Audubon's First Engraving Discovered

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A 200-year-old mystery has finally been solved.

Thanks to a never-say-die effort between a currency historian and a scholar studying John James Audubon (1785-1851), the famous artist’s first published bird illustration has been discovered.

This depiction of a running grouse or Heath Hen (a relative of the greater prairie chicken) was intended for mass production on bank notes. Audubon had mentioned the drawing and the resulting engraved paper money in two diary entries, but evidence of the work was never found.

Scholars, however, believed the claim was a trick Audubon was known to use, spinning tall tales to beef up his own reputation in order to get more commissions.

The effort to find Audubon’s missing bank note illustration dates back to the 1950s. Every Audubon scholar since then has met with failure — until now.

Robert M. Peck, curator of art and artifacts and senior fellow at the Academy of Natural Sciences, and Eric Newman, a currency historian, studied 19th century American banking and engraving companies known to manufacture paper money in Audubon’s time.

The men traced the different engravings of one particular bank note artist, Gideon Fairman (1774-1827), and discovered that Audubon had given him the Heath Hen drawing.

The grouse image was eventually discovered on sample sheets of engraved bank notes in a private collectionaccording to an Academy of Natural Sciences press release. The illustration did wind up on proof bank notes made for at least two independent banks, the academy said. However, because the notes were used in Connecticut and Ohio and made years after the artist’s initial contact with Fairman, they were not identified as Audubon’s handiwork.

Peck and Newman trace their discovery in the upcoming issue of the Journal of the Early Republic.

The bird Audubon depicted has since gone extinct.

Image courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences.

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