John James Audubon’s drawing of a heath hen (center) adorns an unfinished design for a $3 note from the Bank of Norwalk, Ohio. [Source: Eric P. Newman Numismatic Education Society/NPR]
In 1824, John James Audubon wrote in his journal that he had drawn a heath hen for a Philadelphia engraver. The drawing was intended as incidental art for private bank notes – there was no national paper money at the time. Audubon’s drawing would be considered clip art today. It’s believed to be his first commercial illustration, although a printed example was found only recently by Audubon scholar Robert Peck, a curator at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences, and numismatic historian Eric Newman.
In an interview with NPR, Peck explains that the modest drawing came at a critical time in Audubon’s life:
He wanted to be a bird painter. He wanted to produce a magnificent work on birds, and he couldn’t find anyone to back him. He’d struggled with one job after another. He actually spent some time in debtor’s prison.
And this was kind of a breakthrough for him. Here was a viable engraving company who was willing to pay him, but also more importantly get his picture onto a piece of currency.
Audubon would often make up stories or enhance his own reputation, partly to compensate for a questionable early life. He was actually the illegitimate son of a French sea captain. He had reason to fudge the facts a bit. He even claimed at one point to be the lost son of Louis XVI.
He played this card both ways. When he was here in America he would play up his aristocratic European origins. And when he was in England, he played up his role as the frontiersman from America. He would dress in buckskins. He would put bear grease in his hair. Cut a very flamboyant figure.
… the drawing itself is very modest. Unfortunately, from Audubon’s point of view, it was a bad choice. At least I think this was one of the reasons that more bank companies didn’t adopt it.
A little scurrying grouse rushing into a bed of grass is not the kind of confident image that a bank president wants to convey. So my guess is the bank officer said, oh no, take out that grouse, put in a bald eagle, we want something patriotic here.
Peck and Newman will publish a forthcoming article about their Audubon discovery in the Journal of the Early Republic.
According to the Academy of Natural Sciences, Audubon’s bank note drawing presaged the artistic innovations that later earned his fame and fortune:
Although the heath hen drawing lacks the glorious colors and monumental scale of the images found in Birds of America, its qualities presages those that distinguish the subjects in the later masterwork. This humble grouse is depicted in an active, life-like pose rather than the stilted dispositions typical of the time. Moreover, details of its pose and placement in its habitat demonstrates the artist’s first-hand and thorough knowledge of his subject.
Pinnated Grouse, Plate 186 from John James Audubon’s The Birds of America. [Source: Ewell Sale Stewart Library/Academy of Natural Sciences]