John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America” was originally printed between 1827 and 1838, and included 435 hand-illustrated pieces from Audubon, a representation of the knowledge of America’s bird life at the time. Audubon’s work is clearly iconic, both from the bird and birding perspective, and from an artistic perspective. He certainly had his own style, definitely not photo-realistic, yet nonetheless, incredibly beautiful and representative of each species. What I find so cool about them isn’t just the birds, which by themselves are gorgeous, but the settings in which Audubon often placed the birds. The Birds of America pieces also often included representative habitat, represented in the same fluid style. Regardless of the content, they are timeless, gorgeous works of art that stand on their own.
Audubon’s work at the time was definitely considered unique, as he developed his own technique using watercolors and sometimes pencil, pen, or pastel crayons). The work at the time was very difficult to reproduce. Copperplate etching was used to reproduce the prints, with watercolor added by hand. He sold his prints through a subscription process, with subscribers receiving 5 prints every month. Less than 200 of these original sets were ever produced. Other editions were issued through the mid-1800s, but no edition produced more than 1,200 copies. Needless to say, these 1800s editions are extremely valuable today. The Economist in 2010 published a list of the most expensive books ever sold at auction, adjusted for inflation. They had to adjust their list to avoid repeats of the same title, because 5 of the top 10 most expensive book sales EVER were copies of Audubon’s Birds of America!
As I was wasting time on Twitter earlier today, I saw a little blurb about “free Audubon prints”. I clicked on the link, and found that the Audubon site does indeed have digital scans of all the John James Audubon artwork from his famed “Birds of America”. Given their date of production, they’re obviously past copyright and considered public domain. Here’s the link on the Audubon site.
This is so cool! Not only can you view each of the plates, you can download your own digital copy!! Best of all, they’re NOT small files with limited resolution, they are very incredibly detailed, very large digital scans of the Audubon print. Downloading “Plate 77 – Belted Kingfisher”, for example, gives you a file that roughly 6,500 by 7,900 pixels, better than image resolution provided by the vast majority of digital cameras, and capable of supporting prints of up to 2 feet by 3 feet in size! The detail is amazing, with absolutely nothing lost. Every brush stroke, every tiny bit of feather detail is provided in these free downloaded files. The detail is so amazing that you can see some of the tiny “flaws”, such as where some of the water-coloring goes “outside-of-the-lines” of the underlying etchings.
Do you want your own copies of Audubon’s gorgeous artwork on your wall? You can do so very cheaply! Download the free digital files, then go to a site like mpix.com. If you upload your Audubon file download to mpix, for example, for a mere $20 you can have your very own 16″ x 20″ copy of an Audubon print.
After downloading a few, I have noticed there are some issues with the quality of the scans. For example, when downloading the “Black-winged Hawk” (what’s now called a White-tailed Kite), it appears that some of the details in the brighter white areas are “washed out”, as you would get if you overexpose a shot on your digital camera. That’s likely an issue with the way the images were scanned, but it appears in many of the plates where white or brighter areas are evident. Overall the scans appear to be brighter (and thus washed out in some areas) than I’m sure the original images were. My guess is this was done during efforts to correct for white balance, to ensure that the background of some images was a perfectly pure white color. I actually prefer the plate at the top of this post, of the “Pinnated Grouse”, as it maintains the older yellowish, warm tones of the background (as you might expect from an older print). I hope they keep working on the digital scans, working to make them as representative of the original colors and tones as possible, but overall the scans are really beautiful and wonderful to look at.
These are SO incredibly cool. It’s also so very cool to see the history in these prints, from the standpoint of what species were called back then. I love seeing a “Foolish Guillemot” (now Common Murre), “Rathbone Warbler” (Yellow Warbler), or “Great Cinerous Owl” (Great Gray Owl). Wonderful history, and wonderful pieces of art to enjoy. THANK YOU AUDUBON! It must have been an extraordinary bit of work to scan these, and clean them up to provide such gorgeous, flawless, massively sized digital files! Here are some more examples of Audubon’s work that you can download (these are just a fraction of the original image size).