John James Audubon was born in Santo Domingo, present-day Haiti, in 1785. He grew up in France, where his loving stepmother encouraged his interests in drawing and the outdoors. His father sent him to the United States in 1803 to avoid Napoleon's draft. Over the next 17 years, Audubon unsuccessfully wandered from career to career, and place to place.
In 1820 Audubon began his masterpiece, The Birds of America. From then on, he devoted most of his time to painting birds, with the intent of printing as engravings life-size portraits of all the kinds of birds in the United States.
Unable to secure financial backing in the United States, Audubon went to Europe in 1826. There he found both subscribers and engravers for the project. The first prints were made that same year.
Over the next twelve years, Audubon divided his time between London and America. When abroad, he supervised the engraving and coloring of the prints. In America, he traveled in search of birds to paint. He died in 1851.
The University of Pittsburgh is fortunate to own one of the rare, complete sets of John James Audubon’s Birds of America. It is considered to be the single most valuable set of volumes in the collections of the University Library System (ULS). Indeed, only 120 complete sets are known to exist.
One set containing 436 planches in color printed in London in 1827 went for sale on auction in 1977 and fetched $320,000. It was then the highest price reached by a printed book.