From his earliest days, Audubon had an affinity for birds, "I felt an intimacy with them…bordering on frenzy 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 and treacherous years of the French Revolution, Audubon grew up to be a handsome, excitable, and gregarious young man. He played flute and violin, learned to ride, fence, and dance. He was hearty and a great walker, and loved roaming in the woods, often returning with natural curiosities, including birds' eggs and nests, of which he made crude drawings. His father's plans were initially 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 very susceptible to seasickness and not fond of mathematics or navigation. After failing the officer's qualification test, Audubon's naval career was aborted. He was cheerfully back on solid ground and exploring the fields again, focusing on birds.
In 1803, his father obtained a false passport for him to travel to the United States to avoid conscription in the Napoleonic Wars. Audubon caught yellow fever upon arriving in New York City. The sea captain placed him in a boarding house run by Quaker women (thus avoiding potentially fatal bleeding by a doctor) who nursed him to recovery and taught him the unique Quaker form of English, which made frequent use of "thee" and "thou". He then traveled with the family's Quaker lawyer to the Audubon family farm Mill Grove, near Philadelphia. The 284-acre homestead, bought with proceeds from the sale of his father's sugar plantation, is located on the Perkiomen Creek, just a few miles from Valley Forge. He lived with the tenants in a little 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 stated in his journals, "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 lead mines on the property would be commercially developed, lead being an essential component of bullets, and provide his son a profitable occupation. In search of a horse, Audubon met his neighbor William Bakewell, the owner of the abundant estate "Fatland Ford", whose daughter Lucy he married five years later. They shared many common interests, and early on began to spend time together, enjoying the country life and exploring the natural world around them.
Almost from the beginning, Audubon set about to study American birds with the goal of illustrating his findings in a more realistic manner than was common at the time. 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. Upon returning from a winter's hunting excursion, Audubon fell into a hole in the icy stream, luckily found an escape in the dark, but then contracted a severe fever. He was nursed and recovered at Fatland Ford with Lucy at his side. Risking conscription, Audubon returned to France in 1805 to see his father to ask permission to marry and to discuss family business plans. While there he met naturalist and physician Charles-Marie D'Orbigny, who improved Audubon's taxidermy skills and taught him scientific methods of research. On the return trip, the ship was overtaken by an English privateer, but Audubon and his hidden gold coins survived the encounter.
Audubon resumed his bird studies upon his return and energetically created his own nature museum, perhaps inspired by the great museum of natural history of Charles Wilson Peale in Philadelphia, whose 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 very proficient at specimen preparation and taxidermy.
With his father's approval, Audubon sold part of the farm, including the house and mine, but retained some land for investment, after deeming the mining venture as too risky. He then went to New York to learn the import-export trade with the intention of learning a business that would support his marriage to Lucy. The still skeptical Mr. Bakewell expected a solid career from the "idle" Frenchman before releasing his daughter.
Shipping goods ahead, he started a general store in Louisville, Kentucky, the most important river port between Pittsburgh and New Orleans. In 1808, six months after arriving in Kentucky, he married Lucy. Soon he was drawing bird specimens again. He regularly burned his earlier efforts to force continuous improvement. He also took detailed field notes to document his drawings. Audubon's business was surviving but not thriving on account of President Thomas Jefferson's embargo of British and French trade. In 1810, Audubon moved his business to the less competitive Henderson, Kentucky area and they lived in an abandoned log cabin. In the fields and forests Audubon no longer wore his gallant French hunting clothes but now wore more typical frontier clothes and moccasins "and a ball pouch, a buffalo horn filled with gunpowder, a butcher knife, and a tomahawk on his belt.
There 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". Unlike the prevailing mood of the time, Audubon had great respect for native Americans and their life with nature, "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 greatly admired the skill of Kentucky riflemen and their shooting contests, and the "regulators", citizen lawmen who served justice on the Kentucky frontier. In his travel notes, he claims to have encountered Daniel Boone.
