John James Audubon, also known as Jean-Jacques Audobon, was one of the major contributors of masterpieces to American art. With an avid interest in birds and drawing right from his childhood days, Audubon went on to be the most distinguished illustrator of the 19th century. Venturing into nature and observing and exploring different American birds, he documented the species so meticulously in his books. His books “The Birds of North America” is believed to be one of the finest contributions to ornithology and art. From trying out his hand at a number of business ventures to following his heart to birds and nature, Audubon had quite an eventful life. From being born in Haiti to travelling to France, America and England, he most certainly excelled at what he was best at. With the passion, a dream and a vision John James Audubon put all his efforts including many years into the compilations of his books and eventually saw a lot of success and honor. His detailed biography gives an insight into the overwhelming and inspiring life story of this artist.
John James Audubon’s Childhood And Early Life
An illegitimate son of a French Naval Captain, Lieutenant Jean Audubon and a domestic servant Jeanne Rabine, from Les Touches, France, John James Audubon was born on April 26, 1785 in the French Colony Saint-Dominigue. Audubon’s mother passed away when he was just a few months old and was brought up by his father's another mistress Sanitte.
In 1788, when John James Audobon was just four years old, he was sent to Nantes, France where he and his stepsister Rose, (from Jean Audubon’s mistress) were raised by Jean Audubon’s legal wife Anne Moynet Audubon. Jean and his wife formally adopted John in order to legalize his status.
While in France, John learned to play the flute and violin and learned to ride, fence, and dance. John was adventurous and he loved exploring the woods. He watched the birds and collected things from nature and made rough drawings. Although John James father wanted him to have a career in naval, John soon realized that he was prone to seasickness and wasn’t good at mathematics and navigation either.
When John Audubon was 18 years old, his father sent him to the United States to avoid him being a part of Napoleon’s army. Originally named Jean Jacques, on the arrival to America, he changed his name to John James to sound more American. Jean Audobon had set up a business for his son in Pennsylvania, and he moved to Mill Grove in Pennsylvania to his family farm. While in Mill Grove, he stayed in a two-storey stone house and completely explored and enjoyed the nature of the place. His father actually wanted John to work towards commercially developing the lead mines as it was vital for bullets. He had considered this a proposed occupation for him.
He, however, spent a lot of time with his neighbor William Bakewell’s daughter Lucy exploring the areas around him and indulging in common interests. Audubon studied American birds and he came up with the technique of bird banding, which helped him to study the same birds, longevity, migration and other patterns of life.
Audubon then visited France in 1805 to meet his father and ask his permission to marry Lucy. During this trip, he also improved his taxidermy skills with the help of the naturalist and physician Charles-Marie D'Orbigny. After his return to the United States, Audubon resumed his bird studies. He even commenced his own nature museum and he had become a specialist with taxidermy and the preparation of specimens.
William Bakewell, Lucy’s father wasn’t ready to get his daughter married to Audubon until he was settled and ready to support a family. So, John travelled to New York with the hope of learning the import-export trade and settling a business to support his wife in the future.
In 1805, Audubon started a general store in Louisville, Kentucky near the Ohio River. Due to the tensions concerning British trade, the business didn’t do too well. Therefore, in 1810, Audubon shifted his business to Henderson, Kentucky, as this was a less competitive place. While in Henderson, he often resorted to fishing and hunting to feed his family, as he wasn’t receiving adequate returns from his business. During his hunting expeditions, he observed and drew specimens and learned techniques of hunting.
Audubon had started all these businesses in partnership with Rozier, and after dissolving his partnership with him, Audubon collaborated with his brother in law. He bought land, slaves and a flour mill and started his mill business. But due to the “Panic of 1819”, this business too failed. Audubon was in serious financial trouble and was thrown into jail for charges of debt. This was an end to Audubon’s business career.
Audubon moved to Cincinnati and worked as a taxidermist in the Western museum. After this short stay at Cincinnati, John was determined to find and paint all the birds of North America. He wanted his work to better than that of the poet and naturalist Alexander Wilson’s.
