A History of John James Audubon
of New-York Historical Society
From the final years of the eighteenth century until the first half
of the nineteenth century lived a man of nature by the name of John James Audubon.
His life was filled with romance, hardship, idealism, persistence and an unusually strong
sense of purpose. During his lifetime, Audubon took in the sights of places
surrounding the Atlantic, Caribbean, France, United States and England. Although at
times he suffered from adversity and disappointment, he was fortunate to obtain financial
well-being, distinguished artistic achievement and public acclaim from both sides of the
Atlantic, albeit delayed in his adopted homeland. John James Audubon even today
continues to be the most celebrated American bird painter. His well deserved fame
remains firmly established in his extraordinary book, Birds of America.
Birth and Early Years
On April 26th, 1785, John James Audubon was born illegitimate in Les
Cayes on the southern coast of what is now Haiti. He was the son of Lieutenant Jean
Audubon, a French naval officer with a plantation on the island and Mademoiselle Jeanne
Rabin, a French Creole woman. John James Audubon's mother died before he reached the
age of seven months on November 10th, 1785. However, in August, 1790, when
Lieutenant Audubon returned home to Nantes, France, his wife accepted John James as her
Young Audubon observed all of nature but was keenly interested in
the birds. At the family villa in Coueron, near Nantes, France, he began to
draw birds he watched in the ponds, meadows, hedges and woods. The era he lived in
did play a part in sparking this interest he had for birds. The writings of people
such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott and Daniel Boone all
encouraged the idea of "the natural man in the natural world."
Audubon had little education. He lacked formal training in
speaking or writing either French or English. Private lessons, though, were given to
him in mathematics, geography, music and fencing. Around the year 1805 at Coueron,
Aububon made his earliest drawings of life-size birds drawn with crayon and
Coming to America
In 1803, he found himself on his father's farm on Mill Grove, near
Philadelphia. The reasons for this move are varied. At the time, Napoleon was
in control of France. The First Consul's agents were seeking conscripts for the
army. Jean Audubon may have wanted to keep his son from the army or spare him the
mark of illegitimacy. Either way, John James was now in Mill Grove. Here is
where he began his studies of the American bird life. Although he would shoot the
birds for sport, he also shot them in order to paint their features.
However, Audubon was not sent to America to become a
naturalist. His father sent him there to superintend and develop the lead mines of
Mill Grove. Both he and his business associate lacked the necessary talents in the
business world. Hence, Audubon had to put forth much effort to try to learn and
succeed at his trade duties. He found himself torn between the wish of his father
and his hobby of drawing birds.
Audubon early realized that drawing birds from stuffed specimens
produced stiff paintings, lifeless and dull. So he proceeded to use inserted wires
to display his models in natural positions. This process enabled him to add drama,
life, and vigor to his paintings.
John James experienced much joy at Mill Grove. He was able to
awaken, fashion and pursue his artistic talents. It was also at Mill Grove where he
met his future wife, Lucy Bakewell. Despite this happiness, though, due to his lack
of business skills, he not only lost his job but also his home.
His Move West
In search of new income, Audubon and Ferdinand Rozier, his business
associate, started off for the West. They traveled over the Allegheny Mountains to
Pittsburgh in a stagecoach and then down the Ohio River in a flatboat to Maysville,
Kentucky. Having traveled a thousand miles, they found themselves in
Audubon and Rozier decided to make Louisville the home of their
newly established store. Audubon's more ambitious and enterprising partner, ran the
store while Audubon continued painting. By the year 1810, his portfolio contained
over two hundred paintings of American birds. These were all life-size, usually in
pastel with watercolors depicting the eyes, bill and feet.
In the spring of 1808, Audubon returned to Mill Grove and married
Lucy Bakewell on April 5th. The day after their marriage they began their journey
together to Louisville. They lived in the Indian Queen, an inn on the Ohio
River. This was the birthplace of their son, Victor Gifford Audubon, on June 6th,
While in Louisville, Alexander Wilson, the father of American
ornithology, influenced Audubon. Wilson was a Scotsman who traveled to the United
States around 1794. He was encouraged by his friend and
William Bartram, to study and draw birds. Chiefly on foot, Wilson searched the East,
the Ohio and Mississippi valley frontier and the Deep South for material found in his work
American Ornithology. During this time he discovered thirty-nine species of
American birds, all of which are described by the biographies of the birds and pictorial
detail in his book. Audubon shared his paintings that demonstrated the grace and
power of avian movement to Wilson. Audubon's paintings were a combination of
romantic verve and classical monumentality while Wilson's drawings were more factual and
useful. Regardless of the different style these two artists possessed, Wilson's
book suggested that it was possible to publish a book featuring Audubon's own artistic
The population and business activity in Louisville was growing
because of the increased westward migration. Nevertheless, Audubon and Rozier did
not profit in their business. They decided that the business had a chance to profit
if they moved one hundred and twenty-five miles down the river to Henderson,
Kentucky. The move did not change the management of the business. Rozier still
looked after the store while Audubon hunted and fished in the woods.