Audubon witnessed the 1811-1812 earthquakes, among the most severe to ever strike the mid-continent. He was galloping on his horse when the horse suddenly stopped, sensing the early vibrations, and Audubon thought a tornado might be approaching. The horse sat down and braced itself and suddenly the land began to sway. When he arrived home he found no major harm had been done but aftershocks continued for months. Later, in a similar manner, again on horseback, he encountered a tornado, thinking at first that it was another earthquake. Ever the naturalist, he vividly described this force of nature whose "horrible noise resembled the roar of Niagara" and as it retreated "the air was filled with an extremely disagreeable sulphurous odor".
Though their finances were tenuous and the life more rustic then they had expected, the Audubons started a family. He had two sons: Victor Gifford (1809) and John Woodhouse (1812), and two daughters who died while still infants: Lucy (1815-1817), who lived for two years, and Rose (1819-1820), who lived for nine months. Both sons would help publish his works later.
During a visit back to Philadelphia in 1812, following the declaration of war with Great Britain by Congress, Audubon gave up his French citizenship and became an American citizen. On returning home, he discovered that rats had eaten his entire collection of over two hundred drawings. After weeks of depression and insomnia, 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 but he formed a partnership with his brother-in-law and built up their trade in Henderson. Between 1812 and the Panic of 1819, times were good and Audubon bought land and slaves, founded a flour mill (which cost him dearly), and enjoyed the closeness of his growing family. But when the idyllic interlude came to sharp halt, Audubon went bankrupt and was thrown into jail for debt. The little money he did earn was from drawing portraits, particularly death-bed sketches, greatly esteemed by country folk before photography. He wrote, "my 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 where he worked as a naturalist and taxidermist at a museum, Audubon with his gun, paintbox, and assistant Joseph Mason, traveled south on the Mississippi. He had made the commitment to himself 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, who by coincidence had tried to solicit Audubon for a subscription in 1810. At that time, Audubon denied to Wilson that he had the same ambition. Though he couldn't afford it, Audubon used Wilson's work to guide him when he had access to a copy.
Audubon started on an expedition into Mississipi, Alabama, and Florida on October 12, 1820 in search of ornithological specimens. The following summer, he moved upriver to the Oakley Plantation in the Felicianas to teach drawing to Eliza Pirrie, the young daughter of the owners. The job was ideal, though low paying, letting him spend much of his time roaming and painting in the woods. (The plantation, located at 11788 Highway 965, between Jackson and St. Francisville, is now Audubon State Historic Site. He was now calling his future work Birds of America. He attempted to paint one page each day. As he painted voraciously with newly discovered technique, he realized that his earlier paintings were of inferior quality and he re-did them. He also hired hunters to gather specimens for him. Audubon also came to realize that the ambitious project would take him away from his family for months at a time as he crossed the continent.
Once he was in need of new shoes, and so also was a fellow traveler. Neither had the money to purchase them, but Audubon went to a shoemaker and offered to make portraits of the man in exchange for the new shoes for his traveling companion and himself. The offer was accepted and both men went on their way newly shod
As he roved to nearby towns, Audubon also made charcoal portraits on demand at $5 each and gave drawing lessons. He took lessons in oil painting technique in 1823 from John Steen, previously a teacher of American landscape and history painter Thomas Cole. Though he didn't employ oils very much for his bird work, Audubon did some lucrative oil portraits for patrons along the Mississippi. Fortunately, Lucy became the steady breadwinner for the couple and their two young sons. Trained as a teacher, she conducted classes for children out of her home, and later became a local teacher and took up residence, with her children, with a wealthy plantation owner in Louisiana.
Audubon returned to Philadelphia in 1824 to seek a publisher for his bird drawings. Though he made the acquaintance of Thomas Sully, one of the most famous portrait painters of the time and a valuable ally, but was rebuffed, in part because he had earned the enmity of some of the city's leading scientists at the Academy of Natural Sciences. He did take oil painting lessons from Sully and met Charles Bonaparte, who admired his work and recommended that he go to Europe to have his bird drawings engraved.
