The Birds of America, by John James Audubon, contains some of the most famous and spectacular prints ever made. The images have been reproduced countless times, and Audubon’s name has become synonymous with antique bird prints and modern environmental conservation. The beauty of the original prints, however, far exceeds the reproductions.
In 1820 John James Audubon began his masterpiece, The Birds of America. He devoted all his time to painting birds, with the intent of printing as engravings life-size portraits of all the kinds of birds to be found in the United States. Unable to secure financial backing in America, Audubon went to Europe in 1826. There he found both subscribers and engravers for the project. The first prints were made that same year.
The Birds of America consists of 435 prints of 457 species, one hybrid and five unidentified birds. Life-size, black and white engravings were made based on Audubon’s original drawings (most now at the New York Historical Society), and hand water-colored. The prints were issued in sets of five, depicting one large, two medium and two small birds. Eighty-seven sets of five were completed between 1826 and 1838. Fewer than 175 folios of all 435 prints were completed. Few than 100 complete sets remain.
For the first time, HistoryMiami will display the entire Elephant Folio in one exhibition. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see all 435 prints in one blockbuster exhibition.
The prints will be arranged as John James Audubon intended them to be seen, in their original order, in the sets of five he selected for their aesthetic appeal. The show will open with print 1, the Wild Turkey, and work its way to the final set of five prints—including the spectacular American Flamingo (print 431) and the improbable American Dipper (print 435).
In addition to the complete first edition of The Birds of America, the second edition will be shown. The seven volumes of the Octavo Edition will be displayed in cases, each open to one of the lithographs. Every few days, a curator will turn the pages, so that by exhibition’s end, all 500 lithographs will have been shown.
Other rare books and prints may also be displayed, with the final selection to be made in the near future.