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2008 Catalog > 20. Audubon, Richardson's Columbian Squirrel

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20. John James Audubon. “Sciurus Richardsonii. Bach. Richardson’s Columbian Squirrel. Natural Size. Male and Female.” Lithograph printed and hand-colored by J. T. Bowen, Philadelphia, 1842. Plate V from The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Imperial folio sheet size: 21 1/4 x 27 3/4" with full margins. Fine with bright color.


In 1839 Audubon had at last completed all 435 paintings for his seminal Birds of America. Not one to rest on his laurels, however, and forever in need of money, he almost immediately embarked on a new and even more ambitious project. He 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.

Audubon 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, Audubon feverishly worked on the drawings, taking what would become his last field expedition up the Missouri River in the summer of 1843. Ultimately, the artist and his son painted 147 species (plus eight separate “varieties”) on 150 plates. The senior Audubon worked primarily in chalk, crayon, and watercolors, while the younger painted almost entirely in oils. 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 first volume of the Quadrupeds, is a charming composition by John James Audubon. Two small red squirrels, identified by Bachman as a Rocky Mountain variant of the species, scamper down the branches of a tree. Audubon demonstrates an adeptness at depicting the squirrels in a lively and natural manner, so much so that a reviewer for the Boston Atlas in 1843 was moved to comment: “The plates are colored to life, and are so thoroughly life itself, that few people would venture to put their fingers near the mouth of one of the squirrels, for fear of an actual bite.”

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 by 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); Sarah E. Boehme, editor, John James Audubon in the West: The Last Expedition (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000, P. 148.

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