With his wife's support, Audubon, having just reached his 41st birthday, took his growing collection to England in 1826. He set sail from New Orleans with his portfolio of over 300 drawings to Liverpool on a cotton hauling ship. 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 couldn't get enough of his images of backwoods America and its natural attractions, as he toured around England and Scotland. Audubon was lionized as "The American woodsman" and 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 measuring around 39 by 26 inches. The work is far from a complete atlas. There are just over 700 North American bird species.
The pages were organized for artistic effect and contrasting interest, as if the reader is 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 is the Wild Turkey, which had been Benjamin Franklin's candidate for the national bird, losing out to the Bald Eagle.
The actual cost of printing the entire work was $115,640 (over $2,000,000 today), all paid for from subscriptions, exhibitions, oil painting commissions, and animal skins he hunted and sold. Audubon's great work was a remarkable accomplishment. It took over 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 overprudent 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.
Each color was applied by a colorist in assembly line fashion (over fifty were hired for the work). This original edition was engraved in aquatint by Robert Havell junior, who took over the task after the first ten plates engraved by W. H. Lizars were deemed inadequate. Known as the Double Elephant folio, it is often regarded as the greatest picture book ever produced, and the finest aquatint work. The aquatint process was largely replaced by lithography by the 1830s. 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 to further increase interest in the book. He also had his portrait painted by John Syme, who clothed the naturalist in frontier clothes, and the painting appeared at the entrance of the exhibitions and added to Audubon's rustic image (the painting currently hangs in the White House). All 435 of the preparatory watercolors for Birds of America are currently housed at the New-York Historical Society in New York City. Lucy Audubon sold them to the society after her husband's death. All but 80 of the original copper plates were melted down when Lucy, desperate for money, sold them for scrap to the Phelps Dodge Corporation.
Even King George IV was an avid fan of Audubon and a subscriber. Audubon was elected a fellow of London's Royal Society. In this, he followed the footsteps of Benjamin Franklin, who was the first American fellow. While in Edinburgh to seek subscriptions for his book, he gave a demonstration of his method of using wires to prop up birds at professor Robert Jameson's Wernerian Natural History Association with the student Charles Darwin in the audience and also visited the dissecting theatre of the anatomist Robert Knox (not long before Knox became associated with Burke and Hare). Audubon was a hit in France as well, gaining the King and several nobles as subscribers.
Audubon returned to America in 1829 to complete more drawing for his magnum opus. He also hunted animals and shipped the valued skins to British friends. At last, he was reunited with his family and after settling her business affairs, Lucy accompanied him back to England. Audubon found out that during his absence he had lost some subscribers due to the uneven quality in the coloring of the plates and that others were arrears in their payments. His engraver mended the situation of the plates and Audubon reassured subscribers, but a few begged off to which 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 followed his Birds of America up with a companion work, Ornithological Biographies, life histories of each species written with Scottish ornithologist William MacGillivray. The two books were printed separately to avoid a British law requiring all publications with text to be deposited in crown libraries, a potentially huge financial burden for self-publisher Audubon. Both books were published between 1827 and 1839.
During the 1830s, Audubon continued making expeditions in North America with his customary energy and determination. 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 and return to the field in the evening, keeping it up for weeks and months.
In 1839, Audubon returned to America with his family having finished the Ornithological Biography. 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, which earned $36,000 and was purchased by 1100 subscribers. Audubon spent much of time on "subscription gathering trips", drumming up sales of the octavo edition, hoping to leave his family a sizable income.
He made some excursions out West where he hoped to record all the Western species he was missing but his health began to fail. He manifested signs of senility in 1848, his "noble mind in ruins". He died at his family home on January 27 1851. Audubon may be buried in the Trinity Churchyard Cemetery at 155th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, New York where there is an imposing monument in his honor, but the exact location of his remains is unclear.
