John James Audubon Essay - Critical Essays

Audubon, John James


John James Audubon 1785-1851

(Born Jean Jacques Fougere Rabin) American naturalist, artist, and non-fiction writer.

Audubon is chiefly remembered as a painter of birds. His masterwork is the collection of prints entitled The Birds of America. He was also an important early American naturalist writer, and his Ornithological Biography, a written supplement to The Birds of America, is valued by historians and literary enthusiasts for its vivid descriptions of bird behavior and of frontier life.

Biographical Information

Audubon was born on the island of Santo Domingo (now Haiti) in 1785, the illegitimate child of a French Navy captain and a local woman. He was later brought to France and adopted by his father. At the age of eighteen Audubon travelled to Pennsylvania to manage his father's American estate outside Philadelphia. There he married and began his studies of American birds. In 1807 he moved to Kentucky and embarked on a number of business ventures, all of which failed. During this time, the study of birds became Audubon's all-consuming passion; he undertook expeditions along still-unexplored portions of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in search of new specimens to paint. Audubon conceived of a comprehensive guidebook to American birds which would showcase his paintings. He traveled to England and France to secure subscriptions and find an engraver for the project. Here Audubon adopted the role of American frontiersman, dressing in buckskins and entertaining potential patrons with demonstrations of native American language, bird calls, and stories of frontier life. Adam Gopnik noted that: "Audubon understood that while in America it paid him to be very French, in France it paid him to be very American.. In the salons of Paris, Audubon at last became an American." The Birds of America began publication in 1827 and reached completion in 1838, comprising a total of four volumes which sold for $1000. A less expensive edition was published from 1840 to 1844. The work brought Audubon fame and financial security. The remaining years of his life were devoted to compiling a study of mammals, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, in collaboration with his sons and the naturalist John Bachman. The work began publication in 1846 and was completed in 1854, three years after Audubon's death.

Major Works

Prior to Audubon, bird paintings generally resembled the stiffly mounted museum specimens that were commonly used as models. In The Birds of America, Audubon painted birds that appeared full of motion and life. Although Audubon too sketched and painted dead birds, he manipulated his models into life-like poses using threads and wires, based on extensive field observation of their actual behavior. Audubon was also the first to depict birds in their natural habitats, foreshadowing the wildlife dioramas found in modern natural history museums. Publication of The Birds of America was a massive undertaking. Nearly all of Audubon's paintings were reproduced lifesize, requiring sheets of paper known as "double elephant," measuring 29h by 39h inches. Each of the four volumes of the first edition weighs between forty and forty-five pounds. The 435 engraved plates were each hand-colored. The Birds of America was followed by a written companion, Ornithological Biography, in which Audubon gives detailed descriptions of the behavior, migration patterns, mating habits, and anatomy of every bird he had painted. The Biography established Audubon's reputation as a scientist. Scott Russell Sanders has pointed out that Charles Darwin cited only two other authorities more often than Audubon. Interspersed with the descriptions of birds are chapters entitled "Episodes," where Audubon reports on the places he had visited and the customs of the people he met. These sketches are noted for their colorful depictions of nature and society in early eighteenth-century America. Observed nature writer Robert Cushman Murphy, "He saw America when it was still an Eden, the last garden of that sort remaining in the temperate world … There is no other such picture of the dawn of history in the United States." Audubon's last major endeavor was the compilation of The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Less popular and well known than his catalogue of birds, the study nevertheless remains a classic of nineteenth-century natural history, and some commentators regard Audubon's paintings of mammals to be his best work.

Critical Reception

As a naturalist, Audubon was responsible for the discovery of many new species of North American birds and mammals. He also was the first ornithologist to use banding as a method for tracking bird migration. Scientists have noted, however, that his descriptions of natural phenomena often lack technical sophistication, particularly in regard to animal classification. As a painter, Audubon was reproached in his own day by naturalists who charged that his representations of birds and animals were anthropomorphized. Audubon is perhaps more a nature writer than an objective scientist. Scott Russell Sanders has placed him at the beginning of a tradition that includes Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Rachel Carson. "All these writers confront nature not as aloof observers, seeking facts; but as human participants in nature, seeking meaning. This was Audubon's strength as a writer, not system-building, but reporting and collecting, bearing his keen sensibility through uncharted territory." In the twentieth century, Audubon is most commonly associated with the National Audubon Society. First organized in 1886 in the interests of bird protection, it has become one of the largest and most respected conservation societies in the world.

Principal Works

The Birds of America. 4 vols. (nonfiction) 1827-38; also published as The Birds of America. 7 vols. 1840-44

Ornithological Biography. 5 vols. (nonfiction) 1831-39; also published as Delineations of American Scenery and Character, 1926

The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America [with John Bachman]. 5 vols. (nonfiction) 1846-54


John James Audubon (essay date 1838?)

