John James Audubon (Jean-Jacques Audubon), April 26, 1785 – January 27, 1851, was a French-American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter. He was notable for his expansive studies to document all types of American birds and for his detailed illustrations that depicted the birds in their natural habitats. His major work, a color-plate book entitled The Birds of America (1827–1839), is considered one of the finest ornithological works ever completed. Audubon identified 25 new species.
Jean-Jacques Audubon was born in Les Cayes in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) on his father’s sugar plantation. He was the illegitimate (or natural) son of Lieutenant Jean Audubon, a French naval officer (and privateer) from the south of Brittany, and his mistress Jeanne Rabine, a 27-year-old chambermaid from Les Touches in the same Province of Brittany (now in the modern region Pays de la Loire). They named the boy Jean Rabin. His mother died when the boy was a few months old, as she had suffered from tropical disease since arriving on the island. His father already had two mixed-race children by his mulatto housekeeper, Sanitte (described as a quadroon, meaning she was three-quarters European in ancestry). Following Jeanne Rabin’s death, Jean Audubon renewed his relationship with Sanitte and had another daughter by her, named Rose. Sanitte also took care of the infant boy Jean.
The senior Audubon had risen from his early days as a cabin boy, and commanded ships. During the American Revolution, he had been imprisoned by the British Empire. After his release, he helped the American cause. He had long worked to save money and secure his family’s future with real estate. Due to slave unrest in the Caribbean, in 1789 he sold part of his plantation in Saint-Domingue and purchased a 284-acre farm called Mill Grove, 20 miles from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to diversify his investments. Rising unrest in Saint-Domingue from African slaves, who greatly outnumbered French colonists, convinced Jean Audubon to return to France, where he became a member of the Republican Guard. In 1791 he arranged for his natural children Jean and Rose, who were very light-skinned, to be delivered to him in France.
The children were raised in Couëron, near Nantes, France, by Audubon and his wife Anne Moynet Audubon, whom he had married years before. In 1794 they formally adopted both the natural children to regularize their legal status. They renamed the boy Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon. When Audubon, at age 18, boarded ship for immigration to the United States in 1803, he changed his name to an anglicized form: John James Audubon.
From his earliest days, Audubon had an affinity for birds. “I felt an intimacy with them…bordering on frenzy [that] must accompany my steps through life.” His father encouraged his interest in nature:
“…he would point out the elegant movement of the birds, and the beauty and softness of their plumage. He called my attention to their show of pleasure or sense of danger, their perfect forms and splendid attire. He would speak of their departure and return with the seasons.”
In France during the chaotic years of the French Revolution and its aftermath, the younger Audubon grew up to be a handsome and gregarious man. He played flute and violin, and learned to ride, fence, and dance. A great walker, he loved roaming in the woods, often returning with natural curiosities, including birds’ eggs and nests, of which he made crude drawings. His father planned to make a seaman of his son. At twelve, Audubon went to military school and became a cabin boy. He quickly found out that he was susceptible to seasickness and not fond of mathematics or navigation. After failing the officer’s qualification test, Audubon ended his incipient naval career. He was cheerfully back on solid ground and exploring the fields again, focusing on birds.
In 1803, his father obtained a false passport so that Audubon could go to the United States to avoid conscription in the Napoleonic Wars. Jean Audubon and Claude Rozier arranged a business partnership for their sons to pursue in Pennsylvania (to see the terms of the Partnership Agreement, see Jean Ferdinand Rozier). It was based on Claude Rozier’s buying half of Jean Audubon’s share of a plantation in Haiti, and lending money to the partnership as secured by half interest in lead mining at Audubon’s property of Mill Grove.
Audubon caught yellow fever upon arrival in New York City. The ship’s captain placed him in a boarding house run by Quaker women. They nursed Audubon to recovery and taught him English, including the Quaker form of using “thee” and “thou”, otherwise then anachronistic. He traveled with the family’s Quaker lawyer to the Audubon family farm Mill Grove. The 284-acre (115 ha) homestead is located on the Perkiomen Creek a few miles from Valley Forge.
