John James Audubon

John James Audubon the American artist and ornithologist was one of the first to study and paint the birds of North America. Audubon’s lifelike watercolor paintings of birds in their natural surroundings brought him fame and fortune. He was the culmination of the work of natural history artists who tried to portray specimens directly from nature. He is chiefly remembered for his book 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 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.


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 he became known as America’s greatest naturalist

Early Life of John James Audubon

Audubon’s diaries and letters created a mystery about his background and parentage, but records indicate that he was born Jean Rabin on April 26, 1785, in Les Cayes, Santo Domingo (Haiti). His mother, a French chambermaid, adventurer, and Mademoiselle Rabin,  who was a Creole of San Domingo, died soon after his birth. Records show that his father, a French sea captain named Jean Audubon, remarried in France, and Jean Rabin soon joined him.


 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. 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.

Audubon's interest

According to Audubon’s 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.

Start to sketch

He developed the new technique of inserting wires into the bodies of freshly killed birds 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.


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.

John James Audubon
An Audubon painting of passenger pigeons shows the realistic ,colorful style of the artist and naturalist.

End of John James Audubon’s business career.

John James Audubon and Ferdinand Rozier opened a general store in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1807. 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, he was jailed for debt. He entered a plea of bankruptcy to gain his freedom. He left with only the clothes he wore, his gun, and his drawings. This disaster ended his business career.

John James Audubon’s crayon portraits

For a time John James 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.

John James Audubon’s books

The Birds of America is the most well-known work of John James Audubon. He did publish other books including The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. The Birds of America is Audubon’s life work, published in sections between 1827 and 1838. It contains 435 hand-colored, life-size illustrations of North American birds.


In 1820, John James Audubon conceived the idea of publishing a collection of paintings of North American birds. His family followed him to Louisiana, where he painted birds in their natural surroundings. His wife worked as a governess and teacher to support the family. Audubon drew portraits and taught music and drawing.


His works Unable to find an American publisher, he went to England and Scotland in 1826. His pictures created a sensation, and a British publisher brought out Birds of America (1827-1838), which was a work of 87 parts containing 435 life-sized, colored engravings made from his watercolors. Audubon and William Mac Gillivray, a Scottish naturalist, wrote a text, Ornithological Biography (1831-1839).


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 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.

Foremost naturalist

It took 11 years in all for its serial publication and subsequent reprinting. The success of Audubon’s bird drawings brought him immediate fame, and by 1831 he was acclaimed as the foremost naturalist of his country. This title was bestowed upon him even though he possessed no formal scientific training and no aptitude for taxonomy (the Latin nomenclature and the scientific identification of most of the species in Birds of America is largely the work of a collaborator).

Returned to America

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.

Final Years

With old age and success came a kindlier 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. 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.



Read further article: Meriwether Lewis

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