition would solve a number of problems inherent in the Folio edition, the greatest of these being its enormous cost. Each of the 435 hand-colored, etched-copper plates was printed on the finest Whatman paper measuring a full 40 by 30 inches; the cost of a complete four-volume set, issued in 87 parts of 5 plates per part, was a staggering $1,000.00. As a consequence, the number of Folio sets of the Birds of America never exceeded 200, and many subscribers never completed their sets.

Audubon wished his work to be more popular, and reasoned that a smaller, more manageable edition would be less expensive to produce and therefore much more affordable. He decided to employ the Philadelphia lithographer J. T. Bowen to print and hand-color the plates. The images for the Octavo Birds of America were reduced from the Folio plates--probably with the aid of a camera lucida--and drawn directly onto lithographic stones. Bowen was the finest of the early American lithographers, attracting Audubon's attention with his brilliant colored lithographs for the McKenney-Hall History of the Indian Tribes of North America. At one point, Bowen employed as many as twenty colorists, each one seated at a long table, applying oil-based paints with meticulous care--often under the watchful eye of Audubon himself. The Octavo edition was also issued to subscribers in parts, each part containing 5 hand-colored plates and a descriptive text, each part selling for one dollar. The complete seven-volume edition contained 100 parts (500 plates); hitherto undescribed species were appended to the end of volume VII. Volumes I-V were simultaneously published by J. J. Audubon, New York, and J. B. Chevalier, Philadelphia; volumes VI and VII were published by J. J. Audubon, New York and Philadelphia. All plates for the first Octavo edition were executed by Bowen, and the letterpress printing of the text was the work of E. G. Dorsey, also of Philadelphia.

The first Octavo edition was finally completed in 1844, and Audubon's personal list of subscribers indicates that 1,199 sets were eventually printed. This edition was followed by five subsequent editions, the last being issued in 1871. Of these, only the first edition was personally supervised by Audubon, who died in January of 1851.

The text and plates for this National Audubon Society Anniversary Edition have been carefully reproduced directly from Audubon's original first editions. They appear here in their entirety, in the exact sequence as when first issued 135 years ago. However, to make this edition more compact and thus more manageable, each of the five volumes contains two of Audubon's volumes within a single binding. Not a single color plate has been omitted, not a word of text has been deleted from these timeless American classics.

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