Audubon, John James
Audubon, John James
(b. Les Cayes, Santo Domingo [now Haiti], 26 April 1785; d. New York, N.Y., 27 January 1851)
Audubon’s father was Jean Audubon, a French sea captain and planter of moderate substance in Santo Domingo; his mother was a Mlle. Jeanne(?) Rabin(e?), who died soon after his birth. In 1791, he and a half sister were sent to Nantes, where their father had already arrived, to join him and Mme. Audubon (Anne Moynet), who graciously accepted the children of her husband’s island sojourn. They were formally adopted in 1794, the boy as Jean Jacques Fougére Audubon.
Audubon’s youth at Nantes and Coūeron, where he received a minimal elementary education, was comfortable and unexceptional. In 1803 he was sent to a farm, owned by his father, in eastern Pennsylvania and entrusted to the care of good friends. There his boyhood interest in birds—especially in drawing them—was intensified. In 1808 he married Lucy Bakewell, daughter of a prosperous neighbor, and moved to the new settlement of Louisville, Kentucky, where Audubon was to share in running a store.
Audubon had no formal training in natural history, having had only a brief acquaintance (upon revisiting France in 1805) with the obscure naturalist Charles d’Orbigny and a period in New York as a taxidermist under the many-faceted Samuel L. Mitchell (later founder of the Lyceum of Natural History). As an artist he was equally untutored (a persistent legend that he had briefly studied under Jacques Louis David seems to lack foundation). Marginally literate, Audubon had only hunting skill, undisciplined curiosity, great latent artistic power, and unfailing energy. He worked hard on his bird drawings, however, and developed a useful method of mounting dead birds on wires as an aid to delineation—a technique invaluable in a day without binoculars or cameras.
Between 1808 and 1819 Audubon failed as merchant and miller in both Louisville and Henderson, Kentucky, but in these formative years he ranged widely, from Pittsburgh as far west as Ste. Genevieve (now in Missouri). The country, if not untouched, was mostly unspoiled wilderness teeming with birds as little known to science as to him. He hunted and drew, sporadically at first, innocent of such patchy and uncertain knowledge as the few extant, relevant books would have given him. In common with not a few better-educated naturalists of the time, Audubon lacked formal method. He merely sought birds new to him, and shot and painted them, sometimes repeatedly, often substituting improved efforts for old.
Audubon briefly met the distinguished ornithologist Alexander Wilson at Louisville in 1810, and saw the first two (of nine) volumes of the artist–author’s pioneer American Ornithology (he later implied, perhaps correctly, that his own drawings were, even at that time, better than Wilson’s). Perhaps the idea of publication first entered his mind on this occasion, yet not until 1820, after going bankrupt, did Audubon set out by flatboat for Louisiana, with the single goal of enriching his portfolio of bird pictures. He would support himself precariously as itinerant artist and tutor, leaving much of the burden of supporting herself and their two sons to Lucy.
For the first time Audubon began a regular journal, some of which is extant. The journal of 1820 (the original of which survives) is a disorderly, semiliterate document. Like all the rest—the later ones are more articulate—it combines daily events, impressions of people and countryside, and random notes on birds encountered. These journals are valuable to ornithologists as checks on the formal texts that followed. Often more informative than the latter, they are nevertheless marked by lack of detail, imprecision, and not infrequent discrepancies. Audubon never kept a full, orderly record of his observations on birds, and in formal writing he obviously relied as often on memory as on the sketchy notes he kept.
In 1821–1824, chiefly in Louisiana and Mississippi, Audubon came into his full powers as a gifted painter of birds and master of design. There would be many more pictures, but he would never improve upon the best of those years. Neither, although he would acquire a modicum of worldliness and a veneer of zoological sophistication, would his working methods and descriptive skills be basically changed. Whatever Audubon in essence was to be, he was by 1824.
In that year Audubon sought publication of his work in Philadelphia and New York. This failing, he traveled to England in 1826. There, finding support, subscribers, and skilled engravers, he brought out the 435 huge, aquatint copperplates of The Birds of America, in many parts, over the next twelve years.
The dramatic impact of his ambitious, complex pictures and a romantic image as “the American woodsman” secured Audubon entry into a scientific community much preoccupied with little-known lands. He met the leaders of society and science and was elected to the leading organizations, including the Royal Society of London. Among his friends were the gifted ornithologist William Swainson, from whom he learned some niceties of technical ornithology, and the orderly, brilliant Scottish naturalistanatomist William MacGillivray. The text for Audubon’s pictures, separately produced at Edinburgh, emerged as the five-volume Ornithological Biography. MacGillivray edited this for grammatical form, and he also contributed extensive anatomical descriptions to the later volumes.
