An Afternoon with Audubon – Winterthur Week 9

Most of this last week was spent playing the print block matching game – figuring out which blocks create each print, and updating Registration’s records of those prints. Going through the prints took up most of my time, to the point where looking at prints left me feeling slightly sick, because they were all I ever saw, day in, day out.

So when Amanda, the Curatorial Fellow, asked if I could help her get some prints ready for viewing during a collections visit, I was excited for the change of pace. A glimpse of a new part of the collection, and a break from the hundreds upon hundreds of print block prints? Count me in.

Amanda was helping some visitors, who were curators from another museum, view some of Winterthur’s Audubon prints. The museum has 265 Audubon prints, many of which are now retired in the Research Building, but some still hang as part of the set-up of the nine floor duPont house.

Magnifying glasses are essential for a good Maps and Prints room.

Magnifying glasses are essential for a good Maps and Prints room.

The two of us went to the Research Building, up to the freezing cold Maps and Prints room, where the “retired” Audubon prints are housed. We went through the list of requested prints the visiting curators wanted to see, and located the proper cabinets and cases that they lived in. The two of us then had to slide the large, awkward cases out of the cabinets to the main table.

View of the prints and a case.

View of the prints and a case.

The Audubon prints are large – they spanned the width of the table, and the cases they came in were heavy. I’m not sure how one person could manage to remove those cases without bumping into things or accidentally dropping them onto the floor. But luckily, with Amanda and I working together, we managed to collect the roughly 40 requested prints for the visit later that day.

Look how huge they are!

Look how huge they are!

We had to find extra spaces to stack all the prints.

We had to find extra spaces to stack all the prints.

 Big Birds – But Why?

So, why does Winterthur own so many giant prints of birds? Who made them? Why?

Those answers rest with one name, and one person: John James Audubon. He is the artist behind all of these drawings of American birds, and a smaller collection of quadrupeds. Born April 26, 1786 in now-Haiti to a French sailor and his French mistress, Audubon was raised in Nantes, France, by Mrs. Audubon (his father’s wife). At age 18, Audubon traveled to Grove Mill Farm, near Philadelphia, PA, to escape conscription into Napoleon’s army. He drew birds as a hobby, and amassed quite a portfolio.

In America, he was a small businessman, a husband, a father of two, and was even briefly jailed for bankruptcy in 1819. After his short imprisonment, he and an assistant embarked on a journey down the Mississippi River to depict America’s birds. When he returned to Europe in 1826 with his collection of life size and dramatic portraits during the midst of the Romantic Era, the prints became an instant hit.

Audubon achieved modest fame, settled down in New York, and ventured westward one more time in 1843, a trip which inspired Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, which his sons and friend John Bachman largely completed.

The Audubon Society, an organization focused on bird conservation, is named after him, though he played no role in its founding.

Meet Some Fowl Friends

I gathered a little extra information on some of the prints Amanda and I handled in Maps and Prints, thanks to Winterthur’s database. There’s also a bison we did not get to see in person, but as he is a lone quadruped, he seemed important to mention.

1959.0162.054 – Snowy Owl



This ink and watercolor aquatint was engraved, printed, and colored by Robert Havell, Jr. in London, England, but the owls were originally drawn by Audubon around Boston, Massachusetts, probably in the winter of 1832-33. The Winterthur database “Creation Place” tab notes that Audubon wrote in his Ornithological Biography that a gunman brought him several snowy owls that winter – one of which was still alive.

Now seems like a good time to note that Audubon killed the birds he drew to achieve the accurate detail.
Amanda learned from the visiting curators that if Audubon could not finish the drawing within a day, he would kill another bird in order to keep using fresh models.

(And once you know this, you start noticing that some the birds have odd poses, and look like they might have been pinned to a wall for Audubon to draw…)

...which means Hedwig probably died for this image to exist.

…which means Hedwig probably died for this image to exist.


1959.0162.176 – Roseate Spoonbill


From when Amanda and I packed up the prints.

From when Amanda and I packed up the prints.

This print was made in 1836, but Audubon likely painted this adult male while in Florida during 1831 or 1832.  

