John James Audubon Painted Mammals, Too.

“Brown or Norway Rat.” From John James Audubon’s The Quadrupeds of North America vol.2. Image courtesy Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL)/flickr.

I’m a big fan of rats. They make great pets, believe it or not. So, when I ran across this image, I had to investigate. It was drawn by John J. Audubon. Audubon is most famous for The Birds of America, a four-volume portfolio of paintings of almost 500 different species of birds published between 1827 and 1838. The National Audubon Society, founded in his name in 1905, continues his work to educate the public about birds.

Audubon’s painting of a couple of Passenger Pigeons, from The Birds of America. Although now extinct, the birds swarmed over Audubon in Kentucky in 1813, so thick that “the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow.” Image from BHL/flickr.

But other animals fascinated Audubon, too. His future brother-in-law recalled seeing the young Audubon’s room “festooned” with stuffed animals–real squirrels, raccoons, and opossums that Audubon had shot and preserved. In 1843, five years after he finished Birds, Audubon set off up the Missouri River from St. Louis to capture North America’s “quadrupeds” with the same lifelike precision he had painted his birds.

“Gray Fox” from Quadrupeds vol. 1, courtesy BHL/flickr.

But Audubon lost interest in his mission after several months, in part, it seems, because of the gruesome evidence of unrestricted buffalo hunting. Rotting carcasses, skinned of their valuable hides by white hunters, lay everywhere about the pastures as thick as grazing cattle. Eight months into his journey to document the continent’s mammals, Audubon turned and left for home.

“American Bison or Buffalo” from Quadrupeds vol. 2. Drawing courtesy BHL/flickr.

A few years later, his eyesight failed and he began to drink heavily. By 1848, he showed signs of dementia. He died in January 1851. Audubon’s The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America was published as a series between 1845-1848. His youngest son and travelling companion, John Woodhouse Audubon, completed about half the drawings after his father gave out. Later editions of the work removed the word “viviparous” from the title.

“Nine Banded Armadillo,” by John Woodhouse Audubon. From Quadrupeds vol. 3. Image courtesy of BHL/flickr.

You can view and download all images from The Birds of America and The Quadrupeds of North America from Biodiversity Heritage Library’s archive on Flickr. BHL provides access to all Audubon’s works on their website. The National Gallery of Art offers over 400 images from Audubon here. Rawpixel offers digitally enhanced downloads of all Audubon’s Birds and Quadrupeds. Perhaps the finest archive for Audubon’s birds is made available by the National Audubon Society itself.

“Cougar” by John Woodhouse Audubon from Quadrupeds of North America. Original from The New York Public Library. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

If you’re interested, Biodiversity Heritage Library bills itself as the “world’s largest open access digital library for biodiversity literature and archives,” which contains over 58 million pages of information from the 15th-21st centuries. I’ll certainly be spending more time nosing around there in the future.

John James Audubon was 41 in 1826 when he sat for this painting by Scottish artist John Syme. Audubon carefully crafted a self-image of a man comfortable in the wilderness, which he felt lent him authority as an expert in the habits and habitats of birds. In fact, he was at home in the woods, and the rifle he carries here saw constant action. Audubon believed his paintings were accurate because he drew his birds “from nature,” by which he meant freshly killed. Image from White House Historical Association/Wiki Commons.

Works Cited

Audubon, John James, John Bachman, and John Woodhouse Audubon. The Quadrupeds of North America. New York: V.G. Audubon, 1851-1854. Online at Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL).

“The Birds of America.” Wikipedia.

“History of Audubon and Science-based Bird Conservation.”

“John James Audubon.” Wikipedia.

“John J. Audubon’s Birds of America.”

Nobles, Gregory. John James Audubon: The Nature of the American Woodsman. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2017.

Nobles, Gregory. “The Myth of John James Audubon.” Audubon Magazine. 31 Jul 2020.

Rhodes, Richard. “John James Audubon: America’s Rare Bird.” Smithsonian Magazine. 1 Dec 2004.

Souder, William. “The Fantastic Beasts of John James Audubon’s Little-Known Book on Mammals.” Smithsonian Magazine. Mar 2018.

Categories: animals, people, places

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