In 1820, John James Audubon set out to paint every bird in North America. The son of a French naval officer and a Creole chambermaid, he was born in Haiti but reared in France, and 18th-century Enlightenment ideals characterise his project.
Audubon had felt an affinity with birds “bordering on frenzy” since childhood. His interest was encouraged by his father, who “would point out the elegant movement of the birds, and the beauty and softness of their plumage … their show of pleasure or sense of danger, their perfect forms and splendid attire”. Enduring yellow fever, bankruptcy, a spell in jail and other adventures, Audubon travelled the length and breadth of the US – he painted portraits of landowners along the Mississippi to pay his way – to collect his specimens, usually shooting them so that he could record their colours before they faded.
Developing a method of using wire and thread to hold the dead birds in life-like positions, he drew in pastel, pen and ink, watercolour, pencil, charcoal, chalk, gouache, aiming to produce a page a day.
The Birds of North America has been enduringly popular since it appeared between 1827 and 1839d and holds the record – £7.3m – for the most expensive printed work ever sold.
The American Museum’s celebration of the great ornithologist-artist showcases folio engravings ranging from a huge gull in flight over the ocean, “Uria Brunnichi”, to warblers and cuckoos in their woodland habitats, plus depictions of mammals – racoon, skunk, mink – as exquisitely detailed and zoologically accurate, from Audubon’s lesser-known The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.
The show complements The Compassionate Eye, a display of animal prints by artists including Whistler and Grant Wood from the museum’s collection, donated by its founder Dallas Pratt, a New York psychiatrist who was a pioneer protester against vivisection. www.americanmuseum.org, 01225 460 503, from today to October 28