Audubon’s remaining efforts were devoted to the hopeless task of including all the birds of North America in his work. To this end he made increasing efforts to obtain notes and specimens from others and to cull the growing literature. Thus, much more than the early ones, the last volumes of his work have an element of compilation. He returned several times from his publishing labors in Scotland and England for more fieldwork, visiting the Middle Atlantic states in 1829, the Southeast as far as the Florida keys in 1831–1832, part of Labrador in 1833, and as far southwest as Galveston, Texas, in 1837. After his final return to the United States in 1839, Audubon journeyed up the Missouri River to Fort Union (the site of which is now in North Dakota) in 1843, obtaining birds treated in a supplement to the small American edition of his Birds, as well as some of the mammals discussed in his Viviparous Quadrupeds, which he wrote with John Bachman. In this, his last major effort, he was considerably assisted by his sons Victor and John.
Much, if not most, of Audubon’s singularly enduring fame, which tends to cloud scientific and popular thought alike, rests on his much-debated but obviously significant efforts as an artist. (The relevancy of his established artistic stature to his scientific contribution is critical and difficult to assess, but can scarcely be ignored.) The illustration of new and little-known animals, as part of their zoological descriptions, was a characteristic and important part of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century natural history. Certainly Audubon kindled wide and enduring interest in this aspect of zoology—more, indeed, than would have been necessary for the strictly scientific appreciation of the subjects; his birds were portrayed with a flair, a concern for the living, acting animal in a suggested environment that was undreamed of before, and with a vigorous sense of drama, color, and design rarely equaled since. He had few significant predecessors and no debts in this area (only Thomas Bewick had earlier drawn—in simple woodcuts—birds as authentic). That Audubon’s pictures contained innumerable technical errors seems to be comprehended only by specialists. The facial expressions and bodily attitudes of his birds are often strikingly human, rather than avian, but this is natural enough, considering his emotional nature and lack of optical equipment; paradoxically, this kind of error may have much to do with his enduring popularity with the general public.
Other than his art—aside from the inevitable accumulation of general knowledge of the kinds, habits, and distribution of birds—Audubon produced little that was new. Even the grand scale of his work had been anticipated by Mark Catesby a century earlier and by Francois Levaillant a generation earlier. Essentially, he built on Wilson’s descriptive-anecdotal model (name the bird; say something general of its ways, habits, and haunts; and flesh out the account with a story or two of encounters with it in nature), as he states in the introduction to Volume V of the Biography. He went beyond Wilson in scope because he lived longer and had greater vigor; in point-for-point comparison, he tends to come off second best—where Wilson is dry and factual, even acerbic (but not artless), Audubon is grandiose, often irrelevant, romantic at best and florid at worst. His work, nevertheless, was the most informative available to American ornithologists between that of Alexander Wilson (as supplemented 1825–1833 by C. L. Bonaparte) and the beginning of Spencer Fullerton Baird’s vast influence around 1860. He influenced such American successors as Baird, Elliott Coues, and Robert Ridgway, however, more by kindling interest than by procedural example.
Although he possessed a good eye for specific differences and inevitably discovered a number of new forms, Audubon was not basically a systematist; the classification of his Synopsis (1839), which ordered the randomly discussed birds of the Biography, is routine. As a theoretician he fared little better, being distinctly inferior to Gilbert White, who wrote half a century earlier and without pretension (see Audubon’s curiously labored and undistinguished discussion of why birds do not need to migrate, in Biography, V, 442–445).
That Audubon possessed an original mind is shown, however, by a penchant (unfortunately little exploited) for experiment. As a young man in Pennsylvania he marked some phoebes with colored thread and recovered individuals after a year, thus anticipating bird banding by more than half a century. With Bachman in 1832, he conducted experiments designed to test the ability of the turkey vulture to locate its food by smell. The ingenious experiments lacked adequate controls and produced erroneous (though long credited) results.
In assessing Audubon, whose firm grip on the popular imagination has scarcely lessened since 1826, we must as historians of science seriously ask who would remember him if he had not been an artist of great imagination and flair. Not only does Audubon’s artistic stature seem to dwarf his scientific stature, but the latter would probably be still less had he not been a painter expected to provide text for his paintings. The chances seem to be very good that had he not been an artist, he would be an unlikely candidate for a dictionary of scientific biography, if remembered to science at all.
I. Original Works. Nearly all the paintings for The Birds of America are at the New-York Historical Society, and have been reproduced by modern methods in The Original Water-color Paintings by John James Audubon for The Birds of America (New York, 1966). Miscellaneous additional paintings are cited by biographers listed below.
Audubon’s books are The Birds of America, 435 aquatint copperplate engravings, 4 vols. without text (Edinburgh-London, 1827–1838); Ornithological Biography, 5 vols. (Edinburgh, 1831–1839); Synopsis of the Birds of North America (Edinburgh, 1839); The Birds of America, 7 vols. (New York-Philadelphia, 1840–1844), which combines the text of Ornithological Biography with inferior, much reduced, and sometimes altered copies of the plates of the 1st ed. of The Birds of America; and Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, 3 vols. plates (New York, 1845–1848) and 3 vols. text (New York, 1846–1854), subsequent eds. (to at least 1865) combine text and reduced plates (plates by J. J. and J. W. Audubon; text by J. J. Audubon and John Bachman).
