The Magazine

A Way to See the Birds

Is it possible to improve upon Audubon?

Mar 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 26 • By CHRISTOPH IRMSCHER
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For the better part of a week I lugged The Birds of America around with me as I went to campus. Colleagues, students, and strangers looked at me with a mixture of interest and concern as I waddled past them. In the Lilly Library at Indiana University, where I do most of my work, I propped up the new edition next to our original volume of Bien prints—which is, yes, even bigger. Over two days, I took up an entire table in the Reading Room, making no new friends in the process. 

Chromolithograph of Audubon’s mallards

Chromolithograph of Audubon’s mallards

Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Seymour R. Husted Jr.

As I was struggling to open doors and push elevator buttons while holding onto my birds, it occurred to me what a sorry sight I would have made to the keen eyes of the great John James Audubon himself, who regularly carried even larger portfolios into the field with him, in addition to his shotgun and paintbox and who knows what else slung over his shoulder or tucked away under his arm. 

Joel Oppenheimer’s tome is a reprint of a reprint. What is known as the “Bien edition” of Audubon’s Birds of America—after the German immigrant and printer Julius Bien, who undertook the printing—was an attempt to re-create one of the most expensive books in history as a series of color lithographs, rather than aquatint engravings, the complicated, time-consuming, and thoroughly impractical technology used for making the very first edition of Birds of America

Audubon’s work, published in installments between 1827 and 1838, was a tribute to the beauty and resilience of American birds, which he painted in lifesize, in poses and against habitats taken from his own observations in the field. It also documented, for all who cared to see, the uncompromising capacity of the human imagination to overcome all obstacles. No ornithological artist since has been able to match the power of those 435 plates, printed, for the most part, by Robert Havell Jr. on the largest sheets of paper that had ever been used for such a purpose, big enough to portray even the Whooping Crane and the American Flamingo—provided they kept their heads down.

Havell’s process remained the same throughout the long collaboration:  Audubon would provide him with a watercolor that Havell would then trace onto a large copper plate. That plate was then treated with a combination of methods, from traditional etching to the aquatint engraving. The latter technique required coating the plate with a resin-like substance, heating it, and then immersing it in an acid bath in order to produce a fine mesh of little holes that, when filled with ink, would create larger areas of tone in the print. 

Once they had been hand-colored in his shop, Havell’s prints seemed so vibrant that they surpassed Audubon’s watercolors. Never had dead birds looked so real, so three-dimensional, so full of life on paper! No wonder it took Audubon and Havell 11 years to finish what has since become the world’s most expensive and sought-after set of printed volumes.  

When they were done, Audubon was exhausted. He did manage to produce a smaller, highly successful octavo-sized version of his Birds, which re-created the larger images as hand-colored lithographs, a new and more efficient technique that used inked slabs of stone rather than pricey copper. But as his mind began to darken with what we would probably now call Alzheimer’s disease, Audubon, lost in his “little fancies,” was unable to carry on with the work on American mammals he had begun.  

It is sometimes said that greatness skips a generation, if it doesn’t leave a family altogether. John Woodhouse Audubon, Audubon’s painter-son who, with his brother Gifford, completed his father’s Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, is usually viewed with respectful condescension, or outright pity. A spectacularly unsuccessful western expedition that John undertook in 1850 yielded neither gold nor usable natural history sketches (most of his paintings were lost at sea). This did not help secure his posthumous reputation. 

The differences between his and his father’s plates are immediately evident, even to the untrained eye: John’s hares, deer, and marmots look anxious and angular, placed as if they were props into a landscape that seems frozen in some permanent late winter or early spring—the ground hard, the brownish grass stiff, the animals’ coarse fur bristling with the lingering cold.