John James Audubon Reference

John James Audubon

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: A gifted artist with a love of nature and a passion for discovery, Audubon became the greatest painter of birds of his time, an important natural scientist, and an inspiration to conservationists.

Early Life

John James Audubon, American naturalist, was born in Haiti on April 26, 1785, the illegitimate son of Jean Audubon, a French naval officer, and Jeanne Rabin, a French servant girl from Brittany. After his mother’s death, Audubon’s father took him and a younger half sister to France, where he legally adopted his children in 1794. In school, Audubon early revealed his talents for drawing and music. He learned to play the violin and flute and by age fifteen had begun drawing birds and collecting birds’ eggs. After he proved unfit for a naval career, the elder Audubon sent him to Mill Grove, his farm near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. In 1808, following a four-year engagement, Audubon married Lucy Bakewell, a girl of English descent who lived on a neighboring estate. Of their four children, two sons—Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse—survived to adulthood and provided significant help to their father in his painting and publishing projects.

In the United States, Audubon formed a partnership with Ferdinand Rozier, an older Frenchman whom his father had sent to look after him. They became frontier merchants, with stores in Kentucky, first in Louisville, then in Henderson, and finally in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. Yet Audubon preferred to trek the forests, observing and painting birds and other wildlife. Finding business irksome, he dissolved the partnership and entered into an ill-fated trade arrangement with his brother-in-law, Thomas Bakewell. In 1813, Audubon and a group of associates built a combination sawmill and gristmill in Henderson, Kentucky. It proved far too ambitious a project to be sustained by the local economy, and its failure left him bankrupt. After being imprisoned for debt, he worked as a taxidermist for the Western Museum in Cincinnati, receiving additional income from portrait painting. In 1820, he set out for New Orleans to continue work as an artist, but, more important, to add to his portfolio of bird paintings. His wife worked as a tutor to support the family, and the two endured many months apart before she joined him in Louisiana.

Life’s Work

For Audubon, an avocation developed into a vocation, though it is not known precisely when the change occurred. In 1810, while he and Rozier were in their Louisville store, Alexander Wilson, the pioneer American ornithologist, showed them his bird paintings and sought a subscription to support publication of his nine-volume American Ornithology (1808-1814). After seeing Wilson’s work, Rozier remarked that his partner’s paintings were better. By allowing Audubon to realize that his amateur work surpassed the work of a professional, this incident probably served as a catalyst to his fertile imagination.

He gradually developed the idea for The Birds of America (1827-1838), an ambitious portfolio of all American species, life-size, in their natural habitats. In its scope, scale, and fidelity to nature, Audubon’s work would eclipse that of his predecessors. In order to include all the known species, he would rely upon the discoveries and observations of others for some of his paintings, not limiting the work to his own observations as Wilson had done. By the time he left for New Orleans in late 1820, the outlines of the work, which would require almost two decades to complete, were formed.

An experienced hunter and skilled woodsman, Audubon combined an intense interest in nature with a sharp eye and essential survival skills. He was equally comfortable alone or in company, and equally ingratiating to Indians or European noblemen. At five feet ten and a half inches tall, he was a man of almost regal appearance, with smooth facial lines, long brown hair, somewhat receding, and blue eyes. A contemporary, Mrs. Nathaniel Wells Pope, described him as “one of the handsomest men I ever saw. . .tall and slender. . . . His bearing was courteous and refined, simple and unassuming.”

In Audubon’s time, a naturalist needed to collect specimens (usually by shooting), to record his observations in a journal, and to sketch or paint all that he found interesting. To collect specimens, he shot thousands of birds on his expeditions. The collecting, however, did not stop there: He obtained insects, reptiles, and mammals for many other scientists throughout the world. In his lengthy journals, often romantic and even grandiloquent in tone, he made detailed notes about bird sightings and behavior. An almost compulsive painter, he sometimes began sketching a bird by placing its body on a sheet of paper and drawing an outline. Although...

(The entire section is 1979 words.)