John James Audubon Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.