Audubon, John James

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Artists

In the early 1800's John James Audubon was living on the American frontier. He dressed in buckskin and wore his hair long, but he was a different kind of pioneer. His work was the lifelike painting of birds in their natural surroundings.

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John James Audubon. 1785-1851, American. White Heron. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California, USA. © Huntington Library / SuperStock
 

Audubon was born on his father's plantation in Les Cayes, Santo Domingo (now Haiti), on April 26, 1785. The father, a trader and sea captain, returned to France in 1789, taking his son with him. In the town of Nantes, young Jean Jacques--the French for John James--went to school, but his real interests were the outdoors and painting.

In 1803 John was sent to live at Mill Grove, an estate his father owned near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. After a short time he went back to France, returning to Pennsylvania in 1806. Audubon later moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where he set up a general store. In 1808 he married Lucy Bakewell, a neighbor from Mill Grove, and took her to Louisville. But the store soon failed, as did all the other business ventures that Audubon tried. Instead of attending to business, he was usually exploring the wilderness.

At first Audubon hunted for food and sport, but he became more and more interested in studying birds. He sketched them in the wild. Then, to get more detail, he began to bring specimens home. He made his paintings in watercolor and chalk. Audubon also made the first known banding experiments on American wild birds. He tied thread around the legs of baby birds and later observed that some had returned to their place of birth to nest.

By 1819, Audubon was bankrupt. He now had only one aim: to complete his collection of bird paintings for publication. In 1821 he traveled down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, searching for birds and earning a little money by painting portraits. When he arrived in New Orleans, he sent for his wife and two sons. Lucy became a governess and was the main support of the family for the next twelve years.

Audubon began a search for someone to publish his work. Reproduction of his paintings required great skill and expense. In 1826, having failed to find a publisher in America, Audubon went to England and Scotland, where he was well received. He was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1827.

In London that same year, Audubon finally found financial support, as well as an engraver who could reproduce his bird paintings. During the next eleven years, Birds of America appeared in four large volumes, one of the rarest and most ambitious works ever published. Between 1831 and 1839, with the help of the Scottish naturalist William Macgillivray, Audubon also wrote five volumes of text to accompany the engravings. This work contained life histories of nearly 500 bird species.

The books brought him money and fame. In 1841, Audubon was able to buy a Hudson River estate. He worked on a book and paintings of the animals of North America, which his sons completed after his death on January 27, 1851.

Audubon's interest in all wildlife is honored by today's National Audubon Society, which is dedicated to the protection of wild creatures and their habitats.

John S. Bowman
Author and Science Writer

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