Audubon lived with the tenants in the two-story stone house, in an area that he considered a paradise. “Hunting, fishing, drawing, and music occupied my every moment; cares I knew not, and cared naught about them.” Studying his surroundings, Audubon quickly learned the ornithologist’s rule, which he wrote, “The nature of the place—whether high or low, moist or dry, whether sloping north or south, or bearing tall trees or low shrubs—generally gives hint as to its inhabitants.” His father hoped that the lead mines on the property could be commercially developed, as lead was an essential component of bullets. This could provide his son with a profitable occupation. At Mill Grove, Audubon met the owner of the nearby estate “Fatland Ford”, William Bakewell, whose daughter Lucy he would marry five years later. The two young people shared many common interests, and early on began to spend time together, exploring the natural world around them.
Audubon set about to study American birds, determined to illustrate his findings in a more realistic manner than most artists did then. He began conducting the first known bird-banding on the continent: he tied yarn to the legs of Eastern Phoebes and determined that they returned to the same nesting spots year after year. He also began drawing and painting birds, and recording their behavior. After an accidental fall into a creek, Audubon contracted a severe fever. He was nursed and recovered at Fatland Ford, with Lucy at his side. Risking conscription in France, Audubon returned in 1805 to see his father and ask permission to marry. He also needed to discuss family business plans. While there, he met the naturalist and physician Charles-Marie D’Orbigny, who improved Audubon’s taxidermy skills and taught him scientific methods of research. Although his return ship was overtaken by an English privateer, Audubon and his hidden gold coins survived the encounter.
Audubon resumed his bird studies and created his own nature museum, perhaps inspired by the great museum of natural history created by Charles Willson Peale in Philadelphia. Peale’s bird exhibits were considered scientifically advanced. Audubon’s room was brimming with birds’ eggs, stuffed raccoons and opossums, fish, snakes, and other creatures. He had become proficient at specimen preparation and taxidermy.
Deeming the mining venture too risky, with his father’s approval Audubon sold part of the Mill Grove farm, including the house and mine. He retained some land for investment. He went to New York to learn the import-export trade, hoping to find a business to support his marriage to Lucy. The protective Mr. Bakewell wanted to see the young Frenchman established in a solid career before releasing his daughter to him.
In 1808, six months after arriving in Kentucky, Audubon married Lucy Bakewell. Though their finances were tenuous, the Audubons started a family. They had two sons: Victor Gifford (1809–1860) and John Woodhouse Audubon (1812–1862); and two daughters who died while young: Lucy at two years (1815–1817) and Rose at nine months (1819–1820). Both sons would help publish their father’s works. John W. became a naturalist, writer and painter in his own right receiving his own obituary in a 1862 yearbook.
Audubon and Ferdinand Rozier moved their business partnership west at various stages, ending ultimately in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, the first European settlement west of the Mississippi River. Shipping goods ahead, Audubon and Rozier started a general store in Louisville, Kentucky on the Ohio River, Louisville was the most important port between Pittsburgh and New Orleans. Soon he was drawing bird specimens again. He regularly burned earlier efforts to force continuous improvement. He also took detailed field notes to document his drawings. Because rising tensions with the British resulted in President Jefferson’s embargo of British trade, Audubon’s business was not thriving.
In 1810, Audubon moved the business further west to the less competitive Henderson, Kentucky area. He and his small family took over an abandoned log cabin. In the fields and forests, Audubon wore typical frontier clothes and moccasins “and a ball pouch, a buffalo horn filled with gunpowder, a butcher knife, and a tomahawk on his belt.”
He frequently turned to hunting and fishing to feed his family, as business was slow. On a prospecting trip downriver with a load of goods, Audubon joined up with Shawnee and Osage hunting parties, learning their methods, drawing specimens by the bonfire, and finally parting “like brethren.” Audubon had great respect for Native Americans: “Whenever I meet Indians, I feel the greatness of our Creator in all its splendor, for there I see the man naked from His hand and yet free from acquired sorrow.”Audubon also admired the skill of Kentucky riflemen and the “regulators”, citizen lawmen who created a kind of justice on the Kentucky frontier. In his travel notes, he claims to have encountered Daniel Boone.
