Discovered! Audubon’s First Engraving of a Bird

Jul 30th, 2010 | By | Category: Wildlife

Image courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences

In 1824, John James Audubon (1785-1851), the eminent American artist, created a drawing of a running grouse for use in the design for a New Jersey bank note. Although the artist mentions the drawing and the resulting engraved paper money in two separate diary entries, no one has ever been able to locate or identify such an illustration, until now.

After a decade-long search by an Audubon scholar from Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences and a numismatic historian from St. Louis, John James Audubon’ sfirst published illustration of a bird has been discovered.

In a forthcoming article in the Journal of the Early Republic, Robert M. Peck, curator of art at the Academy of Natural Sciences, and Eric Newman, an authority on American money, reveal their discovery and explain how Audubon’s entry into the world of commerce took place. The find is important not only for solving the puzzle of the missing engraving, but also because it illustrates Audubon’s development as an artist and provides a rare, contemporary view of the now extinct Heath Hen, a subspecies of running grouse.

Several of Audubon’s biographers searched in vain for the bank note Audubon mentioned. Unable to find the evidence of Audubon’s claim, some scholars have dismissed it as a red herring, invented by Audubon (a frequent embellisher of his own achievements) to burnish his reputation in the lean years before publishing his landmark book, The Birds of America.

Now, research by Peck and Newman on the 19th-century American banking and engraving companies that furnished paper money confirms the existence of the illustration.

Image courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences

By tracing the offerings of bank note engraver Gideon Fairman, to whom Audubon gave his drawing of a Heath Hen, the authors found the lost Audubon image on engraved bank note sample sheets in a private collection. The image did make its way onto proof bank notes made for at least two independent banks — a $3 bank note for the Bank of Norwalk, Ohio; and a $5 bank note for The Bridgeport Bank in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

The Academy of Natural Sciences, founded in 1812, is the oldest natural science research institution and museum In the Americas and a world leader in biodiversity and environmental research. The mission of the Academy is the encouragement and cultivation of the sciences.

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