The legacy of John James Audubon's Birds of America is one of unbridled passion for ornithology and artistry, a blend of meticulous observation with artistic flair. While the original "Double Elephant Folio" edition is justifiably celebrated for its monumental contribution to ornithology and fine art printing, it is the lesser-known Bien Edition that stands as an equally impressive testament to the evolution of printing technology and the continued appreciation of Audubon’s work.
Named after Julius Bien, a lithographer of exceptional talent, the Bien Edition of "Birds of America" made its debut in the 1860s. Unlike the original Havell Edition, which was produced using engraved copper plates and painstaking hand-coloring, the Bien Edition harnessed the advancements in chromolithography—a process of producing color prints from lithographic stones. This allowed for faster, less labor-intensive production without compromising on the detailed vibrancy that Audubon’s works were celebrated for.
What makes the Bien Edition particularly noteworthy is the finesse with which the chromolithographic process was executed. Each plate could necessitate the use of several stones to achieve the intricate layering of colors, resulting in images that retained the vibrancy and detail of Audubon’s original watercolors. In essence, the Bien Edition represents a perfect marriage of technological advancement with artistic authenticity.
However, the timing of the Bien Edition's release was less than opportune. The outbreak of the American Civil War disrupted its publication, and as a result, it was never completed in its entirety. Only a fraction of the intended prints were produced, making it a rare and highly sought-after edition among collectors.
In retrospect, the Bien Edition of Birds of America serves as a testament to Audubon's enduring influence. It is a celebration of the progress in printing technology of the time and stands as a symbol of the continued quest to capture and immortalize the beauty of the avian world. Just as Audubon himself bridged the worlds of science and art, the Bien Edition bridges the gap between traditional craftsmanship and the new horizons of technological advancement in the art of printmaking.