This was not the final move for the two business partners,
though. After about six months, they moved down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to a
French settlement in Missouri called Ste.-Genevieve. Audubon sold his interest in
the business to Rozier in April 1811. Rozier enjoyed much profit in this area until
his death in the year 1864.
It can be said that the decade between 1811 and 1820 was a very
difficult on in the life of Audubon. He did not succeed in his second business
interest. The inheritance of his wife was used on ventures that did not last.
A partnership with his brother-in-law, Thomas Woodhouse Bakewell, was started in New
Orleans to carry on trade with England. However, this partnership failed when the
War of 1812 began. The last of Audubon's funds was used at a sawmill and
gristmill in Henderson, Kentucky. In 1819, Audubon found himself jailed due to
enormous debts. He realized that his business failures followed by his bankruptcy
cost him both money and friends.
Audubon's main comfort was his family. His wife, Lucy,
understood his passion in recording the birds of America. Therefore, she was
consistent in her support and encouragement even though this meant risking her inheritance
and her family's favor, not to mention having to deal with the long absences of Audubon
when he was working in the wilderness. Perhaps she continued supporting him because
she was able to experience firsthand the stories of his creative work and the enjoyment
apparent in his eyes. Whatever the reason, she along with their two sons, Victor
Gifford and John Woodhouse, were the source of Audubon's comfort.
Aware of the responsibility to provide for his household, Audubon
returned to Louisville in 1819 and began using crayon to draw commissioned portraits of
sitters. Though there was a demand for this work, he did not abandon his passion of
drawing birds. Audubon continued creating portraits in order to support his family
until he sailed to England in 1826.
Beginnings of The Birds of America
Audubon was now thinking of publishing his own portfolio, ten years
after meeting Alexander Wilson. This portfolio would include all the North American
birds, life-size and how they are found in their natural surroundings. He did not
yet have enough material, though, to accomplish this task. So he planned an
extensive trip that would take him down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans,
east to the Florida Keys and then to Cincinnati by way of Arkansas and Hot Springs.
This trip would enable him to search for new bird specimens that he would shoot, dissect
and draw. During the trip he would also study the habitat and vegetation in order
to include text with his drawings.
The 1820 Trip
Accompanied by a thirteen year old student of his, Joseph Mason,
Audubon sailed on a flatboat from Cincinnati on October 12, 1820. Mason would grow
to be one of Audubon's most important associates in the making of the Birds of
America. Of the four hundred and thirty-five paintings, Joseph Mason painted
the floral backgrounds in over fifty of these. Audubon met Lucy's brother-in-law on
Christmas Day, 1820 when their flatboat reached Natchez, Mississippi. He invited
Audubon to join him in the trip to New Orleans on his keelboat. They reached
New Orleans on January 7, 1821. Having no money for lodging, Audubon used his
talents of producing portraits to support himself. The journey to New Orleans turned
out to be unsuccessful as Audubon spent little time producing portraits or working
on the Birds of America project.
Audubon came across James Pirrie, a prosperous cotton planter of
Feliciana Parish, on his travels to the north. From June, 1821 to October of the
same year, Audubon served as the tutor for Pirrie's daughter, Eliza, in drawing, music and
dancing. Finding the region of Feliciana Parish filled with fauna and flora, he
spent spare moments portraying the birds there. This five month period was most
favorable for both Audubon and Mason, his student. During this time, Mason unveils
his expertise in painting a realistic setting for the birds while Audubon demonstrated his
talents in producing the color, design and drama of the birds.
After the five months in Feliciana Parish, Audubon and Mason
returned to New Orleans. Upon his return, Audubon recruited students for drawing
lessons and started the task of arranging, correcting and revising the notes that would
supplement the birds. By the time he left Cincinnati, he finished sixty-two
drawings of birds and plants along with about fifty portraits. Even though he sent
money home to his wife in Kentucky, Audubon suffered from a feeling of emptiness. He
missed his wife and sons and the negative comments received from others hurt his sense of
well-being and purpose.
