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  J.W. Audubon, “Little Nimble Weasel,”
(Philadelphia: J.T. Bowen, 1848).
J.W. Audubon, Little Nimble Weasel

John Woodhouse Audubon. “Putorius Agilis, Aud & Bach. / Little Nimble Weasel.” Lithograph printed and hand-colored by J. T. Bowen, Philadelphia, 1848. Plate 140 from The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Imperial folio sheet size: 21 1/4 x 27" with full margins. Very minor chipping to edges. Overall fine with bright color.
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In 1839, John James Audubon decided he would do with mammals what he had just completed with the birds, and with the artistic help of his son John Woodhouse, he initiated the first attempt ever to document and depict all the mammals of North America. He also solicited technical assistance from his close friend, the Reverend John Bachman, an expert on small mammals. Bachman spent 12 years researching and writing descriptions of each species, as well as acting as scientific editor for the entire project. Meanwhile, the artist and his son eventually painted 147 species (plus eight separate “varieties”) on 150 plates. In 1846, when it became clear that his father’s physical condition was deteriorating, John Woodhouse took over the entire task of painting the mammals.

To reproduce the paintings for distribution, Audubon engaged the distinguished Philadelphia printer J. T. Bowen who elected to use the relatively new process of lithography, an excellent medium by which to capture the tactility of the animals’ fur. Each lithograph was hand-painted and shaded by a team of colorists according to the field notes describing the animal. The first plates of the imperial folio were rushed to the printer at the end of 1842 and three completed volumes were published in 1845, 1846, and 1848.

The present print, which appeared in the third volume of the Quadrupeds, is one of James Woodhouse Audubon’s most charming compositions. Two long-tailed weasels (incorrectly identified by Bachman as a species distinct from the Common Weasel, of which these two are likely the smaller female)—intently examine a cicada that has perched on the branch of a dead tree. As the background for the vignette, Audubon fashioned an elaborate and lovely nineteenth-century rural landscape complete with split-rail fencing, a meandering stream, and farmhouses in the distance. Audubon demonstrates an adeptness at depicting the two weasels in a lively and natural manner, their movements neither wooden nor distorted.

While not as complete an accounting of American mammals as Bachman had hoped (the bats, seals, and whales were omitted), the Quadrupeds was nonetheless a resounding success. “The completeness of the other groups—insectivores, rodents, carnivores and hoofed mammals—made the Quadrupeds the unquestioned authority in its field,” wrote Victor Cahalane. “In coverage, scientific accuracy and popular interest, it had no equal at the time of its publication and for a half-century thereafter. . . . The delicate design and color of the small animals and the drama of motion and wildness are still exciting.”

A lovely example of nineteenth-century Americana from the last project of the nation’s foremost naturalist.

Ref.: John James Audubon and The Rev. John Bachman, The Imperial Collection of Audubon Animals: The Quadrupeds of North America, edited and with new text by Victor H. Cahalane (Maplewood, New Jersey: Hammond Incorporated, 1967).

Copyright 2003, William R. Talbot