Audubon’s comparatively few short articles in periodical literature are cited by biographers listed below.
The Life and Adventures of John James Audubon, written by Charles Coffin Adams from materials provided by Mrs. Audubon, Robert Buchanan, ed. (London, 1868), and its variant text, The Life of John James Audubon, Lucy Audubon, ed. (New York, 1869), contain the sole (but doubtless considerably modified) surviving record of Audubon’s trip to Ste. Genevieve in 1810–1811 (pp. 25–33 in the 1868 version; 1869 version not seen) and other matter; Maria R. Audubon’s Audubon and His Journals, E. Coues, ed. (New York, 1897), presents the only surviving version of the Labrador, Missouri River, and European journals. There is also a painstaking transcript of the extant Journal of John James Audubon Made During His Trip to New Orleans in 1820–21 (Boston, 1929).
II. Secondary Literature. The biographies cited below all contain extensive bibliographies that collectively provide detailed collations of Audubon’s major works, elucidate the complexities of later editions and imprints, and give access to all but the most recent literature on the subject.
Lesser biographies and much miscellany are cited in F. H. Herrick’s Audubon the Naturalist, 2nd ed., rev. (New York, 1938), still the basic and most extensive source but now outdated in some particulars by Ford; in S. C. Arthur’s Audubon, an Intimate Life of the American Woodsman (New Orleans, 1937), which includes some sources not cited elsewhere; and in A. Ford’s John James Audubon (Norman, Okla., 1964), which contains extensive new information on his parentage and early life in France. The popular John James Audubon by A. B. Adams (New York, 1966) contains some new sources and insights.
Searching appraisal of Audubon as an ornithologist may be found in the historical introduction to A. Newton’s A Dictionary of Birds (London, 1896), p. 24; in E. Stresemann’s preeminent Die Entwicklung der Ornithologie (Berlin, 1951), pp. 407–409; and in W. E. C. Todd’s exhaustive Birds of the Labrador Peninsula (Toronto–Pittsburgh, 1963), pp. 731–732, 742, a detailed evaluation of his work in Labrador. An extensive critique of Audubon as a bird painter is given in R. M. Mengel’s “How Good Are Audubon’s Bird Pictures in the Light of Modern Ornithology?,” in Scientific American, 216 , no. 5 (1967), 155–159.
Robert M. Mengel
Audubon, John James
Born April 26, 1785
Les Cayes, Haiti
Died January 27, 1851
Illustrator and painter of North American birds
"Proud of its beautiful form, and prouder still of its power of flight, [the whooping crane] stalks over the withering grasses with all the majesty of a gallant chief. With long and measured steps he moves along, his head erect, his eye glistening with delight."
I n the early 1800s, most of the land that now makes up the United States had not yet been explored. What sort of landscape it contained—mountains? lakes? deserts?—could only be guessed at by European settlers on the East Coast. What animals and birds might make their homes there was also a mystery. The opportunity for ordinary people who might be interested in observing and describing the natural wonders of the continent was wide open; interested amateurs could make significant contributions to scientific knowledge of the region. That is exactly the opportunity that John James Audubon saw and seized. He captured the beauty of birds through his painting, contributing to the nation's understanding and appreciation of its rich wildlife in a series of paintings collectively called Birds of America.
A two-time immigrant at a tender age
John James Audubon was born in Haiti, an island in the Caribbean Sea. His father was a French naval officer and had made a fortune in Haiti as a merchant and planter. His Haitian mother, whom his father did not marry, died soon after his birth. Several years later, Audubon's father decided to return to France, and to the wife he had left there, taking his young son with him. Luckily for the boy, his stepmother was very lenient with him, perhaps more than was strictly good, and Audubon grew up in his new country rather spoiled and carefree.
As Audubon grew older, his father became concerned over his lack of useful education and took matters into his own hands. The young Audubon was sent for naval training, but he resisted learning anything. His father's next idea was to send him to Paris to study art; this did not last long and was also unsuccessful. Finally, in 1803, Audubon was sent to America to live on a farm his father owned near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The father's agent in charge of the farm could both look after him and guide him in the management of the property. So, at the age of eighteen, Audubon immigrated to his second foreign land.
A life's mission takes shape
Audubon was no better a student of farm management than he had been of anything else. He spent most of his time following his favorite pursuits—fishing, hunting, and drawing birds. It was around this time that he had the idea of inserting wires into the bodies of birds he had killed so that they could be posed in different ways for his sketches. He also made the first known "banding" experiment in America (see box). He tied silver thread to the legs of several baby birds. The following spring, two of these birds returned and nested near their birthplace. It was also during his period on the farm that he became engaged to a young neighbor, Lucy Bakewell.
