Elephant Folio

John James Audubon in America Collection

When he arrived in Louisiana in January 1821 at age 35, unknown and practically penniless, Audubon was at a turning point in his life after business ventures in Kentucky had ended in bankruptcy, and employment at a Cincinnati museum proved unsustainable. Despite limited training in art or natural science, he was newly determined to use his artistic abilities as a means of providing for his family, while also devoting himself to a passionate pursuit of collecting and drawing as many North American birds as possible.

Audubon first began depicting birds in his youth in France, and continued developing both his drawing techniques and his keen powers of observation during the years he lived in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Ohio from 1803 to 1820. The idea of future publication of his bird drawings had begun to take shape by the time he headed south in the fall of 1820 in search of migratory birds along the Mississippi flyway, eager to augment his collection and aspiring to improve upon Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology (Philadelphia, 1808-1814), the first major U.S. work depicting native birds. Audubon added to his portfolio of birds while working as a portraitist and drawing teacher based initially in New Orleans. An unexpected offer to tutor the teenage daughter of the Pirrie family at Oakley Plantation near St. Francisville introduced him to the abundant bird life of that area, where he spent four months in the summer and fall of 1821 exploring the surrounding woods and making some of his finest drawings. After his wife Lucy and their two sons joined him in New Orleans at the end of that year, Audubon’s peripatetic pursuit of income took him to Natchez, Mississippi, for a time. Lucy subsequently worked as a teacher on two plantations in the St. Francisville area from 1823 to 1829, making it possible for him to spend a total of nineteen additional months in what became one of his favorite places for studying and drawing birds.

It was in Louisiana that Audubon’s artistic skills approached their full maturity, and it was from Louisiana that he launched the epic quest to get his bird drawings published. The idea was incredibly ambitious for many reasons, including the fact that all the birds were depicted life size and in dramatic new ways, presented as they appeared in nature and not merely as specimens. Audubon knew that only in Europe would he be able to find engravers capable of faithfully reproducing his drawings.

He received mixed reactions when he sought support for his plans among scientific circles in Philadelphia and New York during travels there in 1824, but nothing dissuaded him from his goal. In the spring of 1826 he sailed from New Orleans to England with about 250 drawings, and thus began the twelve-year endeavor of publishing the Birds of America elephant folio while simultaneously recruiting subscribers to pay for it by installments. Audubon would cross the Atlantic six more times before the project’s completion in 1838, adding more drawings made during additional travels to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Florida, and the east coast of Canada, as well as a brief residence in Boston.

Drawings done in Louisiana were the basis for more than half of the massive work’s first one hundred plates, including the famously iconic wild turkey that became Plate I. By the time Birds of America was concluded with 435 hand-colored engravings, Louisiana drawings were interspersed among later groups of plates as well. One of the largest and costliest works of natural history illustration ever produced, Audubon’s stunning achievement established his reputation as America’s foremost painter of birds.   

Christina Riquelmy
Rare Book Cataloger