Audubon’s Search for the Perfect Paint


Early photograph of Daniel B. Smith (Source: Wikipedia)

Here is a peculiar bit of trivia about the ornithologist and painter John James Audubon (1785–1851): He didn’t like to grind his own watercolor pigments. In his 1826 journal, he confessed, “it makes me hot and fretful, and, I am convinced, has a bad effect on the mind of any artist.” Because of this, he was always on the look out for fine watercolor pigments, which were, as you might imagine, hard to come by in the 1820s.

When he came to Philadelphia in 1824, Audubon was introduced to Daniel B. Smith (1792–1883), an influential pharmacist who owned a popular store in downtown Philadelphia (est. 1819), and who was, in 1821, a founder of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy (now University of the Sciences). Smith was also a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, where Audubon was eager to make allies (but not always successful; see my paper on the “Heart of Audubon“). As it turns out, Smith was well connected and knew just the guy for Audubon—a manufacturer of watercolors named George C. Osborn, to whom he referred the ornithologist with great success.

There is an unpublished letter from Audubon to Smith, dated July 12, 1824, that can be found among Smith’s papers in the Quaker and Special Collections of the Haverford College Library. And on that day, according to excerpts from his 1824 journal published by Buchanan (1868), Audubon was networking like a champ:


Audubon in 1826, painted by J. Syme (Source: Wikipedia)

“July 12. Visited by Mr. Gilpin, who thirty-three years ago discovered the lead ore on Mill Grove. Called on Dr. Harlan, an amiable physician and naturalist, and a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, Gave him some of my drawings, and he promised me letters to the Royal Academy of France, and afterwards nominated me for membership to the Academy in Philadelphia.” [This last part was not actually true.]

Needless to say, the industrious Audubon was very excited about the new paints he acquired from Osborn:

Philadelphia July 12th 1824

Dear Sir,

After close observation and use of the watter colors prepared by George C. Osborn—it gives me great Satisfaction to say that I consider them generally as the best I have met with in the United States, either Manufactured here or Imported from abroad.—They possess the good quality of Mellowing softly into their latest [?] teints and of retaining their Brilliancy even when exposed to the influence of the Sun.

I remain, Dr. [Dear] Sir, Respectfully Yours, Obd St. [Obediant Servant],

John James Audubon


This post was inspired by Katrina Rakowski, bird painter extraordinaire. And, as always, thanks to the wonderful staff in the Quaker and Special Collections at the Haverford College Library, especially Sarah Horowitz, Ann Upton, and Krista Oldham.

Categories: History of Science, Ornithology, PhiladelphiaTags: , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: