Audubon's Common Deer

Common American Deer

Drawn from Nature by J. W. Audubon

Audubon, whitetail fawn

On Stone by Wm. E. Hitchcock Lithograph Printed & Colored by J. T. Bowen, Philadelphia" Original size, 8 x 4 in.

While Meriwether Lewis was shopping and studying in Philadelphia, in 1803, a young French expatriot named John James Audubon, destined to make an indelible mark on the cultural face of America, was beginning to get acquainted with his adopted homeland, beginning as a businessman. Self-taught as a naturalist and artist, in 1820 he began his monumental Birds of North America, four "elephant folio" volumes containing 435 colorplates that captured his subjects with an energetic, elastic grace. In 1843 he set out to create a second, equally monumental opus, Quadrupeds of North America, which was completed five years later. One-third of its 150 hand-colored lithographs were painted by one of his sons, John Woodhouse, with backgrounds by the latter's younger brother, Victor.

Common Virginian Deer

Drawn from Nature by J. W. Audubon

Audubon, whitetail fawn

On Stone by Wm. E. Hitchcock Lithograph Printed & Colored by J. T. Bowen, Philadelphia" Original size, 8 x 4 in.

In this striking depiction the artist, whose father had passed on his own knowledge of quadrupeds' anatomy to his son, has here presented his subjects from the inside out, showing their musculature with intense super-realism.

Between 1839 and 1852, already famous for his beautiful paintings in The Birds of America (4 vols., 1827-38), John James Audubon (1785-1851), aided by his sons John Woodhouse and Victor, and the naturalist John Bachman,1 published the 3-volume Quadrupeds of North America. It included 150 plates lithographed by the talented William Hitchcock and hand-colored by J. T. Bowen under the artists' supervision.

In the old process of engraving, lines were gouged into a soft copper plate with sharp instruments. The plate was washed with ink and then wiped dry, leaving ink only in the grooves. When a sheet of paper was pressed against the engraved plate, the image was transferred to it. Lithography, however, used a smooth, flat, porous limestone—about 3"-4" thick, imported from Bavaria—upon which a design was drawn with a greasy crayon or ink made from wax, lampblack, oil, and soap. The stone was drenched with water, which soaked in everywhere that was not covered by the crayoned image. An oily ink, applied with a roller, adhered to the drawing but not to the wet parts of the stone. When a sheet of paper was pressed against the stone, it received the inked image.

The process of lithography had been invented in 1798, but was not widely employed by the printing industry until after 1820, and another fifty years or so elapsed before the full potential of color lithography was reached—about the time when photographic processes evolved that would eventually replace it. In Audubon's day, color still had to be applied by hand, as in the old days of engraving. Neither engraving nor lithography have been used by the printing industry since the early 20th century, although they have remained highly valuable as artistic media.

Colors of flora and fauna are the most difficult qualities to capture with paint because their shades and hues depend so much upon the transitory effects of season, time of day, quality of light and shadow, and various other factors. As Bachman reminded John James, "color is as variable as the wind."2 It was for that reason, primarily, that many 18th-century naturalists preferred plain black and white engravings.3 J. J. and J. W. Audubon together carried wildlife illustration a giant step forward. The Audubons presented their subjects in more dynamic attitudes than the others, even in states of repose such as that of the fawn shown above. "In his finest paintings of quadrupeds," wrote Constance Rourke, "every tiny hair seems spun to tension by cold wind, or by fear, or by the lust for prey, and the small squirrels and prairie dogs and gray rats are shown in fleeting subtle movement."4 Above all, the subtle nuances of color—"The brush of my old friend, Audubon," Bachman wrote to Victor, "is a truth-teller."5—made those reverent, often vibrant, paintings of quadrupeds immediately and widely popular. The first edition of Quadrupeds numbered 303 copies; nearly 50 reprints were published up to the end of the 20th century.

With the passage of time the original hues of J. W. Audubon's conceptions may have faded somewhat, and the paper it was printed on may now be a different shade. Moreover, the unpredictable effects of digital media—especially the virtually incalculable differences in calibration among computer monitors—might mean that what we are seeing on this page today is more or less remote from the artist's intent. On the other hand, just by chance, it might be exactly right.


1. Bachman, an ordained minister who continued his demanding pastoral duties while writing for the Audubons without pay, also founded the Lutheran Synod of South Carolina, and the state's Lutheran theological seminary.

2. Letter, January 13, 1840. Quoted in Alice Ford, John James Audubon (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964), 368.

3. To circumvent the uncertainties of paint, elaborate vocabularies were developed, by which colors could be specified, such as Werner's nomenclature of colours, . . . arranged so as to render it highly useful to the arts and sciences, by Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749-1817), published in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1814. Note that in the prospectus for Lewis's proposed volume on his discoveries in natural history, nothing was written to indicate whether the illustrations would be in color or not.

4. Constance Rourke, Audubon (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1936), 302.

5. Letter, November, 1844, quoted in Francis Hobart Herrick, Audubon the Naturalist: A History of His Life and Time, 2 vols (New York: Appleton and Company, 1917), 262.

Funded in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committee.