The years from 1807 to about 1820 were a series of business failures for Audubon, perhaps, in part, because his heart was not in it. A move to Kentucky to operate a general store ended in the store's failure. He married Bakewell in 1808, but Audubon's fortunes did not improve. More business enterprises followed, but all ended in failure. Whether it was tending store or running a sawmill, Audubon could not buckle down and make it prosper. He would always spend more time hiking through the woods, sketching birds that he saw, than promoting his business ventures. At the end of this
Tracking Birds: Banding
Bird banding is an important tool for studying the movement, survival, and behavior of birds. Placing a band on a bird's leg makes it possible to study the life span, nesting habits, migration, and social structure of different species of birds. It is helpful in tracking population gains or declines.
The first record of banding a bird's leg is traced to the year 1595, when a falcon belonging to King Henry IV (1366–1413; reigned 1399–1413) of England was lost in France. The falcon had a metal band attached to its leg. The next day, the bird was discovered 1,350 miles away, on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea.
A gray heron that had been banded by Duke Ferdinand (1610–1670) of Tuscany (Italy) in 1669 was found by his grandson in 1728, showing that the heron lived at least 60 years.
John James Audubon provided the first record of banding in North America. In 1803, he tied silver threads to the legs of some young phoebes (small grayish-brown birds) near Philadelphia. The next spring, several returned to the same area to nest.
In 1899, Hans Mortensen, a Danish school teacher, began a new system of banding, using aluminum rings inscribed with his name and address and placed on the legs of several birds of different species, including storks and hawks. In 1902, Paul Bartsch (1871–1970), a scientist whose hobby was the study of birds, organized the first scientific
banding in North America. One hundred black-crowned night herons in the District of Columbia were banded with metal strips inscribed "Return to Smithsonian Institution." This is the basic model followed ever since.
In the twenty-first century, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Canadian Wildlife Service work together on the North American Bird Banding Program to assure that all data from banded birds is recorded in a useful way and is available to share among scientists. There is also a Bird Banding Laboratory, which can give banders permission to use radio transmitters to track individual birds. Scientists are also beginning to use satellite transmitters on birds, so that they can be tracked anywhere on Earth.
period of his life, Audubon was bankrupt and was briefly jailed for debt. (In the nineteenth century, people who borrowed money and could not pay it back were often jailed, just as if they had stolen the money.)
He determined to forget about business as a likely pursuit, and he decided to try to earn money by drawing portraits. He was pleasantly surprised to discover that people would pay five dollars for a simple sketch of their own faces. However, the income was not steady enough to support a family. In 1820, he found work as a taxidermist in a new museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Taxidermists preserve animals for displays in museums.) Audubon found this skill useful when he painted birds. His paintings are so lifelike that it might seem as if he photographed birds while they were still alive, rather then painted them. In fact, Audubon preserved dead birds, with special techniques that he developed to preserve their lifelike poses.
Around this time it occurred to Audubon to publish the paintings of birds that he had been collecting in a book. Finally, his life made sense to him. His one sustaining and lasting interest was in his drawings of birds. Perhaps if he could build on this passion, it would lead to success. He began to take journeys specifically to explore for new birds for his collection. He traveled both the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers, sketching all the while. In 1824, he was ready for the next big step.
Birds of America meets with success in Europe
Audubon began to actively search for someone to publish Birds in America. He met with some resistance. For one thing, friends of Alexander Wilson (1766–1813), another illustrator of birds, used their influence to block Audubon's attempt to publish a competing work. Audubon decided to follow advice he had been given to look for a publisher in Europe. By 1826, he had gathered enough money to make the journey overseas with his drawings.
Audubon received welcome and encouragement in Edinburgh, Scotland. Then it was on to London, where he reached an agreement with Robert Havell Jr. (1793–1878) for publication. The undertaking was much more complicated
than just printing and binding a book. Audubon supervised as Havell's men took the original drawings and printed and colored them. He also did his own promotional work, traveling, giving lectures, and holding exhibitions at which he would sell subscriptions for the completed work. Each subscriber received four title sheets, one for each of the projected volumes. Volume I held prints 1 to 100; volume II prints 101 to 200; volume III prints 201 to 300; volume IV prints 301 to 435. The prints were 40 inches by 30 inches, with each bird shown life-size and in its natural habitat. Although Audubon considered himself an artist, he also included an essay on each bird. Each essay contained a detailed description of its plumage, or feathers, and his observations on the bird's habitat, nest-building, and feeding habits. When complete and properly bound in leather, the full set weighed nearly two hundred pounds. The entire printing project took almost twelve years to complete. The first volume appeared in 1827 and the last volume in 1838.
At age fifty-three, Audubon was finally a success. Upon his return to the United States, he was proclaimed the country's leading naturalist, a scientist who studies the natural world of plants and animals.