Audubon and Rozier mutually agreed to end their partnership at Ste. Genevieve on April 6, 1811, as Audubon decided to work at ornithology and art, as well as to return to Lucy and their son. Rozier agreed to pay Audubon $3,000 (equivalent to ~$120,000 in 2010 dollars), with $1,000 in cash and the balance to be paid over time.
The terms of the dissolution of the partnership include those by Audubon:
I John Audubon, having this day mutual consent with Ferdinand Rozier, dissolved and forever closed the partnership and firm of Audubon and Rozier, and having Received from said Ferdinand Rozier payment and notes to the full amount of my part of the goods and debts of the late firm of Audubon and Rozier, I the said John Audubon one of the firm aforesaid do hereby release and forever quit claim to all and any interest which I have or may have in the stock on hand and debts due to the late firm of Audubon and Rozier assign, transfer and set over to said Ferdinand Rozier, all my rights, titles, claims and interest in the goods, merchandise and debts due to the late firm of Audubon and Rozier, and do hereby authorize and empower him for my part, to collect the same in any manner what ever either privately or by suit or suits in law or equity hereby declaring him sole and absolute proprietor and rightful owner of all goods, merchandise and debts of this firm aforesaid, as completely as they were the goods and property of the late firm Audubon and Rozier.
In witness thereof I have set my hand and seal this Sixth day of April 1811
Ed D. DeVillamonte
Audubon witnessed the 1811-1812 New Madrid earthquake while out riding, which was among the most severe to strike the mid-continent. When Audubon arrived home, he was relieved to find no major damage, but the area was shaken by aftershocks for months. By today’s standards, the quake ranged from 8.4 to 8.8 on the Richter Scale, slightly stronger than the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Audubon writes that while on horseback he believed the distant rumbling to be that of a tornado, “but the animal knew better than I what was forthcoming, and instead of going faster, so nearly stopped that I remarked he placed one foot after another on the ground with as much precaution as if walking on a smooth piece of ice. I thought he had suddenly foundered, and, speaking to him, was on point of dismounting and leading him, when he all of a sudden fell a-groaning pieteously, hung his head, spread out his forelegs, as if to save himself from falling, and stood stock still, continuing to groan. I thought my horse was about to die, and would have sprung from his back had a minute more elapsed; but as that instant all the shrubs and trees began to move from their very roots, the ground rose and fell in successive furrows, like the ruffled water of a lake, and I became bewildered in my ideas, as I too plainly discovered, that all this awful commotion was the result of an earthquake. I had never witnessed anything of the kind before, although like every person, I knew earthquakes by description. But what is description compared to reality! Who can tell the sensations which I experienced when I found myself rocking, as it were, upon my horse, and with him moving to and fro like a child in a cradle, with the most imminent danger around me.” He noted that as the earthquake retreated, “the air was filled with an extremely disagreeable sulphurous odor.”
During a visit to Philadelphia in 1812 following Congress’ declaration of war with Great Britain, Audubon became an American citizen and gave up his French citizenship. After his return to Kentucky, he found that rats had eaten his entire collection of more than 200 drawings. After weeks of depression, he took to the field again, determined to re-do his drawings to an even higher standard.
The War of 1812 upset Audubon’s plans to move his business to New Orleans. He formed a partnership with Lucy’s brother and built up their trade in Henderson. Between 1812 and the Panic of 1819, times were good. Audubon bought land and slaves, founded a flour mill, and enjoyed his growing family. After 1819, Audubon went bankrupt and was thrown into jail for debt. The little money he earned was from drawing portraits, particularly death-bed sketches, greatly esteemed by country folk before photography.[ He wrote, “[M]y heart was sorely heavy, for scarcely had I enough to keep my dear ones alive; and yet through these dark days I was being led to the development of the talents I loved.”
