A buzzard descends upon a hare.

John James Audubon
(American, 1785–1851)
Common Buzzard, Plate CCCLXXVII
The Birds of America, first edition, Vol. IV, 1838
Hand-colored aquatint, etching, and line engraving
Published by R. Havell and Son, London
Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn
University; The Louise Hauss and David Brent Miller
Audubon Collection

By Scott Bishop, curator of education

In The Birds of America, the four-volume ornithological catalogue of North America—published between 1827 and 1838, John James Audubon provided idealized but characteristic depictions of the countryside from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River as backgrounds for his exacting portraits of indigenous wildlife. Though The Birds of America sometimes recorded sweeping landscapes viewed from great heights, other times Audubon narrowed his focus down to a more intimate level, depicting birds in their habitats and rendering specific, identifiable plants and details from their immediate environments. In almost every case, the birds are rendered as though at eye-level, whether seen on the ground, perched on a branch, or caught in midflight.

A buzzard descends upon a hare.

The Birds of America is the cumulative work of many people. Audubon’s family and friends as well as employees assisted in every stage of production. Audubon worked out the compositions in graphite on canvas and then original paintings were made in watercolor, pastels, gouache, and ink. Audubon painted the representation of the birds in meticulous detail, while assistants often provided the floral or landscape backgrounds. When the compositions were sent to Robert Havell and Son in London, the engraver would translate the composition onto a copper plate to be used for engraving. Most of the prints are extremely close copies of the original paintings, but Audubon sometimes instructed Havell to change the composition, and even asked that he provide landscapes.

Detail of a print depicting a buzzard descending upon a hare.

Audubon drew this bird during the winter of 1836-37 in Charleston from a skin collected in the American West by Thomas Nuttall and John Kirk Townsend. Audubon’s son, John Woodhouse, painted the hare. Audubon probably took his cue for the background from the description of the bird by another naturalist, John Richardson, who wrote that it “haunts the low alluvial points of land which stretch out under the banks of a river.” He may have sent a background separately, but nevertheless Audubon had the engraver add a river scene in the background. Maria Martin, Audubon’s assistant in Charleston, painted the horned toad, which appears in Plate CCCXXXVI, the Common Egret.

Offset reproduction of Audubon’s original painting in the collection of the New York Historical Society, 1966.

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