[Image not available for copyright reasons]
The Audubon family moved to a 35-acre estate on the Hudson River in upper Manhattan, in New York City. Audubon's next bird project was already under way. It would be a smaller version of the Birds of America collection. Audubon undertook a journey to the southern states and Florida, still searching for new specimens to add to his work. On this trip, he met and befriended John Bachman (1790–1874). Bachman would become a useful partner, since he could provide a more scientific slant to balance Audubon's artistic contribution. The two men decided to begin work on a collection of American mammals. Audubon had completed about half of the drawings for this volume when his eyesight began to fail. As his health began to fail generally, he kept to himself on his estate. He was becoming senile, and a stroke made his condition worse.
When he died in 1851 he was not especially rich, except in reputation and acclaim. His work is still considered an impressive achievement, and it set the standard for depictions of wildlife. His legacy endures in the National Audubon Society, which works to protect birds and their natural habitats.
—James L. Outman
For More Information
Audubon, John James. Audubon Reader: The Best Writings of John James Audubon. Edited by Scott R. Sanders. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.
Brown, Colin, and Cyril Walker. John James Audubon: American Birds. New York: Gramercy, 1999.
Foshay, Ella M. John James Audubon. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1997.
Streshinsky, Shirley. Audubon: Life and Art in the American Wilderness. New York: Villard Books, 1993.
Gilbert, Bil. "An Odd Fish Who Swam Against the Tide." Smithsonian (January 1999): p. 112.
Grovier, Katherine, "Birds of Paradise: A New Edition of James Audubon's Work Illuminates a Lost Canadian World." Time International (January 25, 1999): p. 52.
Audubon, John James. "Birds of America." The Audubon Society.http://www.audubon.org/bird/BoA/BOA_index.html (accessed on March 8, 2004).
Audubon, John James. "Birds of North America, Audubon's Watercolors." Nature.net.http://www.nature.net/birds (accessed on March 8, 2004).
"John James Audubon's Birds of America." California Academy of Sciences.http://www.calacademy.org/exhibits/audubon (accessed on March 8, 2004).
Audubon, John James
American artist and ornithologist (one who studies birds) John James Audubon was a leading natural history artist who made drawings of birds directly from nature. He is mainly remembered for his Birds of America series.
Early life and move to France
John James Audubon was born in Saint Dominigue (now Haiti) on April 26, 1785. He was the son of Jean Audubon, a French adventurer, and Mademoiselle Rabin, about whom little is known except that she was a Creole and died soon after her son's birth. Audubon was an illegitimate child, meaning that his father was not married to his mother. Audubon's father had made his fortune in San Domingo as a merchant, a planter, and a dealer of slaves. In 1789 Audubon went with his father and a half sister to France, where they joined his father's wife. Their father and his wife adopted the children in 1794.
Audubon's education was arranged by his father. He was sent to a nearby school and was tutored in mathematics, geography, drawing, music, and fencing. According to Audubon's own account, he had no interest in school, preferring instead to fish, hunt, and explore the outdoors. He was left with his stepmother most of the time while his father served as a naval officer. Audubon became a spoiled, stubborn youth who managed to resist all efforts to both educate him and keep him under control. When residence at a naval base under his father's direct supervision failed to have any effect, he was sent briefly to Paris to study art, but he disliked that also.
Business career in America
Audubon's father decided to send his son to America, where he owned a farm near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At first the boy lived with friends of his father. They tried to teach him English and other things, but after a time he demanded to live on his father's farm. There Audubon continued living the life of a country gentleman—fishing, shooting, and developing his skill at drawing birds, the only occupation to which he was ever willing to give effort. When Audubon began his work in the early nineteenth century, there was no such profession as a "naturalist" in America. The men who engaged in natural history investigations came from all walks of life and paid for their work—collecting, writing, and publication—from their own resources. Audubon developed a system of inserting wires into the bodies of freshly killed birds in order to move them into natural poses for his sketches.
In 1805 Audubon returned briefly to France after a long battle with his father's business agent in America. While in France he formed a business partnership with Ferdinand Rozier, the son of one of his father's associates. Together the two returned to America and tried to operate a lead mine on the farm. Then in August 1807 the partners decided to move west. There followed a series of business failures in various cities in Kentucky, caused largely by Audubon's preference for roaming the woods rather than keeping the store. During this period he married Lucy Bakewell. After the failures with Rozier, Audubon, in association with his brother-in-law, Thomas Bakewell, and others, attempted to start several more businesses, the last being a lumber mill in Henderson, Kentucky. In 1819 this venture failed and Audubon was left with only the clothes on his back, his gun, and his drawings. This disaster ended his business career.