After a short stay in Cincinnati to work as a naturalist and taxidermist at a museum, Audubon traveled south on the Mississippi with his gun, paintbox, and assistant Joseph Mason. He was committed to find and paint all the birds of North America for eventual publication. His goal was to surpass the earlier ornithological work of poet-naturalist Alexander Wilson. Though he could not afford to buy Wilson’s work, Audubon used it to guide him when he had access to a copy.
On October 12, 1820, Audubon started into Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida in search of ornithological specimens. He traveled with George Lehman, a professional Swiss landscape artist. The following summer, he moved upriver to the Oakley Plantation in the Felicianas, where he taught drawing to Eliza Pirrie, the young daughter of the owners. Though low paying, the job was ideal, as it afforded him much time to roam and paint in the woods. (Located at 11788 Highway 965, between Jackson and St. Francisville, the plantation is now the Audubon State Historic Site.) Audubon called his future work Birds of America. He attempted to paint one page each day. Painting with newly discovered technique, he decided his earlier works were inferior and re-did them. He hired hunters to gather specimens for him. Audubon realized the ambitious project would take him away from his family for months at a time.
Audubon sometimes used his drawing talent to trade for goods or sell small works to raise cash. He made charcoal portraits on demand at $5 each and gave drawing lessons. In 1823 Audubon took lessons in oil painting technique from John Steen, a teacher of American landscape, and history painter Thomas Cole. Though he did not use oils much for his bird work, Audubon earned good money painting oil portraits for patrons along the Mississippi. (Audubon’s account reveals that he learned oil painting in December 1822 from Jacob Stein, an itinerant portrait artist, and after they had enjoyed all the portrait patronage to be expected in Natchez, Mississippi during January–March 1823, they resolved to travel together as perambulating portrait-artists.)
Lucy became the steady breadwinner for the couple and their two young sons. Trained as a teacher, she conducted classes for children out of their home. Later she became a local teacher in Louisiana and took up residence, with her children, at the home of a wealthy plantation owner.
Audubon returned to Philadelphia in 1824 to seek a publisher for his bird drawings. Though he met Thomas Sully, one of the most famous portrait painters of the time and a valuable ally, Audubon was rebuffed for publication. He had earned the enmity of some of the city’s leading scientists at the Academy of Natural Sciences. He took oil painting lessons from Sully and met Charles Bonaparte, who admired his work and recommended he go to Europe to have his bird drawings engraved.
With his wife’s support, in 1826 at age 41, Audubon took his growing collection of work to England. He sailed from New Orleans to Liverpool on the cotton hauling ship “Delos”, reaching England in the autumn of 1826, taking a portfolio of over 300 drawings. With letters of introduction to prominent Englishmen, Audubon gained their quick attention. “I have been received here in a manner not to be expected during my highest enthusiastic hopes.”
The British could not get enough of his images of backwoods America and its natural attractions. He met with great acceptance as he toured around England and Scotland, and was lionized as “the American woodsman.” He raised enough money to begin publishing his Birds of America. This monumental work consists of 435 hand-colored, life-size prints of 497 bird species, made from engraved copper plates of various sizes depending on the size of the image. They were printed on sheets measuring about 39 by 26 inches (660 mm). The work contains just over 700 North American bird species.
The pages were organized for artistic effect and contrasting interest as if the reader were taking a visual tour. (Some critics thought he should have organized the plates in Linnaean order as befitting a “serious” ornithological treatise.) The first and perhaps most famous plate was Wild Turkey.
The cost of printing the entire work was $115,640 (over $2,000,000 today), paid for from advance subscriptions, exhibitions, oil painting commissions, and animal skins, which Audubon hunted and sold. Audubon’s great work was a remarkable accomplishment. It took more than 14 years of field observations and drawings, plus his single-handed management and promotion of the project to make it a success. A reviewer wrote, “All anxieties and fears which overshadowed his work in its beginning had passed away. The prophecies of kind but over prudent friends, who did not understand his self-sustaining energy, had proved untrue; the malicious hope of his enemies, for even the gentle lover of nature has enemies, had been disappointed; he had secured a commanding place in the respect and gratitude of men.”