SOURCE: "My Style of Drawing Birds," in Audubon and His Journals, by Maria R. Audubon, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1897, pp. 522-27.

[In the following essay, originally published at the time The Birds of America appeared, Audubon explains his techniques for making his bird paintings appear lifelike.]

When, as a little lad, I first began my attempts at representing birds on paper, I was far from possessing much knowledge of their nature, and, like hundreds of others, when I had laid the effort aside, I was under the impression that it was a finished picture of a bird because it possessed some sort of a head and tail, and two sticks in lieu of legs; I never troubled myself with the thought that abutments were requisite to prevent it from falling either backward or forward, and oh! what bills and claws I did draw, to say nothing of a perfectly straight line for a back, and a tail stuck in anyhow, like an unshipped rudder.

Many persons besides my father saw my miserable attempts, and so many praised them to the skies that perhaps no one was ever nearer being completely wrecked than I by these mistaken, though affectionate words. My father, however, spoke very differently to me; he constantly impressed upon me that nothing in the world possessing life and animation was easy to imitate, and that as I grew older he hoped I would become more and more alive to this. He was so kind to me, and so deeply interested in my improvement that to have listened carelessly to his serious words would have been highly ungrateful. I listened less to others, more to him, and his words become my law.

The first collection of drawings I made were from European specimens, procured by my father or myself, and I still have them in my possession. They were all represented strictly ornithologically, which means neither more nor less than in stiff, unmeaning profiles, such as are found in most works published to the present day. My next set was begun in America, and there, without my honored mentor, I betook myself to the drawing of specimens hung by a string tied to one foot, having a desire to show every portion, as the wings lay loosely spread, as well as the tail. In this manner I made some pretty fair signs for poulterers.

One day, while watching the habits of a pair of Pewees at Mill Grove, I looked so intently at their graceful attitudes that a thought struck my mind like a flash of light, that nothing, after all, could ever answer my enthusiastic desires to represent nature, except to copy her in her own way, alive and moving! Then I began again. On I went, forming, literally, hundreds of outlines of my favorites, the Pewees; how good or bad I cannot tell, but I fancied I had mounted a step on the high pinnacle before me. I continued for months together, simply outlining birds as I observed them, either alighted or on the wing, but could finish none of my sketches. I procured many individuals of different species, and laying them on the table or on the ground, tried to place them in such attitudes as I had sketched. But, alas! they were dead, to all intents and purposes, and neither wing, leg, nor tail could I place according to my wishes. A second thought came to my assistance; by means of threads I raised or lowered a head, wing, or tail, and by fastening the threads securely, I had something like life before me; yet much was wanting.

When I saw the living birds, I felt the blood rush to my temples, and almost in despair spent about a month without drawing, but in deep thought, and daily in the company of the feathered inhabitants of dear Mill Grove.

I had drawn from the "manikin" whilst under David, and had obtained tolerable figures of our species through this means, so I cogitated how far a manikin of a bird would answer. I labored with wood, cork, and wires, and formed a grotesque figure, which I cannot describe in any other words than by saying that when set up it was a tolerable-looking Dodo. A friend roused my ire by laughing at it immoderately, and assuring me that if I wished to represent a tame gander it might do. I gave it a kick, broke it to atoms, walked off, and thought again.

Young as I was, my impatience to obtain my desire filled my brains with many plans. I not infrequently dreamed that I had made a new discovery; and long before day, one morning, I leaped out of bed fully persuaded that I had obtained my object. I ordered a horse to be saddled, mounted, and went off at a gallop towards the little village of Norristown, distant about five miles. When I arrived there not a door was open, for it was not yet daylight. Therefore I went to the...

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A. Innes Shand (essay date 1898)

SOURCE: "A Great Naturalist," in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. CLXIV, No. DCCCCXCIII, July, 1898, pp. 58-69.

[In the following review, the critic commends the interest of Audubon 's published journals.]

Biographies of all sorts are the craze of the day, but not many of them have the intense human and sensational fascination of these journals and "Episodes" by Audubon, piously edited by his granddaughter [Maria R. Audubon]. They come as a tardy sequel to the great ornithological works—like these, they are eminently autobiographical and self-revealing—which won him a world-wide fame some seventy years ago. For his graphic style is always inspired by a...

(The entire section is 6597 words.)

Francis H. Herrick (essay date 1926)

SOURCE: An introduction to Delineations of American Scenery and Character, by John James Audubon, G. A. Baker & Co., 1926, pp. ix-xix.

[In the following excerpt, Herrick discusses Audubon's life and works, focusing on the "Episodes" in his Ornithological Biography.]

Beyond a doubt John James Audubon was one of the most versatile and striking characters that has ever appeared in our history. In ardor and enthusiasm for the study of nature perhaps no one has ever surpassed him, and no one can measure the influence which his talents and devotion have exerted upon his favorite pursuits.

Until recent years Audubon had been regarded as the...

