John James Audubon (1785–1851)
Baltimore Oriole, 1 & 2. Males, 3. Female and Nest. Icterus baltimore. Plant Vulgo, Yellow Poplar. Liriodendron tulipifera, 1827
From The Birds of America
Aquatint, etching, and engraving with applied watercolor
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas

John James Audubon's The Birds of America, of which Baltimore Oriole is a part, is one of the most beautiful works of illustrated natural history ever published. The story of its creation is a remarkable tale of passion, perseverance, and familial devotion. Audubon began drawing birds during his childhood in Nantes, France. After arriving in America in 1803, he became a merchant but continued to pursue his art, drawing birds and laying the groundwork for an ambitious project to illustrate every bird in the United States in life-size drawings. By 1820, despite having a wife and children to support, he devoted himself almost entirely to this venture.

In May 1826, Audubon set sail for Liverpool, England, to find a printer for what he had begun to call his "great work." He found an experienced engraver in Edinburgh, Scotland, William Home Lizars (1788–1859), who was eager to embrace a new challenge. In June of the following year, however, Lizars' artisans went on strike, and production on the great work" came to a standstill. Distraught but undeterred, Audubon quickly found a new, highly experienced publishing house in London run by Robert Havell Sr. (1769–1832). Joining the project was his talented son, Robert Jr. (1793–1878), whose technical mastery of etching copper plates allowed Audubon's original watercolors to be replicated with great sensitivity.

After eleven years of relentless labor, the final print was pulled in June 1838. It contained 435 plates, made from 433 original paintings, representing roughly 449 species of birds. Scholars estimate that the Audubon family produced between 175 and 200 complete sets of the double elephant folio. Today, 120 complete copies are known to exist.

Artist Biography

John James Audubon (1785–1851) was born to a French naval captain in Santo Domingo (now Haiti). Raised in Nantes, France, by his father, Audubon was only eighteen when he was sent to America in 1803 to manage a family farm in Pennsylvania. Sometime around 1820 he formulated his plan to document all of the birds of America. This enterprise took him down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to Louisiana, across the South, through the Northeast, and into Labrador. He published an account of his adventures, along with his scientific notes, as an Ornithological Biography, completed in 1839. Audubon never surpassed The Birds of America, but he did produce a compendium of mammals, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, completed in 1848. He died at his home just north of New York City in 1851. The first Audubon Society was founded thirty-five years later.