In 1838, John James Audubon completed his
monumental The Birds of America, which was “large and nearly as heavy as
flagstones, large enough to require two people, one at each end, to turn the
thick, luxurious pages.” The world had never seen anything quite like Audubon's
drawings which presented life-size birds in their habitats—soaring, swooping,
singing, and killing.
Audubon self-published his book by selling subscriptions and then issued the
book in four installments. While he spent years camping out, making the
drawings, and compiling his great work, his wife supported him with her
The following is a description of his travels to win backing for publishing
his book (excerpted from the promotional description of Audubon’s Elephant):
Audubon’s Elephant was the nickname given to John James
Audubon’s masterpiece, The Birds of America—an oversized folio of 435
life-size ornithological prints that remains to this day the most compelling
depiction of bird life in the United States. Born in Haiti and raised in France,
Audubon spent much of his adult life as a struggling American businessman on the
frontier, where his obsession with birds nearly brought him to financial ruin.
In 1826, his ambitious project was also in a precarious position—his folio
remained unfinished, without an American publisher willing to fund it. Had
Audubon not set sail for England, his artistic triumph might easily have turned
Audubon’s Elephant tells the
story of the naturalist’s unlikely success in Britain as a self-exiled artist in
search of the money and inspiration necessary to complete his life’s work.
During twelve years spent traveling in Liverpool, Edinburgh, London, and Paris,
Audubon won the interest of wealthy families, fellow artists, and the public
with his eccentric brilliance and woodsman’s charisma, ultimately securing
enough subscriptions to publish The Birds of America.