Museum of the Southwest

Midland, TX



John James and John Woodhouse Audubon: Selected Images of North American Animals from the Collection of the Museum of the Southwest


Through November 4, 2001 the Museum of the Southwest will exhibit selected hand-colored lithographs from The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1845-1848). Included will be a complete sub-group of 17 works known as the Texas Quadrupeds because they were drawn from Texas specimens. Following is exhibition text provided by Mr. Daniel H. Holeva, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, Museum of the Southwest.

For nearly 150 years the works of John James Audubon have had a sweeping allure to the masses. His approach and ability were a deviation from the accustomed standard of the day and it is this that has made his work survive.

His youth was filled with opportunities to hunt, trap, and fish; and it was this observation of nature, combined with his artistic explorations, that led to his life long career. His studies of other nature artists led to his new approach of transmitting his visions of the natural world to the general public. His vision would be one of painting from realism, and natural settings; and not the stuffed wired specimens others used. He also added scenic backgrounds, plants, and even other animals to arrive at a more natural setting.

Following his success with the Birds of America be embarked on a study of the quadrupeds, trying to arrive at a definitive work. With the assistance of his two sons, John Woodhouse and Victor Gifford; and Rev. John Bachman, another naturalist and artist, he began on this new project. Instead of watercolor originals, used the Birds of America, he used techniques of watercolor combined with pastels, pencil and oils in order to obtain the subtle colors and textures of the animals and to better give them a character of their own. The final printing was by the new technique of stone lithography.

Stone lithography was a new process that was beginning to be used as a major technique by the time of Audubon's work on the quadrupeds. Here the design is done on a smooth lithographic stone in pen and grease lithographic crayon or grease ink and transferred to print. The drawing would hold the ink from the rollers and the stone that was not drawn on would repel it. There was an artistic freedom that Audubon felt would give him the naturalness he desired on the finished plates. The resulting prints had no plate marks, as engravings did, and had a subtle quality all their own. They were then hand colored and readied for binding.

John Woodhouse Audubon did the painting for nearly half of the plates for the Quadrupeds, and reduced all the drawings for the quatro edition. The drawing on the stones were done mainly by William E. Hitchcock and R. Trombley. The lithography and printing was done under J. T. Bowman; a Philadelphia firm which was famous for their large size printed works. A few of the prints; including Common American Wildcat and American Cross Fox were printed by Nagel and Weingaertner in New York, with coloring by J. Lawrence on some of these. Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America was reprinted from 1842-46, the three volume folio coming out in 1846. The folio prints were approximately 22 inches by 28 inches. The quarto edition came out in 1854 under John James Audubon and the Rev. John Bachman, and published by V.G. Audubon. The folio edition contained 150 hand colored plates, and the quarto edition contained an additional five plates to total 155 hand colored plates. Audubon died in 1851, before the issuance of the quarto volumes, but his sons and the Rev. Bachman saw the work to its final printing.

The Texas Animals of John James and John Woodhouse Audubon

What made John James Audubon's drawings such a sensation in his time? The difference was that they were not stiff profiles set against a colorless background, which was normal for the time. They were true to life, full of animation using realism that captured the: "wildness" of the animals. The backgrounds were the natural habitat of the animals, appropriate, and these backgrounds were a part of the painting's composition. A difference does exist between drawing one lone creature and drawing a composition that harmonizes the landscape, the sky, and a well-adapted foreground. In this Audubon was a pioneer.

Most of Audubon's paintings were done in watercolor. His preference for watercolor had to do with never being quite satisfied with the finished surface he achieved with oils.

Audubon wired his subjects into position in inventive ways to convey the movement and action of the animal. In his quest to show the animals in life-like positions he sometimes fell short. The results in some of the bird paintings especially show contorted necks twisted and turned to fit the page of the print. In his approach for accuracy Audubon used a grid used for accuracy both behind the animal as well as on the paper he drew. Once satisfied with the drawing, he would trace it onto another piece of paper to eliminate the grid lines.

Audubon was lucky enough to be the right man in the right place at the right time. He came to America with a fresh eye at a time that unspoiled wilderness existed. He did witness rapid changes in the landscape. His story was not exactly a Horatio Alger story of rags to riches. Although born out of wedlock to a mother that died by the time he was four, his French sea captain father returned to his wife in France with Audubon, as well as his sister. Their stepmother an but spoiled them, and Audubon was tutored as a country gentleman.

Whether to enable young Audubon to escape conscription in Napoleon's army, or to avoid the stigma of illegitimacy, he was sent to Mill Grove near Philadelphia where his father owned property. Here Audubon began his life-long obsession with drawing. Audubon performed an experiment at Mill Grove that marked a "first" in the history of ornithology. He placed a silver thread around the legs of birds to see whether they would return the following year. By doing so he became the first bird bander in America.

The thing that separated Audubon from his predecessors was he was the first to give his animals the simulation of life. They had vitality and movement, and Audubon worked from freshly killed specimens, Audubon made great leaps forward at a time when birds and animals were drawn as though stuffed and fastened to wooden perches in museum cases. He took birds out of the glass case for all time, and gave them a semblance of life. He first vowed to only paint from fresh specimens he had collected after observing them in life. However strong this desire, practicality soon forced him to draw from specimens others collected for him, as well as taxidermy animals from museum collections.

Much praise can be given to Audubon for the fine sense of pattern and composition in Audubon's work, It is of interest that Audubon, like many of the artists of his day, had apprentices that worked on the backgrounds, leaves, flowers, and other botanical accessories that appeared in the works, He had many assistants, including his two sons. His younger son John Woodhouse Audubon became an accomplished artist in his own right. Victor Gifford Audubon painted the backgrounds in much of the work, as well as becoming the financial and printer liaison for his father. Add to these the efforts of Robert Havell, Jr. the engraver who improvised the branches and twigs where needed, or even full backgrounds where none existed and we have, in effect, paintings by committee.

As he aged Audubon let go of his "dreamer" self to become a workaholic. As soon as he had completed his Elephant Folio of Birds of America he laid plans to begin a two-volume edition of The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, in collaboration with his two sons and his friend the Reverend Bachman of Charleston. Toward the end of his life Audubon tried to get government support in 1842 without success. The following year the American Fur Company offered him transportation up the Missouri River as far as Yellowstone River. This enabled him to draw many of the western mammals in the field. About three years before the plates were half completed, his eyes and his mind began to fail, possibly from a stroke, and he never worked again. On January 27, 1851 Audubon died. The remaining mammals were painted. mostly in oil, by his son John Woodhouse Audubon, His son Victor Audubon executed most of the backgrounds, as well: as finding investors to purchase the work. Reverend Bachman finished the manuscript and brought the Quadrupeds to completion in 1852. It was truly a cooperative family effort, as Bachman's daughters had married Audubon's sons.

Twelve years after Audubon's death in 1851, at the age of 66, his widow Lucy sold the original paintings to the New York Historical Society where they can still be seen today. It is instructive to compare the originals with the prints because Havell was in a sense no less a genius than Audubon and left his own artistic stamp on the plate as well. In his work Audubon did not hesitate to mix media, and in his compositions pencil, ink, pastel, watercolor and even oils were used in conjunction with one another.

America was reawakened to Audubon's work in 1937 with new reprints and smaller sized editions, The greatest audience may have been reached with the calendars of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, where over a 20 year period over 10 million well-reproduced prints were distributed.

Read earlier articles relating to John James Audubon:

Other Audubon image and biography resources on the Internet:


Read more about the Museum of the Southwest in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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