December of 1821 brought the reunion of Audubon and his
family. Lucy was able to obtain work as a nurse to further provide for the family's
needs. Although Audubon was happy with this reunion, he was bothered by his own
position financially. Therefore, he soon made up his mind to seek financial
stability in Natchez where he would teach French, music and drawing in a school.
With this added work, he was unable to progress in the production of his book.
Confusion, bankruptcy and aimlessness are words that can be used to
describe Audubon's life between the years of 1821 and 1824. His personality was
filled with vanity and he possessed a heavy ill-temper and ingratitude in his dealings
with others. He did not fit the world of a charismatic artist.
Philadelphia in 1824
Audubon returned to Philadelphia in the spring of 1824. A main
contribution to this troublesome visit was his arrogance and quarrelsome
temperament. There in Philadelphia, Audubon met Charles Lucien Bonaparte, the
twenty-one year old son of Napoleon Bonaparte's brother, Lucien. Charles Lucien
arrived in the United States with his Uncle Joseph, Spain's former King, who settled in
Philadelphia. A distinguished naturalist, Charles Lucien published one hundred birds
that were not earlier discovered in his work American Ornithology Not Given by Wilson.
His kindness not only imparted him to introduce Audubon to the members of the Academy of
Natural Sciences, but also made arrangements for an exhibit of Audubon's drawings at the
Academy. Nevertheless, Audubon succeeded in making three enemies. Titian R.
Peale, the primary illustrator of Bonaparte's book, was proud that his portraits were not
drawn from stuffed specimens. Despite Peale's close connection with Bonaparte,
Audubon did not hide his disdain of Peale's drawings. Another enemy was the engraver
of Wilson's book, Alexander Lawson. Now preparing the plates for Bonaparte's book,
Lawson revealed his disdain for Audubon's work saying that his drawings were not fit for
engraving and were not realistic. Lastly, Wilson's friend, biographer and editor of
the final two volumes of his work, George Ord, became Audubon's foe. Ord did not
welcome a competitor, especially one that could lessen the success and significance of his
own work. It came as no surprise when Audubon praised his drawings over those of
Wilson's, while Ord criticized the habit Audubon had of encircling his birds with forms of
embellishment such as plants or tree branches.
Audubon received clear hints that no one in Philadelphia would
publish his book. However, he was well received by Edward Harris, a wealthy man
from Morristown, New Jersey. Harris not only bought some drawings of Audubon, but he
also joined him on the expedition to Florida in 1837. Audubon likewise leaned toward
a trip to Europe as Bonaparte suggested that he would be able to publish his drawings
Off to England
On May 17, 1826, Audubon began his sail from New Orleans to
Liverpool, England equipped with letters of introduction. He was quickly befriended
by Richard Rathbone upon his arrival on July 21st. Audubon was fortunate to be
looked after by Rathbone, whose family was prominent in banking and business.
Rathbone took the opportunity to introduce Audubon to community leaders. Besides
this, he also arranged for an exhibition at the Royal Institution for two hundred and
twenty-five of Audubon's drawings. Prominent citizens expressed their
adulation for Audubon's achievements, making this exhibition a great accomplishment.
Unlike Philadelphia, Audubon's visit to England served to upbuild his sense of purpose and
well-being due to the warm public reception and praise given to him.
Audubon's strong desire to paint the birds of North America
remained. He was overwhelmed by the reception he received in Liverpool since the
lack of appreciation elsewhere had contributed to much uncertainty. Audubon once
remarked, "My poor heart is at last relieved...for I now know that I have not worked
Now focusing on the chore of publishing his work, Audubon was as
energetic as he was when painting the birds. Potential publishers and subscribers in
Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh, reviewed the prospects of printing his life-sized
paintings. Originally, he desired to print four hundred paintings in eighty parts
consisting of five parts each. The fee for this would be two guineas per part.
Each plate would be made of one full page, two medium and two small illustrations.
