John James Audubon, “Baltimore Oriole,” circa 1829, engraving on paper, 35 x 40 in. © Jasper52 2017

In this ongoing series for Fine Art Today, we take a longer look at the history and features of a soon-to-be-available artwork of note. This week we consider the work and legacy of an iconic printmaker.

As children, we often found ourselves searching for and collecting hidden treasures of nature. Eggs, feathers, nests, bones, and snakeskins were all celebrated items of discovery. As a youth, John James Audubon (1785–1851) was no different. Audubon would spend his afternoons wading through the woods and fields near his home in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) in the hopes of a new discovery to proudly display in his room. This early appreciation and love for nature was eventually combined with immense artistic talent as he grew to a young man and an adult, which resulted in one of the most beloved and famous books in the world: The Birds of America. A masterwork of 435 images of virtually all known American species, The Birds of America is a testament to Audubon’s lifelong mission to capture and possess nature.

Audubon’s lineage is a subject of debate, but scholars generally agree that he was the illegitimate son of a French merchant and planter and a Creole woman of Santo Domingo. After he turned 18, Audubon fled to America to avoid conscription into Napoleon’s army and enter business. Travelling up and down the Eastern Seaboard, Audubon began his cataloging and study of birds. After Audubon’s attempts to publish his studies were met with rejection in America, he traveled to England in 1826 in search of patrons and publishers.

Audubon was warmly received in Edinburgh and London, where the engraver Robert Havell undertook publication of The Birds of America. Audubon divided his time between Europe and the United States as his reputation and fame grew. By the 1840s and with his vision failing, Audubon settled in New York, where his sons, John Woodhouse Audubon (1812–1862) and Victor Gifford Audubon (1809–1860), assumed most of the production responsibilities for his later books. John James Audubon died on January 27, 1851 in Manhattan, likely from Alzheimer’s disease.

Millions of reproductions of the original plates from The Birds of America exist in homes across the world today, but on April 1 collectors have an opportunity to own a limited-edition Princeton print of Audubon’s “Baltimore Oriole” via Jasper 52 in New York City. Set within a thicket of tree branches, an attentive female oriole has perched on her nest as two males flaunt their brilliant colors nearby. As expected, the rendering of the birds is unparalleled, with nearly every feather and natural detail captured with accuracy. Auction estimates are between $1,300 and $1,700.

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