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The Bird Man of Mazatlán

3 November 2008

Whether Andrew Jackson Grayson should be included among the great artists who were only recognized posthumously, or as a 19th century scientist and explorer is hard to say.  Whether being expected to work on a history of Mazatlán is a sign of faith in Gods, Gachupines and Gringos… or more proof that no good deed goes unpunished, I’ll leave to you.

But Grayson is a fascinating — and largely unknown — 19th century personage.  Was it a tragedy that an artist had to toil in a shop, or was toiling in a shop what made him the artistic and scientific genius that he was?

This is a draft for the Mazatlán book.  The original material is based on my translations from Oses Cole, Diccionario biográfico e histórico de Mazatlán (Mazatlán, Sinaloa:Cruz Roja Mexica, 2006) and information from Beyond Audubon: Andrew Jackson Grayson, Louisiana’s Forgotten Artist (Louisiana State Archives). The photo is from the Lousiana State website.  Artwork from Andrew Jackson Grayson: Birds of the Pacific Slope (San Francisco: Arion Press, 1986).

Born in 1818 in Lousiana, the son of a prosperous plantation owner, Andrew Jackson Grayson had always wanted to draw. One glimpse of Audubon’s Birds of the United States was enough to set Grayson on his life’s mission – bird painting – and his frustrating, tragic career as a scientist and artist, whose importance is only now being recognized.

Already a recognized bird expert by the early 1840s, Grayson was hired as a field collector by the new Smithsonian Institution. This didn’t put food on the table, and Grayson, with his wife Francis and infant son, Edward, emigrated to California in 1846. In a career marked by bad luck and worse timing, whatever it was that forced the Graysons to drop out of their wagon train along the way was probably for the best. The Donner Party went on without the Graysons.

Financially, Grayson did extremely well out of the California gold rush, as a San Francisco retail grocer and real estate speculator. In some ways, he welcomed the end of the gold rush, which allowed him to move to rural San Jose, where he built “Bird Nest Cottage,” worked on his artistic technique and become more than an amateur painter.

There, as the anonymous author of the Louisiana State Archives biography says:

He developed his own painting style and soon became a very competent artist.

His technique involved an initial sketch of the outline of a bird and the form of the background landscape and vegetation. The bird was then painted in minute detail in light pencil strokes then developed with washes in pale tones. He then progressed to filling in the detail of the background. He finished using a dry brush technique working in strong, clean colors.

In part because of the Donner Party experience, travel between California and the settled eastern half of the United States in the 1850s was normally done by sailing down the Pacific Coast to Salina Cruz, Oaxaca, crossing the Isthumus of Tehuantepec to what was then Puerto Mexico (today’s Coatzacoalcos) or Veracruz, and then sailing to New Orleans. On a business trip, combined with his part-time work for the Smithsonian, Grayson made the first of the paintings later included in his masterwork, Birds of the Pacific Slope, while travelling across the Isthumus in 1857. Although recognized as both an artist and a scientific writer, he was unable to completely support his family on by these activities, and finding the San Francisco retail trade not as lucrative as it had been during the early gold rush, Grayson moved his family – and opened a new store – in the then booming port of Mazatlán in 1859.

While his store never prospered, his artistic career matured during his time in Mazatlan. In his major works, Grayson’s technical skill exhibits a surprising ability to achieve dynamic compositions with brillliant color and exotic details.

While he put energy into his retail business, the artist also developed as a scientist, exploring the territory around the city, and making notes. Typical of the 19th century naturalist, Grayson field of interest was not limited solely to ornithology, nor even to biology. He wrote about everything… flora, fauna, history, business, the customs of the people, gossip about his travel companions and friends. Several of these notes would only be published posthumously. But it was the birds which drew his attention, and painting the birds that remained his passion.

Grayson started exploring the islands off the west coast, most then virgin territory for orthnitholgists. He visitied Socorro, the Isabeles and the Tres Marias (presently a prison colony, but… fittingly… under consideration as a new bird sanctuary). Many of the bird skins now preserved in the Smithsonian were collected on this voyages, including several species unknown until then, several of which bear the species name graysoni. And, of course, he continued to make both pencil drawings and watercolors.

Over the next several years, Grayson accumulated a significant body of work. Over the next sixteen years, he painted more thn 175 bird portraits, 156 of which are known to survive. From the beginning of his project, he had hoped to publish the portraits in a book form. Without the personal resources to undertake the project, he initially hoped to interest the Smithsonian Institute, but the Smithsonian was in the middle of a reconstruction project after a devastating fire burned the museum to the ground in 1865, and was unable to offer assistance. Grayson travelled to Mexico City and sought help from the Emperor Maximiliano. The Mexican Academy of Arts and Sciences planned to publish the book, but before the book was ready for the printers, Maximiliano was overthrown and executed.

In spite of his disappointments, Grayson continued his island exploratation. He was progressively weakened by the voyages, his only son was mysteriously murdered and he more and more frequently was attacked by recurring bouts of malaria picked up during his field trips, finally dying in Mazatlán in August 1869. In 1870, United States Vice-Consul requested the artist’s exhumation at the request of the Society of California Pioneers for reburial in the United States.

Francis Grayson, upon her return to the United States, attempted unsuccessfully to carry out her husband’s mission, and find a publisher for The Birds of the Pacific Slope. Disappointed, she finally gave up, donating the paintings to the University of California at Berkeley in 1879, where they were forgotten for the next century.

In 1982, The Birds of the Pacific Slope was finally published by Arion Press. The long delay in printing was somewhat fortunate, advances in printing technology allowing Arion to faithfully reproduce the color of the original paintings. Orthithology had also made advances since 1879, and Grayson’s scientific achievements were finally recognized. Despite the high cost of the limited edition ( the 400 printed copies of The Birds of the Pacific Slope retail for $4500.00 U.S.) it was considered a publishing sensation and quickly sold out.

One of the few memorials to Grayson – besides a handful of birds and other biota bearing “graysoni” in their scientific name is a marble plaque on his former home in Mazatlán.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 5 November 2008 6:58 pm

    This is an awesome life history, though as in many cases, the artist suffered (maybe) though maybe he was very happy too, and was only recognized much later. I am hoping that the artist was feeling that he was doing the best thing he could do.

  2. Manuel Gomez permalink
    8 November 2008 4:00 am

    fantastic story on a great scientist who lived in mazatlan for a decade!!!
    A pride for us the Mazatlecos


  3. Sheilah permalink
    19 December 2008 5:10 pm

    FYI: Grayson is written about in William Least Heat-Moon’s new book, Roads to Quoz, pub. 2008, page 123. I wish I had a copy of the $4,500 book of his birds!

  4. joaquin lopez permalink
    11 November 2013 4:20 pm

    Manuel Gomez Rubio, the least mazatlecos could do in his memory is put up a plaque at the old Angel Flores School, in the now extinct cemetery where his remains once rested.

    • 11 November 2013 5:01 pm

      There is a plaque on the site of Grayson’s home-studio-shop. I forget what street it is offhand… just behind the “El Shrimp Bucket” restaurant.

  5. 19 November 2013 11:44 am

    Andrew Jackson Greyson became known as the “Audubon of the West”..John James Audubon’s already well known and respected work represented birds east of the Rockies. Greyson’s equally beautiful paintings differ from Audubon (and other artists) in that he represented the birds among the foliage of the region and even included landscapes in some of his paintings. I thank Manuel Gomez for making me aware of A.J. Greyson and his work d life story about 15 years ago! Saludos.


  1. And thanks for all the fish…. | The Mex Files

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