Colorists applied each color in assembly-line fashion (over fifty were hired for the work). The original edition was engraved in aquatint by Robert Havell, Jr., who took over the task after the first ten plates engraved by W. H. Lizars were deemed inadequate. Known as the Double Elephant folio after its double elephant paper size, it is often regarded as the greatest picture book ever produced and the finest aquatint work. By the 1830s, the aquatint process was largely superseded by lithography. A contemporary French critic wrote, “A magic power transported us into the forests which for so many years this man of genius has trod. Learned and ignorant alike were astonished at the spectacle…It is a real and palpable vision of the New World.”
Audubon sold oil-painted copies of the drawings to make extra money and publicize the book. He had his portrait painted by John Syme, who clothed the naturalist in frontier clothes. The portrait was hung at the entrance of his exhibitions, promoting his rustic image. (The painting now hangs in the White House.) The New-York Historical Society has all 435 of the preparatory watercolors for Birds of America. Lucy Audubon sold them to society after her husband’s death. All but 80 of the original copper plates were melted down when Lucy Audubon, desperate for money, sold them for scrap to the Phelps Dodge Corporation.
King George IV was also an avid fan of Audubon and a subscriber to the book. London’s Royal Society recognized his achievement by electing Audubon a fellow. He followed Benjamin Franklin, who was the first American fellow. While in Edinburgh to seek subscriptions for the book, Audubon gave a demonstration of his method of propping up birds with wire at professor Robert Jameson’s Wernerian Natural History Association. Student Charles Darwin was in the audience. Audubon also visited the dissecting theatre of the anatomist Robert Knox. Audubon was a hit in France as well, gaining the King and several of the nobility as subscribers.
Audubon returned to America in 1829 to complete more drawings for his magnum opus. He also hunted animals and shipped the valued skins to British friends. He was reunited with his family. After settling business affairs, Lucy accompanied him back to England. Audubon found that during his absence, he had lost some subscribers due to the uneven quality of coloring of the plates. Others were in arrears in their payments. His engraver fixed the plates and Audubon reassured subscribers, but a few begged off. He responded, ” ‘The Birds of America’ will then raise in value as much as they are now depreciated by certain fools and envious persons.” He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1830.
He followed Birds of America with a sequel Ornithological Biographies. This was a collection of life histories of each species written with Scottish ornithologist William MacGillivray. The two books were printed separately to avoid a British law requiring copies of all publications with text to be deposited in Crown libraries, a huge financial burden for the self-published Audubon. Both books were published between 1827 and 1839.
During the 1830s, Audubon continued making expeditions in North America. During a trip to Key West, a companion wrote in a newspaper article, “Mr. Audubon is the most enthusiastic and indefatigable man I ever knew…Mr. Audubon was neither dispirited by heat, fatigue, or bad luck…he rose every morning at 3 o’clock and went out…until 1 o’clock.” Then he would draw the rest of the day before returning to the field in the evening, a routine he kept up for weeks and months.In the posthumously published book, The life of John James Audubon, derived primarily from his notes, Audubon relates that he visited the northeastern Florida coastal sugar plantation of John Bulow in early January, 1832. The sugar mill was built under the direction of a Scottish engineer who accompanied Audubon on an excursion in the region. The mill was destroyed in the Seminole Wars, and is preserved today as the Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park. In 1833, Audubon set forth from Maine accompanied by his son John, and five other young colleagues to explore the ornithology of Labrador. On the return voyage, the Ripley made a stop at St.George’s, Newfoundland, and Audubon and his assistants documented 36 species of birds.
Some of his works were painted at the house and gardens of Capt. John H. Geiger, which later became Audubon House and Tropical Gardens.
In 1839, having finished the Ornithological Biography, Audubon returned to the United States with his family. He bought an estate on the Hudson River (now Audubon Park). In 1842, he published an octavo edition of Birds of America, with 65 additional plates. Intended to be more readily affordable than the oversize British edition, it earned $36,000 and was purchased by 1100 subscribers. Audubon spent much time on “subscription gathering trips”, drumming up sales of the octavo edition, as he hoped to leave his family a sizable income.
