Audubon, John James (1785 – 1851) American Naturalist, Artist, and Ornithologist
John James Audubon (1785 – 1851)
American naturalist, artist, and ornithologist
John James Audubon, the most renowned artist and naturalist in nineteenth century America, left a legacy of keenly observant writings as well as a portfolio of exquisitely rendered paintings of the birds of North America.
Born April 26, 1785, Audubon was the illegitimate son of a French naval captain and a domestic servant girl from Santo Domingo (now Haiti). Audubon spent his childhood on his father's plantation in Santo Domingo and most of his late teens on the family estate in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania—a move intended to prevent him from being conscripted into the Napoleonic army.
Audubon's early pursuits centered around natural history, and he was continuously collecting and drawing plants, insects, and birds. His habit of keeping meticulous field notes of his observations at a young age. It was at Mill Grove that Audubon, in order to learn more of the movements and habits of birds, tied bits of colored string onto the legs of several Eastern Phoebes and so proved that these birds returned to the same nesting sites the following year. Audubon was the first to use banding to study the movement of birds.
While at Mill Grove, Audubon began courting their neighbor's eldest daughter, Lucy Bakewell, and they were married in 1808. They made their first home in Louisville, Kentucky, where Audubon tried being a storekeeper. He could not stand staying inside, and so he spent most of his time afield to "supply fowl for the table," thus dooming the store to failure.
In 1810, Audubon met by chance Alexander Wilson, who is considered the father of American ornithology. Wilson had finished much of his nine volume American Ornithology at this time, and it is believed that his work inspired Audubon to embark on his monumental task of painting the birds of North America.
The task that Audubon undertook was to become The Birds of America. Because Audubon decided to depict each species of bird life-size, thus rendering each on a 36.5 in x 26.5 in (93 cm x 67 cm) page, this was the largest book ever published up until that time. He was able to draw even larger birds such as the whooping crane life-size by depicting them with their heads bent to the ground. Audubon pioneered the use of fresh models instead of stuffed museum skins for his paintings. He would shoot birds and wire them into life-like poses to obtain the most accurate drawings possible. Even though his name is affixed to a modern conservation organization, the National Audubon Society , it must be remembered that little thought was given to the conservation of birds in the early nineteenth century. It was not uncommon for Audubon to shoot a dozen or more individuals of a species to get what he considered the perfect one for painting.
Audubon solicited subscribers for his Birds of America to finance the printing and hand-coloring of the plates. The project took nearly twenty years to complete, but the resulting double elephant folio, as it is known, was truly a work of art, as well as the ornithological triumph of the time. Later in his life, Audubon worked on a book of the mammals of North America with his two sons, but failing health forced him to let them complete the work. He died in 1851, leaving behind a remarkable collection of artwork that depicted the natural world he loved so much.
[Eugene C. Beckham ]
Audubon, J. J. Audubon's Western Journal: 1849–1850. Irvine: Reprint Services, 1992.
——. Life of John James Audubon: The Naturalist. Irvine: Reprint Services, 1993.
Running Press Staff, eds. Audubon Journal. Philadelphia: Running Press, 1993.
Gopnik, A. "Audubon's Passion." The New Yorker 67 (25 February 1991): 96–104.