All the prints have a similar font label.

All the prints have a similar font label.

I find it looks like a cross between a platypus and a flamingo.

I find it looks like a cross between a platypus and a flamingo.

1959.0162.147 – Frigate Pelican


1959-0162-147 Frigate Pelican

This bird is also known as the Magnificent Frigatebird, or the Man O’ War Bird. Like the other Audubon bird prints, this one was engraved, printed, and colored by Harvell in London in 1835. Audubon presumably painted the original while in the Florida Keys during the spring of 1832, as his Ornithological Biography mentions observing this species at that time.

This plate is interesting because it also features two drawings of feet, made in black and hand-colored with polychrome watercolors.

Foot 2Foot 1




Engraving Havell

Drawn by Audubon

All of the bird prints have the same text at the bottom of the page.


1995.0053.008 – American Bison or Buffalo


Bison 1

Whereas all the bird prints are drawn in life-size, this bison is depicted in a smaller scale – one seventh of its actual size. It was drawn by Audubon in North America during his later western expedition, and the lithographer was John T. Bowen.

Bison 2

“BOS AMERICANUS, GMEL. American Bison or Buffalo. 1/7 Natural Size. Male.”

The original plate appeared in the 1845 edition of Audubon’s Quadrupeds of North America, but based on the paper and fineness of the half-tone screen, the print Winterthur owns was likely produced in the first quarter of the 20th century, possibly by the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, which produced half-tone reproductions of Audubon’s prints as gifts for customers between the 1940s and 70s.

Leaving Enlightened

Not only was it pretty cool to handle these massive prints, it was also interesting to learn more about Audubon. I had never heard of him before, but now he seems to show up in random places. I noticed a reproduction print of an Audubon bald eagle hanging next to the Registrar’s office. The hallway next to the house library still features several Audubon prints, including this massive pelican.

1959.0162.168 American White Pelican. PELICANUS AMERICANUS.

1959.0162.168 American White Pelican. PELICANUS AMERICANUS.

Many people recognize Audubon’s name – whether for the bird prints or the conservation society. I appreciate that I had the chance to directly engage with this art, this history, and that I now have a couple of fun facts to add to any conversations linked to Audubon (I managed to creep out my mom by mentioning how Audubon acquired and drew his subjects…because there is something difficult about knowing countless deaths led to these stunning prints. At least the Audubon Society now champions bird conservation).

After this bird-filled Friday, my final week at Winterthur begins. It’s hard to believe I already spent nine weeks here. The time has flown by (pun…accidental, but appreciated).

1959.0162.051 Bay-Winged Bunting. Male. FRINGILLA GRAMINEA.

1959.0162.051 Bay-Winged Bunting. Male. FRINGILLA GRAMINEA.


  1. aswhitlock says:

    It is so cool that you got to work with these prints! Growing up, I helped my dad a lot with bird conservation efforts and we had a lot of similar Audubon prints in our house. Was there any particular reason that the curators wanted to see these prints? Also, are the Audubon prints available for anyone to see by appointment or can only individuals such as museum curators, researchers, etc. see them by appointment? I only ask because at some of the museums, archives, and historical societies I have interned at in the past, some items were only open to viewing to a very small percentage of visitors.

  2. That’s really cool that you grew up familiar with Audubon, and the kind of work the Audubon society does! I believe the visiting curators were looking at the prints with the hope to take some out on loan for an exhibition at their institution.
    I believe that if there is a valid interest or purpose to a visit, collections visits are usually allowed. While I was there, there were student researchers, a historical fiction author, and even descendants of one of the makers who made appointments to visit objects. To make collections visits, they contact the Curatorial Fellow by phone or email,

  3. I really enjoyed reading this blog post; you are a very good writer and the prints are gorgeous! One question I do have is whether you know if it was common or is still common to kill the subjects of these kinds of drawings? I ask because it seems incongruent with the work done by the Audobon Society. Additionally, were these prints used as only art or also for scientific purposes (studying the birds) since they are so detailed? They are definitely a cool find regardless of the methodology!