John James Audubon

West Indian-born American , 1785 - 1851

John James Audubon was born in 1785 in the French Colony of Santo Domingo, which is now Haiti. Raised from the age of three in Nantes in western France, a young Audubon learned to love nature and wildlife. In 1803, at the age of eighteen, Audubon was sent to the United States to escape conscription into Napoleon’s army. He settled in on his father’s farm in Mill Grove, just northwest of Philadelphia where he enjoyed a life of hunting, fishing, drawing and music. He fell in love with the Pennsylvania countryside and its animals and he often collected various wildlife specimens, later preserving and sketching them in Mill Grove.

At the age of twenty, Audubon sojourned for a year in France, where he rendered birds in pastel. After returning to the United States in 1806, he devoted his spare time to drawing each American bird in its actual size and coloring. During this same time, Audubon and his wife sold Mill Grove and moved to Kentucky. Facing bankruptcy in 1819, he worked as an itinerant portrait painter and, briefly, as a taxidermist. At the age of thirty-five he audaciously set out to depict every bird in America and publish his results, a remarkable undertaking for a newcomer with no formal art training. Audubon’s project was preceded by the work of several bird illustrators, notably Scotsman Alexander Wilson, whose renderings appeared in nine volumes of “American Ornithology” from 1808 to 1814.

For two decades, Audubon roamed mountains and valleys from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico in all kinds of weather, laboring tirelessly on his great project. He captured the shapes, textures, plumage and colors of his birds much more accurately then other artists. In 1824, Audubon took his portfolio to Philadelphia, (then the nation’s publishing center) to seek financial support and to have an engraver copy his drawings. While in Philadelphia, Audubon was introduced to Napoleon’s nephew, Prince Charles Lucien Bonaparte, who was a recently elected member of the Academy of Natural Sciences. Bonaparte recognized the value of Audubon’s work and he agreed to take him on and help get his work shown to other members of the Academy, the country’s most notable natural history institution. Unfortunately, many of the members had considered Alexander Wilson’s work, “American Ornithology” the definitive on the subject and Audubon quickly offended a number of them by disparaging Wilson’s images and touting the virtues of his own work. Consequently, many of the members found Audubon to be brash and arrogant and he was eventually blacklisted among local engravers and publishers.

Audubon left Philadelphia and tried his luck in Mill Grove and New York, but he found that rumors spread by members of the Academy had preceded him and in 1826, he decided to leave the country for Great Britain. His work was enthusiastically received at art exhibitions in England and Scotland and his odd “American Woodsman” appearance, fascinated Britons familiar with the legend of Daniel Boone.

Audubon hired the talented London-based engraver, Robert Havell to undertake the decades-long process of transforming his watercolors into salable prints. Audubon keenly supervised Havell’s work and the pair collaborated in changing some compositions and backgrounds to enhance the final appearance of the prints. “The Birds of America” contains some four hundred and thirty-five hand-colored plates of 1,065 birds, etched, aquatinted and engraved by Havell. It was issued in four volumes from 1827 to 1838. A companion five-volume Ornithological Biography, which contains detailed essays on the birds, is still regarded as one of the best texts in the field. Audubon sold serial engravings of “The Birds of America” through individual subscriptions.

Audubon returned to the United States in 1829 and spent time in Camden, Great Egg Harbor and Pennsylvania’s Great Pine Swamp, where he produced a number of bird portraits. During the 1930s, Audubon sailed to England several times and renewed his search for birds to illustrate, creating some of his most accomplished likenesses. After publication of “The Birds of America”, Audubon issued a successful, smaller, seven-volume octavo edition and he also compiled a work which documented mammals, “The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America”, comprised of one hundred and fifty hand-colored lithographs in three volumes.

In 1831, Audubon was elected as an honorary member of the Academy of Natural Sciences. Eventually he settled on Minnie’s Land, a small estate on the Hudson River in New York, where he died in 1851.
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