John James Audubon, best known for his groundbreaking work The Birds of America, embarked on another ambitious project in the later years of his life: documenting the mammals of North America. This endeavor culminated in the creation of Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, a substantial and influential work that delved into the diverse world of North American mammals with the same depth and artistry that had made his bird illustrations legendary.
In Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, Audubon, along with his co-author, Rev. John Bachman, presented mammals in their natural habitats. The title itself is intriguing; "viviparous" refers to animals that give live birth, as opposed to laying eggs. Thus, in focusing on viviparous quadrupeds, Audubon and Bachman were centering their attention on mammals ranging from the large bison of the plains to the tiny mice that scuttle in the underbrush.
The publication was an immense undertaking. Spanning three volumes published between 1845 and 1854, it featured 150 hand-colored lithographic plates, primarily based on Audubon's original watercolors. Just as with his birds, Audubon's mammals are depicted in lifelike poses, often set against detailed landscapes. These illustrations were of immense scientific and artistic value, as they brought together an accurate representation of species with the delicate artistry that characterized Audubon's style.
A significant aspect of this work is its collaboration. Audubon's son, John Woodhouse Audubon, played a crucial role in illustrating many of the species. Additionally, while John James Audubon was the mastermind behind the visual aspect, Rev. John Bachman, a Lutheran minister and naturalist, was indispensable in providing the scientific descriptions and details about the habits and habitats of the animals. Bachman's involvement was particularly vital in the latter stages of the project when Audubon's health began to decline.
However, Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America differed from Audubon's bird studies in one significant aspect: its reception. While it was certainly appreciated and recognized as a valuable contribution to American natural history, it didn't achieve the same level of acclaim as The Birds of America. One reason might be the timing; by the time of its release, the American landscape was changing rapidly, with the westward expansion and industrialization shifting the nation's focus.
Nevertheless, Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America stands as a testament to Audubon's dedication to chronicling the natural world of his adopted country. It showcases the continent's rich mammalian life with unparalleled beauty and precision, making it not just a scientific endeavor, but also an artistic masterpiece. Today, it serves as a poignant reminder of the diverse and intricate tapestry of wildlife that once roamed North America, urging us towards a deeper appreciation and conservation of our natural world.