"Birds of America"
For a time Audubon made crayon portraits (drawings of individual people) for $5 per portrait. Then he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he became a taxidermist (one who stuffs and mounts the skins of animals) in the Western Museum that had been recently founded by Dr. Daniel Drake. In 1820 the possibility of publishing his bird drawings occurred to him. He set out down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, exploring the country for new birds and paying his expenses by painting portraits. For a while he supported himself in New Orleans by tutoring and painting. His wife also worked as a tutor and later opened a school for girls. She became the family's main financial support while Audubon focused on publishing his drawings.
In 1824 Audubon went to Philadelphia to seek a publisher. He met with opposition, however, from the friends of Alexander Wilson (1766–1813), the other major American ornithologist with whom Audubon had begun a bitter rivalry in 1810. He finally decided to raise the money for a trip to Europe, where he felt he would find greater interest in his drawings. He arrived in Liverpool, England, in 1826, then moved on to Edinburgh, Scotland, and to London, England, signing up subscribers for his volumes in each city. Audubon finally reached an agreement with a London publisher, and in 1827 volumes of Birds of America began to appear. It took eleven years in all for the publication and reprintings of all the volumes.
The success of Audubon's bird drawings brought him immediate fame, and by 1831 he was considered the leading naturalist of his country, despite the fact that he possessed no formal scientific training. There was an intense popular interest in the marvels of nature during this era. Anyone who could capture the natural beauty of wild specimens was certain to take his place among the front ranks of those recognized as "men of science." Audubon had succeeded in giving the world the first great collection of American birds, drawn in their natural habitats as close to nature as possible.
With his great work finally finished in 1838, and the Ornithological Biography (a text-only book about birds) in publication, Audubon returned to America to prepare a "miniature" edition. He also began drawings for a new book (in collaboration with John Bachman), Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, for which his sons contributed many of the drawings.
In 1841 Audubon bought an estate on the Hudson River and settled down to advise and encourage young scientists. It was during this period that the romantic picture of Audubon as the "American Woodsman," the great lover of birds, began to emerge. After several years of illness, Audubon suffered a slight stroke in January 1851, followed by partial paralysis and great pain. Audubon died on January 27, 1851.
For More Information
Blaugrund, Annette. John James Audubon. New York: Abrams, 1999.
Burroughs, John. John James Audubon. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1987.
Ford, Alice. John James Audubon: A Biography. Rev. ed. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988.
John James Audubon
John James Audubon
The work of American artist and ornithologist John James Audubon (1785-1851) was the culmination of the work of natural history artists who tried to portray specimens directly from nature. He is chiefly remembered for his "Birds of America."
When John James Audubon began his work in the first decade of the 19th century, there was no distinct profession of "naturalist" in America. The men who engaged in natural history investigations came from all walks of life and generally financed their work—collecting, writing, and publication—from their own resources. The American continent, still largely unexplored, offered a fertile field, giving the amateur an unrivaled opportunity to make a genuine contribution to science—for an afternoon walk in the woods might reveal a hitherto unknown species of bird, plant, or insect to the practiced eye. Especially fortunate was the man with artistic ability, for there was an intense popular interest in the marvels of nature during this, the romantic, era; and anyone who could capture the natural beauty of wild specimens was certain to take his place among the front ranks of those recognized as "men of science." This is the context in which Audubon worked and in which he became known as America's greatest naturalist—a title which modern scholars using other standards invariably deny him.
Audubon was born in San Domingo (now Haiti) on April 26, 1785, the illegitimate son of a French adventurer and a woman called Mademoiselle Rabin, about whom little is known except that she was a Creole of San Domingo and died soon after her son's birth. Audubon's father had made his fortune in San Domingo as a merchant, planter, and dealer in slaves. In 1789 Audubon went with his father and a half sister to France, where they joined his father's wife. The children were legalized by a regular act of adoption in 1794.
Life in France and Move to America
Audubon's education, arranged by his father, was that of a well-to-do young bourgeois; he went to a nearby school and was also tutored in mathematics, geography, drawing, music, and fencing. According to Audubon's own account, he had no interest in school, preferring instead to fish, hunt, and collect curiosities in the field. Left to the supervision of his indulgent stepmother most of the time, while his father served as a naval officer for the republic, Audubon became a spoiled, willful youth who managed to resist all efforts either to educate or discipline him. When residence at a naval base under his father's direct supervision failed to have any effect, he was sent briefly to Paris to study art, but this disciplined study also repelled him.
With the collapse of a large part of his income following the rebellion in San Domingo, the elder Audubon decided to send his son to America, where he owned a farm near Philadelphia. At first the boy lived with friends of his father and they tried to teach him English and otherwise continue his education, but after a time he demanded to be allowed to live on his father's farm, which was being managed by a tenant. There Audubon continued his undisciplined ways, living the life of a country gentleman— fishing, shooting, and developing his skill at drawing birds, the only occupation to which he was ever willing to give persistent effort. He developed the new technique of inserting wires into the bodies of freshly killed birds in order to manipulate them into natural positions for his sketching. He also made the first banding experiments on the young of an American wild bird, in April 1804.
