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Marking Pennsylvania History

Birds, Beasts & Artists

So very little was known about America. The same year Lewis and Clark returned from the West, John James Audubon began sketching dead birds propped up by wire armatures. President Thomas Jefferson imagined Lewis and Clark would encounter living, breathing specimens of the Mastodon as he sent them across the Great Plains to the Pacific. Of course, other than Bison, no mammals of mass destruction were found, but the expedition did return with evidence of 300 previously unknown plants and animals. And the North American Continent was still new to the eyes of the artist.

So little time; so much to sketch. Audubon picked up where other naturalists left off and embarked on an epic project to portray, life size and from life, all 489 known birds of America. But as such projects often do, this took longer than expected. The five-volumes were issued between 1827 and 1838. In beauty and size, it was the greatest bird book of all time.

Audubon's work was only half over. His next project, depicting the mammals of North America, had him traveling up the Missouri River to sketch the bison from life. The final volume of The Quadrupeds of North America came off the presses in 1854, more than a half century after Audubon arrived in America and three years after his death.

- Kenneth FInkel, Executive Director of WHYY's Arts & Culture Service

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