Wilson undertook long journeys throughout the eastern states and territories studying and drawing birds. Audubon traveled extensively throughout North America and the northern hemisphere studying and drawing birds. Wilson worked with an American printer, did his own engraving, traveled extensively to sell his work by subscription, and completed seven of nine volumes. He died prematurely, leaving volume eight to be published posthumously and volume nine to be written by a friend. Audubon went to England to publish his “Birds of America,” engaging a prominent London engraver. He sold his work by subscription. When the double elephant folio was complete, he published a smaller octavo edition, also sold personally by subscription. This seven volume work eventually was issued nine times.
Wilson and Audubon shared the Philadelphia area as their home base, but their paths never intersected there. They met one time. Audubon was a merchant in Louisville, Kentucky, on his way to a business failure. Wilson’s journals from the time of their meeting in 1810 have been lost, though there are accounts written by Wilson’s friends who were also Audubon’s enemies. These tell of the two men meeting, and going hunting together for two days.
Audubon recounts the day when Wilson came into the counting room with two volumes of Ornithology under his arm. Wilson showed Audubon his work, and Audubon was ready to subscribe. Aubudon’s partner dissuaded him, telling Audubon (in French) that his drawings were far better than Wilson’s. Audubon did not subscribe and Wilson was miffed. Audubon showed Wilson his own portfolio which purportedly held almost two hundred paintings.
|Audubon's "Small-headed Flycatcher"|
What is certain is that this single meeting led to a rivalry between the two men, a rivalry which arose mainly after Wilson died in 1813. The rivalry revolved around charges and counter charges of plagiarism.
Wilson’s “American Ornithology” included a drawing of a “Small-headed Flycatcher.” Audubon claimed that Wilson copied from his drawing which he made in 1808. It is certainly possible that Audubon showed his drawing to Wilson in 1810, and Wilson, never having seen the bird and needing a record, made his own drawing based on Audubon’s. The “Small-headed Flycatcher” at the center of the controversy was an immature, warbler-like bird. Here’s the irony in the controversy. Today, nobody knows what the bird is. No one has seen or recognized the bird since Audubon - or Wilson - encountered it and drew it.
|Wilson's "White-tailed Eagle" (Bald Eagle)|
|Audubon's "Bald Eagle"|
Scott Weidensaul in his history of American birding, “Of a Feather,” summarizes the quality of Audubon’s painting: “no one had ever brought such vitality, such raw emotion and surging power, to the painting of birds. Audubon smashed centuries of artistic convention, packing his birds among lovely vignettes or fully realized landscapes .... They were not generic, paste-board silhouettes, although Audubon drew a few of those, too, especially ones he lifted from Wilson.”
Wilson and Audubon are fascinating personalities who made pivotal contributions on the literal frontier of early nineteenth century America, and on the frontiers of science, natural history, painting, and learning in the robust and emerging culture of the New World.