John James Audubon
1785 – 1851
A man of many firsts, Audubon was the first to paint every known bird in North America, more than 465 species, including more than a dozen birds that he was the first to scientifically describe, naming them for his friends. He was the first man in America to band a bird, proving that they migrate. He followed their migrations and wrote 5-10 pages about every bird he painted, published in seven volumes as the Ornithological Biographies. Less well known, he was a best-selling author of his day, publishing 50 short stories about his travels and travails known collectively as the “Delineations of American Scenery.” He was also the first to attempt to paint all of the four legged animals that give birth to live young, Viviparous Quadrupeds.
Most importantly, he transformed ‘scientific illustrations’ raising the skill of the draftsmen to the level of fine art, moving from flat, lifeless, two-dimensional dead birds, to dancing, flying, hunting, feeding, living, breathing birds drawn within their native habitat with scientifically accurate trees and flowers, including the differences between male and female birds, creating truly informative and inspiring paintings.
Every wildlife artist since has given his due to John James Audubon.
Born as the illegitimate son of a plantation owner who was involved in the slave trade, his father also ran the British blockades and helped America to win our revolution. Audubon later lied about his birth claiming to have been born in the Louisiana Territory, before Napolean sold it to Jefferson, so he could claim American Citizenship.
He was mostly self-taught as an artist, developing a unique technique of wiring birds into position and then painting them predominately in watercolors, but using some gouache and pastel crayons to add texture. These original paintings were then rendered into copper engravings by Robert Havell Jr. in London. The prints were hand colored and then sold by subscription. Special paper was needed, double elephant portfolio, so each bird could be painted life size. In the end, there was little profit from this massive project, but “The Birds of North America” made his reputation. They were later rendered into smaller stone lithography prints by J.T Bowen, (who also engraved the mammals), so that they could reach a broader audience. This is where Audubon made his wealth.
At every stage Audubon sought the best engravers, and was at the cutting edge of printmaking technology.
Original Havell Edition prints today range from $1000 for smaller birds in poor shape to $200,000 for mint condition, highly desirable birds. For the best modern reprints, Princeton editions range from $100 – $800 in price. But please note that until recently, Audubon was the most reproduced artist in the world… so many of the cheaper reproductions are worth less than the frame you might find them in at your local antique store.
- Audubon painted more than 1000 specimens of 465 different species of birds.
- Several of the birds he painted are now extinct, including the Carolina Parakeet, Passenger Pigeon, Great Auk, Heath Hen, and the Ivory Billed Woodpecker.
- The Audubon Society was founded years later by a committee which included George ‘Bird’ Grinnell, who, as a boy, took lessons from Audubon’s wife, Lucy. Grinnell suggested the name.
A Few Favorite Quotes:
“I never for a day gave up listening to the songs of our birds, or watching their peculiar habits, or delineating them in the best way I could.” – John James Audubon
“In my deepest troubles, I frequently would wrench myself from the persons around me and retire to some secluded part of our noble forests.” – John James Audubon
“Neither this little stream, this swamp, this grand sheet of water, nor these mountains will be seen a century hence as I see them now.” –John James Audubon
“…nothing, after all, could ever answer my enthusiastic desire to represent nature, except to copy her in her own way, alive and moving!” – John James Audubon
In a letter to a friend Audubon’s wife, Lucy, wrote of her husband’s loyalty, saying she knew, “My only rival for my husband’s affection is every bird in North America.”
A Brief Bibliography:
Audubon, John James, Writings and Drawings. Library of Congress/Penguin Putnam, 1999
Always go to the source! Read what Audubon wrote in this fine collection of essays, letters and excerpts from his Ornithological Biographies and field journals.
Streshinsky, Shirley, Audubon – Life and Art in the American Wilderness. Random House, 1993 The best of the recent biographies, this book is a good balance of his personal life, his art and his ornithology.
Souder, William, Under A Wild Sky, North Point Press, 2004 This is the biography for the serious birder who would like to better understand Audubon’s field ecology and ornithology.
Rhodes, Richard, John James Audubon – The Making of an American. Knopf, 2004 Though the best selling of the recent biographies, highly recommended, and critically acclaimed, it dwells mostly on his personal life, the preference of some.
Hart-Davis, Duff, Audubon’s Elephant. Henry Holt 2004 For the art historian and all of those fascinated by Audubon’s technique as an artist, the process of printmaking and the selling of subscriptions, this is the book for you.
Brian “Fox” Ellis is an internationally renowned storyteller, author and naturalist. He has been a featured speaker at regional and international conferences on environmental concerns. Fox is also a museum consultant who has worked with The Field Museum and The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. He is the Artistic Director for Prairie Folklore Theatre, a unique theatre company that celebrates ecology and history through original musical theatre. Fox is the author of fifteen books including the critically acclaimed Learning From the Land: Teaching Ecology Through Stories and Activities, (Libraries Unlimited, 1997/2011), and The Web at Dragonfly Pond, (Dawn Publications, 2006).
Time Line of Audubon’s Life
April 28, 1785 – Born Jean Rabine on the Isle of Santa Domingo, what is now Haiti.
1788 – On the verge of the Haitian Uprising, Audubon’s father flees Haiti. His son is raised by a step-mother near Nantes, France on the Loire River.
Late 1790’s – Audubon may have studied painting with Jacques-Louis David at The Louvre.
1803 – After years of bloodshed on the barricades, as the Napoleonic Wars were heating up, to avoid conscription, Audubon was smuggled out of the country to live the life of the bon vivant on his father’s estate near Philadelphia, where he begins to paint “The Birds of America.”
1805 – Audubon is the first man in North America to band a bird, proving that they do migrate.
1807 – 1820 Audubon moves over the Appalachian Mountains to establish a trading post, first in Louisville and later in Henderson, Ky. It is in Henderson that he raises a family, builds a trading post and grist mill and later goes bankrupt to be threatened with debtor’s prison. He continues building his portfolio of birds.
1820 – After a short stint drawing charcoal portraits in Louisville, the starving artist moves his family to Cincinnati, OH. He works at the Western Museum, teaches art classes and finally commits his life to painting all of the birds of North America. His wife begins teaching to help support the family, which she continues the rest of her days.
October 1820 – Audubon makes his first pilgrimage down the Mississippi following the annual migration of birds. He brings Joseph Mason, a 12 year old assistant to paint flowers. Eventually, the two of them land in New Orleans before settling at Oakley Plantation near St. Francisville the next summer.
1826 – Audubon makes his first trip to England to find a printer and sell subscriptions to his great work, The Birds of North America.
1830’s – Audubon makes several trips to and fro, making forays into the American wilderness from Nova Scotia to the Florida Keys and back to England to supervise the print making and sell subscriptions.
1838 – The Birds of America is finished. What costs approximately $2000 then, recently sold for $11.5 million.
1840’s – Audubon begins work on the Viviparous Quadrupeds, (mammals), but his failing eyesight and senility lead his sons to finish the project. With his fame and fortune he buys 30 acres of Manhattan Island, NYC, where he spends his final days, dying in January 1851.
January 27, 1851 – Audubon passes away with his family at his side on his farm in New York.