John James Audubon’s incomparable Birds of America is famous throughout the world. Motivated by the scientist’s passion for a complete and exact record of nature, Audubon produced for his renowned work a set of 435 illustrations that are still treasured by ornithologists. Yet his passion and skill were so great that his paintings were soon recognized for other qualities; they are exceptional works of art. Actually, it is not Audubon’s originals that the world in general knows, but the reproductions made by the British engraver Robert Havell between 1827 and 1838 (and copies of those engravings). Virtually the entire collection of original paintings for this monumental work is now preserved in the New-York Historical Society and has never been photographically reproduced in color.
This spring, in co-operation with the Society, American Heritage will publish a unique work to be called The Original Water-Color Paintings by John James Audubon for “The Birds of America.” It will include not only the 432 subjects prepared for The Birds of America that are in the collection of the Society, but one other that is now in private hands. (Two of the originals have been lost for many years.) This 850-page limited edition will be published in a large size and in two volumes, using the precise techniques of modern color printing. In anticipation of this event, a landmark in the history of this national treasure, the Editors of A MERICAN H ERITAGE Magazine present here a portfolio from the forthcoming publication. The choice has been made for reasons few of Audubon’s contemporaries could have envisioned: the birds shown on these pages have either vanished or are in danger of doing so.
In Audubon’s day, man had not sufficiently disturbed the “balance of nature” to have made a noticeable change in his world. Today, scores of species and subspecies are already extinct or probably extinct, and scores more are in jeopardy. Man is behind these tragedies, intentionally or not. Some species he has slaughtered wholesale. He has altered the environment of others so markedly that the birds no longer have a means of existence. The loss of an entire species is mourned by some as a loss of part of the world’s beauty; it is harshly judged by others as a reflection on man’s cruel wastefulness. Yet there is an even more forbidding conclusion: an entire species of animal does not perish without signalling so momentous and pervasive a change that, in effect, a new environment is created—one that man himself may or may not find habitable. In that sense, Audubon’s work is not merely a record of creatures to be cherished in memory. Rather, his vision of nature may serve as a spur for man today to recreate, to the extent he can, a more hospitable world.