John James Audubon in Louisiana

John James Audubon in America Collection

Audubon in Louisiana: Digital Exhibition

There is a sense that John James Audubon’s subjects - the lively, boisterous birds themselves - and his descriptive and engaging text have been unceremoniously separated from his art. Admirers in recent decades have had limited access to only one part of a whole (as impressive as that part is). This digital exhibition, converted from the physical exhibition "Audubon at Oakley," strives to reunite these elements, making the information available to a broader audience during the bicentennial of Audubon's arrival in Louisiana in 1821.

Much has been written about artist John James Audubon, his signature work, larger-than-life personality, salesmanship, storytelling abilities, and his tenacity in the face of political and economic upheaval and uncertainty. He came to Louisiana in 1821 to start over, again, to find a way to provide for his family.

His monumental illustrated work, Birds of America, was already underway, as he completed some of the paintings from 1808-1820 while in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Ohio. The artist wandered throughout the Louisiana wilderness, observing, collecting and preserving, illustrating, and eating his subjects (or in the case of the Great Blue Heron he collected in Florida, eating the contents of his subjects' stomachs). He made note of habitat, diet, mode of flight, nest architecture, mating behavior, calls, and methods of defense. He wrote, in the manner of William Bartram and Alexander Wilson before him, with an anthropomorphic and somewhat romantic tone regarding the birds he encountered, addressing the reader directly in what would become the text for the companion work, Ornithological Biography (1831-1839). He paradoxically describes his elation upon discovering new or elusive species, immediately launching into a graphic and enthusiastic description of the killing of numerous specimens. Just as often he describes the heroic effort of a bird to survive after being shot, moving the artist to care for it as a pet and later mourning its loss. In short, the project was complicated, as was the man.

Making sense of his legacy is difficult for modern admirers of his work. He both enslaved people himself and benefitted indirectly from the slave economy of the Americas. Audubon’s father owned a large plantation in Saint-Domingue where he was born and made much of his fortune trading enslaved people. Later, Audubon and his wife enslaved approximately a dozen people during their time in Kentucky and Louisiana, people whose labor went unacknowledged at the time. The National Audubon Society has a number of resources that address these aspects of his legacy.

In 2008, in celebration of the publication of Danny Heitman’s A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House (LSU Press), LSU Libraries Special Collections presented the exhibition "Audubon at Oakley" featuring drawings, manuscripts, proofs, and prints by John James Audubon (from both the elephant folio and octavo editions of Birds of America), curated by Elaine Smyth, Head of Special Collections. The digital exhibition presented here includes those items, featuring excerpts from Ornithological Biography. Text later adapted from it for the octavo edition of Birds of America are included with each image. Additionally, viewers are directed to the National Audubon Society Guide to North American Birds, featuring photographs, sound recordings, and scientific research regarding habitat and species status. 

We encourage you, the virtual visitor, to peruse this digital exhibition on your device outdoors, among the birds. You might find yourself viewing a particular bird of Audubon’s, reading his rapturous description of its plumage and call, when you realize that you are eye to eye with the very same species in your own backyard. (We have it on good authority that viewing the site this way has already summoned a pair of American Redstarts to a homestead in Baton Rouge, Louisiana).

Leah Wood Jewett
Exhibitions Coordinator

Special thanks to Christine Cloud for providing editorial assistance for the digital exhibition.

graphic element gray horizontal bar

Audubon at Oakley: Original Exhibition

Audubon worked on paintings of at least 23 birds while at Oakley plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana, and an additional 16 bird paintings are linked to his stay there.  All 39 are shown in this exhibition.  From Audubon’s original paintings, engravers (first Lizars in Edinburgh and later Havell and Son in London) created plates that were issued in the remarkable “double elephant folio” edition of Birds of America, which was published by subscription between 1827 and 1838.  The work earned Audubon great acclaim but it did not provide great wealth.  Returning to the United States, he faced the economic exigencies of supporting his family, to which he responded by launching the publication of an octavo edition, which he called the “petite edition” of the Birds.  

The folio and octavo editions are quite different, both in size and in artistic medium.  The double elephant folio, which derives its name from the size of the paper on which it was printed, measures approximately 40 inches by 27 inches and is made up of 435 intaglio (engraved and many aquatinted) plates. The octavo edition measures approximately 11 by 7 inches and includes 500 lithographic plates.  Both editions were hand-colored with watercolors.  Interested readers can learn more about the editions by consulting Waldemar Fries’ The Double Elephant Folio: The Story of Audubon’s Birds of America and Ron Tyler’s Audubon’s Great National Work: The Royal Octavo Edition of The Birds of America.

The LSU Libraries’ Special Collections division has a complete copy of the magnificent double elephant folio first edition of Audubon’s Birds of America (London, 1827-1838), which was acquired thanks to a donation from the Crown Zellerbach Foundation.  It is currently being restored by the Etherington Group, under the direction of master conservator Don Etherington, thanks to a generous grant of $99,000 from the Coypu Foundation, established by the late John S. McIlhenny.  

The Libraries are fortunate to hold an additional 120 separate plates from the folio, given by a host of generous donors.  The McIlhenny Collection also includes a fine copy of the first octavo edition of the Birds, published in the United States from 1840 to 1844, as well as copies of later editions, all of which are used in this exhibition.

Other treasures on display include an original drawing made by Audubon and used in the creation of the petite edition, as well as the manuscripts in Audubon’s hand for two passages, “Bear Killing” and “The Hurricane,” from his Ornithological Biography (Philadelphia and Edinburgh, 1831-1839).   

Elaine Smyth
Head, Special Collections