Audubon made some excursions out West where he hoped to record Western species he had missed, but his health began to fail. In 1848, he manifested signs of senility, his “noble mind in ruins.” He died at his family home on January 27, 1851. Audubon is buried, close to the location of his home, in the graveyard at the Church of the Intercession in the Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum at 155th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. There is an imposing monument in his honor at the cemetery, which is the center of the Heritage Rose District of NYC.
Audubon’s final work, on mammals, was the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, prepared in collaboration with his good friend Rev John Bachman of Charleston, South Carolina, who supplied much of the scientific text. His son, John Woodhouse Audubon, drew most of the plates. The work was completed by Audubon’s sons and son-in-law and was published posthumously.
Audubon developed his own methods for drawing birds. First, he killed them using fine shot. He then used wires to prop them into a natural position, unlike the common method of many ornithologists, who prepared and stuffed the specimens into a rigid pose. When working on a major specimen like an eagle, he would spend up to four 15-hour days, preparing, studying, and drawing it. His paintings of birds are set true-to-life in their natural habitat. He often portrayed them as if caught in motion, especially feeding or hunting. This was in stark contrast to the stiff representations of birds by his contemporaries, such as Alexander Wilson. Audubon based his paintings on his extensive field observations.
He worked primarily with watercolor early on. He added colored chalk or pastel to add softness to feathers, especially those of owls and herons. He employed multiple layers of watercoloring, and sometimes used gouache. All species were drawn life size which accounts for the contorted poses of the larger birds as Audubon strove to fit them within the page size. Smaller species were usually placed on branches with berries, fruit, and flowers. He used several birds in a drawing to present all views of anatomy and wings. Larger birds were often placed in their ground habitat or perching on stumps. At times, as with woodpeckers, he combined several species on one page to offer contrasting features. He frequently depicted the birds’ nests and eggs, and occasionally natural predators, such as snakes. He usually illustrated male and female variations, and sometimes juveniles. In later drawings, Audubon used assistants to render the habitat for him. In addition to faithful renderings of anatomy, Audubon also employed carefully constructed composition, drama, and slightly exaggerated poses to achieve artistic as well as scientific effects.
Audubon’s influence on ornithology and natural history was far-reaching. Nearly all later ornithological works were inspired by his artistry and high standards. Charles Darwin quoted Audubon three times in On the Origin of Species and also in later works. Despite some errors in field observations, he made a significant contribution to the understanding of bird anatomy and behavior through his field notes. Birds of America is still considered one of the greatest examples of book art. Audubon discovered 25 new species and 12 new subspecies.
John James Audubon had a sprawling family estate. At the turn of the last century, the subways brought rapid change to the sleepy hills of Harlem and Washington Heights and owners of farmland ended up selling their property to developers.
The heirs of Audubon slowly sold off the family property from 155th Street to 158th and the luxury beaux arts apartments that still remain today have been designated as landmarks last year as part of the Audubon Park Historic District. The photo above shows Audubon’s actual house in the 1920s and the new apartment buildings can be seen peering from the background. None of the 19th-century wood frame structures in the top two photos have survived past the Depression years of the 1940’s.
- He was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Linnaean Society, and the Royal Society in recognition of his contributions.
- The homestead Mill Grove in Audubon, PA is open to the public and contains a museum presenting all his major works, including Birds of America.
- The Audubon Museum at John James Audubon State Park in Henderson, Kentucky houses many of Audubon’s original watercolors, oils, engravings and personal memorabilia.
- In 1905, the National Audubon Society was incorporated and named in his honor. Its mission “is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds…”
- He was honored by the United States Postal Service with a 22¢ Great Americans series postage stamp.
- On December 6, 2010, a copy of Birds of America was sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $11.5 million, a record price for a single printed book.
- On 26 April 2011, Google celebrated his 226th birthday by displaying a special Google Doodle on its global homepage.
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