In late 1820, Audubon set out to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and explored the countryside for birds. He travelled with the Swiss Landscape artist George Lehman in search of ornithological specimens. He met his expenses by painting portraits of people and charging an amount of $5 for every, and also taught painting to a few students. For instance, while at the Oakley Plantation he taught Eliza Pirrie, one of the owners daughter, painting.
In 1823, Audubon took oil painting lessons from John Steen, a teacher of American landscape and history painter Thomas Cole. Although a lot of oil work wasn’t involved in his paintings of birds, he used the oil technique to create portraits along the Mississippi and earn some money out of it.
While Audubon was focusing on his drawing, his independent wife Lucy was the breadwinner of the family. A trained teacher, she gave lessons to children both in and out of her home. She became a teacher in Louisiana and resided in wealthy plantation owners home.
Audubon returned to Philadelphia in 1824 and was on a hunt for a publisher for his drawings. He was met with opposition from many publishers in America. Some of the scientists at the Academy of Natural Sciences even expressed rivalry towards him. The artist then met Charles Bonaparte, a famous French naturalist and ornithologist himself. He persuaded Audubon to go to England and publish his work there.
In 1826, at the age of 41, Audubon decided to leave for Europe and he set out from New Orleans to land in Liverpool. Audubon was received with great acceptance and he was called the “American Woodsman”. As he toured England and Scotland, he raised enough money to start publishing his work. His work on “Birds of America” consisted of images of around 700 species of North America. While in London, he signed up subscribers for his volumes and reached a final agreement with a publisher in London. By 1827, volumes of “Birds of America” were already being published and it took a good 11 years for all the volumes to be published.
In 1829, Audubon returned to America and added more drawings to his collection. Audubon also hunted animals and sent the skins back to his British friends. The success of “Birds of America” brought him immediate fame as the book was as close to nature as possible. He was elected to be a fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1930 too.
Audubon’s ornithological endeavors didn’t end here, but he started working on his sequel “Ornithological Biographies.” Along with the Scottish ornithologist William MacGillivray, Audubon went about compiling the history of each species. Both the books were printed separately to avoid any kind of complications regarding the British law and copying of publications. By 1939, both of his books were published and Audubon returned to America to create a miniature version of his book. With collaboration with John Bachman, he started work on his drawing with his sons contributing to it too.
With all the money Audubon had earned from publishing his books, he bought an estate on the Hudson River. The romantic image of an American woodsman who was a great lover of birds began to emerge after his move to the estate. And Audubon put in significant effort on the octave edition of “Birds of America” as he planned to leave behind a considerable amount of income for his family.
Audubon met Lucy Bakewell in 1804 who was the neighboring estate owner’s daughter in Mill Grove. They shared many common interests and spent a lot of time exploring the nature around them. Audubon married Lucy in 1808, six months after arriving in Kentucky. Although the couple wasn’t very financially stable, they started a family and had two sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse Audubon. They also had two daughters Lucy and Rose who passed away at 2 years and 9 months respectively. Both sons of Audubon helped him in publishing his work and John Woodhouse actually went to become a naturalist and painter himself.
Death And Legacy
While on his excursions to the West to observe Western species, Audubon’s health began to deteriorate. He became quite senile by 1848 and suffered a stroke that year. His eyesight had failed and his project on mammals, “Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America” was taken over by John Woodhouse. Audubon passed away in his home on January 27, 1851 and he was buried in the graveyard of the Church of Intercession in Minnie’s land, a 30 acre estate he had purchased in Manhattan. In Audubons honor, a monument was constructed at the center of the cemetery.
Awards And Recognition
- Elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Linnaean Society, and the Royal Society for his contributions.
- The farmhouse in Mill Grove contains a museum displaying all his major works.
- The Audubon Museum at John James Audubon State Park in Henderson, Kentucky has displays of many of his watercolors, oils, engraves and other memorable.
- The National Audubon Society was commenced in his honor to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds.
- He was honored with a great American Series 22cent postage stamp.
- A copy of “Birds of America” was auctioned at Sotheby auction house for $11.5 million.