In 1805, after a prolonged battle with his father's business agent in America, Audubon returned briefly to France, where he formed a business partnership with Ferdinand Rozier, the son of one of his father's associates. Together the two returned to America and tried to operate a lead mine on the farm. Then in August 1807 the partners decided to move to the West. There followed a series of business failures, in Louisville, Henderson, and other parts of Kentucky, caused largely by Audubon's preference for roaming the woods rather than keeping the store.
During this period he married Lucy Bakewell. After the failures with Rozier, Audubon, in association with his brother-in-law, Thomas Bakewell, and others, attempted several different enterprises, the last being a steam grist and lumber mill at Henderson. In 1819 this enterprise failed and Audubon was plunged into bankruptcy, left with only the clothes he wore, his gun, and his drawings. This disaster ended his business career.
For a time Audubon did crayon portraits at $5 a head, then he moved to Cincinnati, where he became a taxidermist in the Western Museum recently founded by Dr. Daniel Drake. In 1820 the possibility of publishing his bird drawings occurred to him; and he set out down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, exploring the country for new birds and paying his expenses by painting portraits. For a while he supported himself in New Orleans by tutoring and painting; then his wife obtained a position as a governess and later opened a school for girls. Thereafter she was the family's main support while Audubon tried to have his drawings published.
"Birds of America"
In 1824 Audubon went to Philadelphia to seek a publisher, but he encountered the opposition of friends of Alexander Wilson, the other pioneer American ornithologist, with whom he had had a bitter rivalry dating back to a chance encounter in his store in 1810. He finally decided to raise the money for a trip to Europe, where he was assured he would find a greater interest in his subject. He arrived at Liverpool in 1826, then moved on to Edinburgh and to London, being favorably received and obtaining subscribers for his volumes in each city. Audubon finally reached an agreement with a London engraver, and in 1827 Birds of America began to appear in "elephant folio" size. It took 11 years in all for its serial publication and subsequent reprintings. The success of Audubon's bird drawings brought him immediate fame, and by 1831 he was acclaimed the foremost naturalist of his country. This title was bestowed upon him despite the fact that he possessed no formal scientific training and no aptitude for taxonomy (the Latin nomenclature and the scientific indentification of most of the species in Birds of America is largely the work of a collaborator). He had, however, succeeded in giving the world the first great collection of American birds, drawn in their natural habitats with reasonable fidelity to nature.
With his great work finally finished in 1838, and the Ornithological Biography (a text commentary) in publication, Audubon returned to America to prepare a "miniature" edition. Simultaneously, he began to prepare, in collaboration with John Bachman, Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (2 vols., 1842-1845). Audubon himself completed only about half the drawings in this last work; his powers failed during his last few years and his son contributed the remainder.
With old age—and success—came a more kindly attitude toward his former rivals. In 1841 he bought an estate on the Hudson River and settled down to advise and encourage young scientists. It was during this period that the romantic picture of Audubon as the "American Woodsman," the revered and adored sage and patron saint of the birds, began to emerge. (This image was kept alive by his daughter and granddaughter until 1917, when F. H. Herrick published the first critical biography of the artist-naturalist.) After several years of illness, Audubon suffered a slight stroke in January 1851, followed by partial paralysis and great pain, and died on the 27th.
Alice E. Ford, John James Audubon (1964), is a good biography by an art historian; Alexander B. Adams, John James Audubon (1966), gives a meticulous year-by-year chronicle of his activities. An earlier work, Francis H. Herrick, Audubon the Naturalist (2 vols., 1917), is still valuable for the scientific side. All of the earlier biographies, based on the account by Audubon's wife, are highly romanticized. Useful for background information on this period in American natural history is William M. and Mabel S. C. Smallwood, Natural History and the American Mind (1941). George H. Daniels, American Science in the Age of Jackson (1968), discusses the general scientific frame of reference. □
John James Audubon
John James Audubon
French-American Naturalist and Artist
John James Audubon is famous for the brilliant artistry of his Birds of America and his Viviparous Quadrupeds of America, completed between 1827 and 1854. Audubon was the son of his father's Creole mistress, who died when he was seven months old. He was formally adopted by his father, a French naval officer, and his father's French wife, who educated him at home. He briefly attended Rochefort-Sur-Mer Naval Academy in 1796.
Audubon's earliest drawings date from the year 1805. His claims that he had studied with the French painter Jacques Louis David in 1802-03 are now regarded as invalid by modern biographers. He briefly visited the United States in 1803, and in 1806 began a business career in New York, Kentucky, Missouri, and Louisiana that ended in bankruptcy in 1819. He married Lucy Bakewell in 1808. They had two daughters (both of whom died in infancy) and two sons, Victor Gifford (b. 1809) and John Woodhouse (b. 1812), who later helped their father in his artistic work. Lucy Audubon was a teacher whose earnings provided much of the family's income for years.
