Of the 435 plates John James Audubon, the American naturalist known for his paintings of birds and other wildlife, had created, only 78 remain. This copper plate and corresponding page in the original collection that the Audubon compiled are a rare example of intact Audubon folios. Many of the compilations have been disassembled and their contents sold individually. The copper plates have had an even more tumultuous history. Shortly after their creation, some were ruined in a New York warehouse fire; even more were lost in the furnace of a copper refinery in Connecticut, and two more were lost during the World War One call for scrap metal. Engraved by John James Audubon’s friend Robert Havell, these copper plates allowed for faithful reproductions of Audubon’s iconic paintings.
Audubon was born in 1785 as the illegitimate son of a French sea captain’s mistress. He grew up predominantly in France before moving to America at the age of 18, where he became a businessman in Kentucky and Ohio (then considered the Frontier). After bankruptcy landed him in jail in 1819, Audubon embarked on his first natural history expedition along the Mississippi River. This trip led to him developing the style that characterizes so many of his paintings. In 1826, with the support of his wife Lucy, Audubon took his artwork to England. He became, overnight, a success. Audubon embarked on several more expeditions to document wildlife over the course of his lifetime, leaving behind a rich body of work upon his death in 1851.
Audubon labelled this animal as a “Bemaculated duck”–a misspelling of “bimaculated,” or something that has two sets of spots or markings. He thought that this specimen was a cross between two other duck species: the Mallard and the Gadwall. This combination has since been called a “Brewer’s duck.” With works such as this one, John James Audubon created images that brought to life the biodiversity and beauty of wild America.