His final work was on mammals, the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, which was written in collaboration with his good friend Rev. John Bachman (of Charleston, South Carolina) who supplied much of the scientific text. It was completed by his sons and son-in-law and published posthumously. His son John did most of the drawings.
Audubon developed his own methods for drawing birds. First, he killed them using fine shot to prevent them from being torn to pieces. He then used fixed wires to prop them up into a natural position, unlike the common method of many ornithologists of first preparing and stuffing 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 and often caught them in motion, especially feeding or hunting. This was in stark contrast with the stiff representations of birds by his contemporaries, such as Alexander Wilson. He also based his paintings on his own field observations.
He worked primarily with watercolor early on, then added colored chalk or pastel to add softness to feathers, especially those of owls and herons. He would employ multiple layers of watercoloring, and sometimes use gouache. Small species were often drawn to scale, placed on branches with berries, fruit, and flowers, sometimes in flight, and often with many individual birds to present all views of anatomy. Larger birds were often placed in their ground habitat or perching on stumps. At times, as with woodpeckers, he would combine several species on one page to offer contrasting features. Nests and eggs are frequently depicted as well, and occasionally predators, such as snakes. He usually illustrated male and female variations, and sometimes juveniles. In later drawings, he had aides render the habitat for him. Going behind faithful renderings of anatomy, Audubon 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 enormous. Nearly all later ornithological works were inspired by his artistry and his high standards. Charles Darwin quotes Audubon three times in The Origin of Species and also in later works. Despite some errors in his field observations (e.g., he thought an immature bald eagle to be a separate species), his notes were a significant contribution to the understanding of bird anatomy and behavior. Birds of America is still considered one of the greatest examples of book art.
Despite the enormous flocks he saw in his times, in his journals Audubon warned of the dangers that threatened including over-hunting and loss of habitat. Several species he recorded are now extinct including the Carolina Parakeet, the Passenger Pigeon, the Labrador Duck, and the Great Auk.
The National Audubon Society was incorporated and named in his honor in 1905. Its mission "is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth's biological diversity". According to the official Audubon website, "Although Audubon had no role in the organization that bears his name, there is a connection: George Bird Grinnell, one of the founders of the early Audubon Society in the late 1800s, was tutored by Lucy Audubon, John James's widow. Knowing Audubon's reputation, Grinnell chose his name as the inspiration for the organization's earliest work to protect birds and their habitats".
Audubon County, Iowa is named in his honor.
His homestead Mill Grove in Audubon, PA is open to the public and contains a museum presenting all his major works including Birds of America.
In Henderson, Kentucky, he is remembered by the 692-acre John James Audubon State Park. The Audubon Museum houses many of Audubon's original watercolors, oils, engravings and personal memorabilia. The Nature Center features a wildlife observatory, which nurtures Audubon's own love for nature and the great outdoors. The Audubon Park and country club in Louisville, Kentucky is in the area of his general store.
In Natchez, Mississippi there is a gallery and, at one time, there was a tableau in the Natchez Pageant dedicated to him.
In Louisiana, John James Audubon Bridge (Mississippi River) is currently under construction. The bridge, located in southeastern portion of the state, will provide a crucial cossing point over the Mississippi River between Point Coupee Parish and West Feliciana Parish. Once finished, it will have the distinction of being the only bridge crossing the Mississippi River from Natchez, Mississippi to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Also, upon completion, it will be the longest cable-stayed bridge in North America.
In Boston, Massachusetts, Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. designed a monumental roadway and traffic circle adjacent to his Emerald Necklace Park system in 1887. Audubon Circle remains named in honor of James Audubon to this day. Audubon Road was renamed Park Drive in 1931 by the City of Boston.
There is also an Audubon Memorial Bridge, which crosses the Ohio River and connects Henderson, Kentucky and Evansville, Indiana.
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