Beginning in 1819-20, with a short-lived position as a taxidermist in Cincinnati, Audubon was an itinerant artist, clerk, and tutor. By 1820 he decided to devote full time to science and art. He planned a large scale set of paintings depicting all the known American birds in elephant folio size and began painting them. Between 1826 and 1839, he visited England four times, supervising engravings of his paintings while soliciting subscriptions from well-to-do individuals and institutions in Europe and the United States. The plates for his Birds of America were published in four volumes (1826-1838), followed by a summary and index volume, A Synopsis of the Birds of America (1839). The Ornithological Biography (published in five volumes between 1831 and 1839), designed as the accompanying text to his paintings, was combined with the pictures in a smaller octavo edition between 1840 and 1844. It was the most commercially successful of any natural history book published anywhere in the world to that time, and it was frequently reprinted. The income from this series provided Audubon's family with their first permanent home, in New York City, in 1842.
Audubon's last project was a study of American land mammals, the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, with the paintings published in two volumes (1845-46). The three-volume text, by North Carolina minister and mammalogist John Bachman (1790-1874), appeared between 1846 and 1854. Text and pictures were combined in later editions. Audubon's eyesight began to fail in 1846, and by the next year he had become senile. His sons completed the paintings, and with Bachman's help brought the project to a conclusion. John Woodhouse Audubon was the more gifted animal artist, while Victor painted backgrounds and served as business manager for the family publishing activity. They were assisted by the Reverend Bachman's second wife, Maria, who completed many of the insect and flower backgrounds for both the Birds and the Quadrupeds. Today, it is difficult for experts to tell which mammals were painted by John Woodhouse and which were completed by his father. Both sons married daughters of the Reverend Bachman, but tragically, both brides died young. Victor and John both remarried but died not too long after their father, in 1860 and 1862, respectively.
After her sons died, Lucy Audubon resumed teaching to help support herself and her fifteen grandchildren. In 1863, short of income, she sold all but three of the original bird paintings done by her husband to the New York Historical Society for $4,000. Most of the copper plates used in printing the Elephant Folio engravings were melted down for the value of the metal; several dozen survive today at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and other institutions. Audubon's fame rests on the lifelike appearance and the graceful artistry evident in the Birds of America and the Quadrupeds, which have been many times reprinted. Audubon, however, sometimes had to work rapidly, before his specimens decayed, and in some cases the birds and mammals were painted in somewhat stiff and unnatural poses. His work, however, has been very influential in familiarizing Americans with the fascinating variety of North American birds and mammals. Toward the end of his life, he expressed concern about the declining numbers of certain species, and he has become identified with the beginnings of America's conservation movement.
KEIR B. STERLING
Audubon, John James (1785-1851)
John James Audubon (1785-1851)
Naturalist and artist
Background. After his death John James Audubon’s descendants claimed him to be the lost dauphin (prince) of France. In actuality, although his ancestry included no royalty, he did descend from French origins, the son of a sea captain and a Creole mother on the island of Santo Domingo (now Haiti). Audubon grew up near Philadelphia and developed an early interest in ornithology. After moving to Kentucky and failing in several business ventures, Audubon wandered the countryside, studying and sketching birds in their natural surroundings. When his business career ended in 1819 following bankruptcy and a brief imprisonment for debt, Audubon decided to publish a collection of paintings of North American birds. Eventually he settled in Louisiana, working as an instructor of music and drawing.
Travels and Works. Audubon’s drawings attracted the notice of publishers in England and Scotland, where his collection Birds of America (1826–1838), consisting of eighty-seven parts containing more than four hundred life-sized engravings made from his watercolors, achieved recognition as a masterpiece of natural study. With the Scottish naturalist William MacGillivray, Audubon authored an accompanying text, Ornithological Biography (1831–1839), a work that made him well known in the United States. Following his success, Audubon extended his zoological curiosity to other animals. He collaborated with the naturalist John Bachman to prepare a collection on quadrapeds, for which he traveled and researched extensively. In 1843 Audubon journeyed from St. Louis up the Missouri River to the mouth of the Yellowstone, where he examined and recorded natural flora and fauna. His logs formed the basis for The Vivaparous Quadrapeds of North America (1852–1854).
Legacy. Audubon’s colorful, lifelike drawings reflect his artistic talent in the naturalist school, which sought to depict panoramic landscapes and minute details of animals in their pristine states. American artists who followed Audubon’s style tried to combine the artist’s skill of visual assessment with the scientist’s knowledge of anatomy and botany in order to replicate nature onto a canvas. Audubon’s work lent itself in subsequent decades to the conservation movement. Founded in 1905, the National Audubon Society tries to advance public understanding about water, soil, and wildlife conservation. Environmentalists today recognize Audubon as an early precursor to John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and other Westerners who taught intelligent use of nature by trying to understand nature’s limits.
John Francis McDermott, ed., Audubon in the West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965).