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Donald Culross Peattie, Robert Cushman Murphy, and Mark Van Doren (dialogue date 1942)

SOURCE: "John James Audubon: American Scenery and Character," in The New Invitation to Learning, edited by Mark Van Doren, Random House, 1942, pp. 297-310.

[Murphy and Peattie were American nature writers. Van Doren was an influential American writer and critic. In the following dialogue, originally broadcast on CBS Radio as part of the Invitation to Learning series, they discuss the "Episodes" of Audubon's Ornithological Biography, collected in 1926 under the title Delineations of American Scenery and Character.]

John James Audubon is best known for his paintings of birds, but he was also a writer who had something unique to say. In his Ornithological...

(The entire section is 4633 words.)

Ludlow Griscom (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: An introduction to Audubon's Birds of America, by John James Audubon, The Macmillan Company, 1950, pp. 15-30.

[In the following essay, Griscom discusses Audubon as a painter and ornithologist.]

It is now almost a century since the death of John James Audubon (1785-1851). Not only has his reputation lasted, but if anything, his fame and renown have increased with the passage of time. It, perhaps, might be worth while to pause and enquire why this is so. He is a perpetual source of study, discussion and debate, and much ink has been spilled over whether his claim to fame was primarily as an ornithologist or an artist. In my opinion much of this debate is second...

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Waldemar H. Fries (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "John James Audubon: Some Remarks on His Writings," in The Princeton University Library Chronicle, Vol. XXI, Nos. 1 & 2, Autumn 1959 & Winter 1960, pp. 1-7.

[In the following essay, Fries discusses Audubon's writings, including his letters and journals and the Ornithological Biography.]

It was in February of 1957 that I made my first visit to the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections of the Princeton University Library. A short time before I had begun my research on the double-elephant folio of Audubon's The Birds of America, so that the purpose of my visit was to examine the set of the folio belonging to the Library. At one time this...

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Lewis Mumford (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Larger than Life," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. VII, No. 9, December 1, 1966, pp. 16, 18, 20, 22-4.

[Mumford was an American sociologist, historian, philosopher, and author. In the following essay, he reviews John James Audubon: A Biography by Alexander B. Adams (1966). Rejecting Adams's contention that Audubon was overly concerned with money-making, Mumford insists instead that his only true passion was the study of birds.]

The life of John James Audubon was full of ambiguities, contradictions, frustrations, alienations. With such attributes, his biography could easily meet the fashionable specifications of our own period. But he was...

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Victor H. Cahalane (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: An introduction, to The Imperial Collection of Audubon Animals: The Quadrupeds of North America, Hammond Incorporated, 1967, pp. ix-xvi.

[Cahalane was an American natural historian. In the following excerpt he discusses the compilation and publication of The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.]

The outstanding work on American mammals in the 19th century resulted from a chance meeting of two men. It occurred on October 17, 1831, in Charleston, South Carolina.

John J. Audubon, the famous bird artist and ornithologist, had arrived in town the evening before. With two assistants, landscape painter George Lehman and English taxi-dermist Henry...

(The entire section is 5507 words.)

Michael Harwood and Mary Durant (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "In Search of the Real Mr. Audubon," in Audubon, Vol. 87, No. 3, May, 1985, pp. 58-119.

[Durant is a novelist and natural historian and Harwood is an environmental journalist. In the following excerpt, they examine Audubon's origins, the reaction of contemporaries to his works, and his attitudes toward the environment.]

More than half a century passed before many key elements of [Audubon's] life became known, and this was due in large measure to Audubon himself. He hid facts, left behind distracting trails of false information, and erected a handsome public image of himself.

Audubon freely gave interviews to journalists. He sent friends...

(The entire section is 6316 words.)

Adam Gopnik (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Audubon's Passion," The New Yorker, 5 February 1991, pp. 96-104.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1991, Gopnik places Audubon's life and art in the context of American history and culture.]

In 1803, an eighteen-year-old Frenchman who had been born in Haiti, as Jean Rabin, and who had lived in Paris just long enough to take a few drawing lessons and learn how to ice-skate, arrived in New York. For the next seventeen years, he wandered through Pennsylvania and Kentucky and Ohio and Louisiana, pursuing one quixotic money-making scheme after another. Then, in 1820, he was seized by what he afterward called his "Great Idea," and for the next thirty...

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Further Reading


Adams, Alexander B. John James Audubon: A Biography. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1966, 510 p.

Biography containing primary and secondary bibliographies.

Chancellor, John. Audubon: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1978, 224 p.

Concise biography containing many reproductions of Audubon's paintings.

Durant, Mary, and Harwood, Michael. On the Road with John James Audubon. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1980, 638 p.

Account of Audubon's travels throughout North America.

Geiser, Samuel Wood. "Naturalists of the Frontier: Audubon in Texas." Southwest...

(The entire section is 272 words.)