Changing Planet

Rare Early Audubon Drawings Published for First Time


Northern Shoveler by John James Audubon/Courtesy Harvard University Press

John James Audubon has been described as America’s most famous artist/naturalist. His drawings for “The Birds of America,” published in the late 1830s, hang in the best museums. Plates from the earliest edition, original hand-colored prints, are sold on the Internet for $100,000 or more apiece.

A little-known, seldom-seen collection of Audubon’s earlier drawings of birds is in the Harvard University’s Houghton Library and Museum of Comparative Zoology. Now they are being made available for wider public appreciation.

“Like a rare bird only infrequently sighted, the drawings … have never been seen by the general public,” the university says in a news release announcing its new book, “Audubon: Early Drawings” (Harvard University Press; September 30, 2008; $125).


Passenger Pigeon by John James Audubon/Courtesy Harvard University Press

Known as the Harris Collection, after the friend and patron to whom Audubon gave or sold many of the early works, the more than 100 drawings reproduced in the book are accompanied by an essay by Audubon’s biographer, Richard Rhodes, an essay on Audubon’s science by Scott V. Edwards, curator of ornithology at Harvard’s Museum of Natural History, and an account of the collection’s history by Houghton’s Leslie A. Morris.

I found the essays to be as interesting as the drawings themselves, providing valuable background and context not only about the art but about Audubon himself.

But it is the drawings that will attract most people to the new book, both Audubon aficionados and those who know little about him. They provide a glimpse into his early career, when he drew mainly from fresh-killed specimens arranged and pinned with sharpened wires on wooden boards.


Ivory-billed Woodpecker by John James Audubon/Courtesy Harvard University Press

“During the decade when most of these drawings were composed he was a young Frenchman new to America and still teaching himself to draw, still exploring how to make the birds fly off the page,” says Rhodes in his essay in the front of the book.

Audubon Early Drawings Book Cover.png

“Encountering these drawings is a treasured experience,” says Scott Edwards.

“As in the study of evolution itself, the fascination comes in the comparison of these early works with what came later, and in the detection of the inklings of majesty in these modest, earnest efforts.”

Audubon: Early Drawings book cover


Edwards is also a member of the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration. It was from him that I learned about this book and he gave me an interview on video about it, reproduced below.


Carolina Parakeet by John James Audubon/Courtesy Harvard University Press

I asked Edwards via email what images of the book I should highlight on my blog. “You might highlight the three extinct species: Carolina Parakeet, Passenger Pigeon, Ivory-billed Woodpecker. You might mention that all drawings are life size (in life, not as published). You could mention that the Catbird is perched on a mullen introduced from Europe in the late 17th century. In general the drawings are a nice snapshot of bird and plant life in the middle Mississippi region (Ohio, Kentucky) in the early 19th century,” he wrote back.

Enjoy seeing all the images called out by Scott Edwards on this blog entry – and watching the video below:

 Video by David Braun/National Geographic News


Gray Catbird by John James Audubon/Courtesy Harvard University Press

Additional Information:

Audubon’s Species: Bird Art, in All Its Glory  (New York Times)

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • Jon K

    I have been trying to research some watercolors of European birds that allegedly descended from James Maury (first US Consul to Liverpool) who was the first person J.J. Audubon sought out when he traveled to England in 1826. James Maury’s son Matthew married the daughter of Joshua Gilpin, who ran the first paper mills in America, and who supplied Audubon with paper, so that may have been the connection. I read Audubon’s journals from the late 1820’s (some of which has still not been published) at the NY Historical Society. It is probably not well known since this has not been published, that he copied over what he called his European collection into watercolors in 1827 to sell at .25 each to help sponsor his trip to England. He wrote that these birds are ‘mere ornitholoigcal profiles, ‘smaller than life’ and in the style of Buffon (an 18th century French Naturalist). I had been planning and procrastinating to go to the Harvard library to compare my pictures with theirs. But now with this reference they have come to me. I am encouraged by the similarities and even some signature stylistic attributes that these early drawings have with my watercolors. Whether or not I can ever firmly attribute these to Audubon, this book reference book has been overdue and it was such a pleasure to finally see these pictures. He has a sense of beauty and aesthetics that well makes up for any lack of training.

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