Genevieve Jones, known to her friends as Gennie, was shy, tall, and shaken by persistent anxiety from living her teenage years during the U.S. Civil War, but Gennie had found true love. Her fiancé was a gifted musician and literary critic, and sometimes, a drunk. Eventually, his struggle with alcoholism became so disturbing to Gennie’s parents that they broke off the engagement just before Gennie’s 30th birthday. Gennie fled to Philadelphia to stay with her friend Eliza. In Philadelphia, the Centennial International Exhibition was in full spectacular display, and in one of the exhibition halls the broken-hearted Genevieve Jones encountered Audubon’s seminal book The Birds of America. In the beautiful illustrations she found a new mission for her life.
Gennie had always loved birds, and often rode along when her father’s Dr. Nelson made house calls, stopping along the way to collect nests and eggs to add to their cabinet of curiosities. As a child she had discovered spotted delicate birds eggs that she was unable to identify in existing ornithology books. At the Centennial Exhibition she discovered that even Audubon, godfather of bird-loving scientists, had made no thorough study of nests and eggs, including them only as aesthetic props in his illustrations.
On her return home, Gennie’s parents recognized her profound depression, and encouraged her to take on a childhood dream: to create her own encyclopedic illustrated tome documenting birds’ eggs and nests. The project, called Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio, aimed to document the 130 species common to her home state. As Jones set to work with her friend Eliza, her father drafted a desperate plan to fund the enormously expensive project through a multi-part subscription priced at $5 in color and $2 for black and white, about $150 and $60 per volume today—a significant commitment that barely broke even after the expensive lithographic printing.
To the surprise of the ornithology community, Gennie and Eliza turned out to be a scientific illustrator of astounding precision and grace. When her first three prints were complete and distributed for review, the ornithology bulletin editor Elliott Coues wrote “I had no idea that so sumptuous and elegant a publication was in preparation, and am pleased that what promises to be one of the great illustrated works on North American Ornithology should be prepared by women.” The first volume was so well received the publication doubled its subscribers, which included the former U.S. president President Rutherford B. Hayes, and future president Theodore Roosevelt, who was still studying at Harvard.
One month after her first of 23 proposed volumes shipped, two years after the project began, Gennie fell desperately ill. Typhoid fever, responsible for nearly half the disease-related deaths among civil war soldiers, took Genevieve Jones at the age of 32. Tenacious to the end, Gennie instructed her younger brother Howard to continue the project, and taught her mother Virginia the art of illustration, determined that her project survive her.
The next years were heartbreaking for the Jones family. Virginia re-trained herself from a casual painter into a detail-focused technical illustrator, and hired three assistants to help complete the work. Howard and Virginia survived their own encounter with Typhoid, which took Howard’s strength and damaged Virginia’s eyesight. The costs of creating Birds of Ohio quickly eclipsed their meager profits, and Howard spent the entirety of their $25,000 retirement savings on the project. Virgina continued to illustrate despite extraordinary pain to her eyes. Word eventually came that Jones’s old lover, utterly lost, had committed suicide.
Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio was finally completed in 1886 and bound as a complete volume in red Moroccan leather, like the finest European folios. Only a handful of copies sold. Virgina had gone blind from the strain on her eyes, and Howard abandoned his medical practice, locked the doors to the family studio, and often disappeared on long walks through the woods.
Got questions, comments or corrections about Genevieve Jones? Join the conversation in our Discord, and if you enjoy content like this, consider becoming a member for exclusive essays, downloadables, and discounts in the Obelisk Store.
Reed Enger, "Genevieve Jones, Even death will not stop us," in Obelisk Art History, Published March 05, 2020; last modified November 08, 2022, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/genevieve-estelle-jones/.