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.

Business Career

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.

Final Years

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.

Further Reading on John James Audubon

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.

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