Four hundred and thirty-five illustrations in eighty-seven parts completed the contents of
the final work. Subscriber fees would meet the amount of the engraver's
Edinburgh engraver, William Lizars, finished the printing of the
first group of plates in February 1827. These five paintings were the Wild Turkey,
the Prothonotary Warbler, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, the Purple Finch and the Canada
Warbler. The Wild Turkey now enjoys the recognition of being Audubon's most famous
plate. Audubon was able to give his subscribers a pick of diverse and colorful birds
and backgrounds which were masterfully enhanced by Joseph Mason's artistic
In order to publicize the publication of Birds of America,
Audubon traveled to London, a place where international culture, finance and politics came
His Relationship with Havell Begins
Once in London, Audubon was disappointed to hear from William Lizars
that the production of Birds of America had come to a stand still due to a strike
of the colorists in Edinburgh. Besides the fact that this strike delayed the
printing schedule, it also decreased the needed income from the subscribers' fees, which
was to cover the cost of underwriting the project. To Audubon's delight, he came
into contact with Robert Havell, Jr., whose family owned The Zoological Gallery in Newman
Street, London. Among other things, such as artists' supplies and books of
natural history, The Zoological Gallery more importantly sold engravings. Havell
quickly became indispensable to Audubon in the production of Birds of America.
Without a doubt, Havell's impressive engravings was a strong foundation for the
distinguished reputation that Audubon later earned.
Although Audubon and Havell became good friends, his services were
not taken for granted by Audubon. In order to cover all the expenses, Audubon took
on the job of a diligent salesman, promoting his work to potential subscribers. He
also painted portraits regularly as he had before to cover the different costs that
Success in Paris
To further advance the interests in Birds of America,
Audubon traveled to Paris in September 1828, meeting and introducing his paintings to the
distinguished class. He was favorably received at the Museum of Natural
History by Baron Georges Leopold Cuvier, naturalist and paleontologist. Audubon was
able to display his works before members of the Academie Royale des Sciences which was
made possible by Cuvier. To say the least, Audubon was overwhelmed by the favorable
expressions of this talented group of men.
Audubon even succeeded in having a nobleman as a subscriber.
This was the Duc d'Orleans, who later became King Louis Phillipe, along with the
Duchess. Pierre-Joseph Redoute, renowned flower painter, arranged this presentation
of Audubon's portfolio. As can be seen, Audubon was able to come into contact with
the right people in his endeavor to promote his work. His stay in Paris ended with
the total recruitment of fourteen new subscribers.
Loneliness was now creeping up on Audubon. Upon his return to
London, he longed for the company and comfort of his loving family. Due to this
strong desire, Audubon began preparations to rejoin his family by sailing to New York in
April, 1829. John George Children , a member of the zoology department of the
British Museum and the secretary of the Royal Society, was put in charge by Audubon to
supervise the business. It turns out that this was a good choice on the part of
Audubon as Children proved to be one of the best advocates for him among London's upper
Although the reunion with Lucy and visiting friends was the priority
of his trip, Audubon also took the opportunity to gather new material. Not only did
he wish to shoot and preserve the skins of many birds, but he also wished to make
revisions to a portion of his earlier paintings. The Lyceum of Natural History in
New York agreed to show an exhibition of Audubon's paintings. Audubon also made it a
point to visit Philadelphia in order to see Dr. Richard Harlan, naturalist and author of Fauna
Americana, and Thomas Sullly, esteemed portrait painter. Then traveling to
Camden, New Jersey, the Delaware River was chosen as Audubon's place to hunt, study, and
paint the avifauna. Great Egg Harbor was the setting for several of the original
drawings of the plates of Birds of America: the Vestor Sparrow, Ovenbird,
Yellow-breasted Chat, Acadian Flycatcher, Rough-legged Hawk and Warbling Vireo. Two
months were next spent in the Great Pine Swamp in Pennsylvania where Audubon collected and
drew many small land birds that resided there. Audubon did not forsake the birds
living in the woods near Feliciana. He took the time to draw them when he was again
reunited with his wife.
New Year's Day of 1830 found the Audubons aboard a steamboat that
was bound for Louisville. The purpose of this journey was to spend a few months with
Lucy's relatives. These months also afforded Audubon the chance to stuff birds
surrounding the falls of the Ohio River. Their next journey together was to
Washington, D.C., where they met Edward Everett, leader of the House of
Representatives. Everett arranged for the drawings and plates of Audubon to be
presented before the members of Congress. He also arranged for the Library of
Congress to become a new subscriber to Birds of America. During
this occasion, the Audubons also had the privilege of being entertained by President
On April 1, 1830, the Audubons sailed for Liverpool as the business
in London now required personal attention from Audubon. While Lucy remained in
Liverpool with her sister, Audubon traveled on into London. There he was told that
his journey to the United States had cost him some subscribers, which presented the need
to paint pictures and enroll new subscribers again. However, while he was away,
Audubon was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Since this was the most prominent
British learned Society, he was no doubt pleased to hear this good news.
Audubon enlisted the editorial assistance for the text of Birds
of America as his writing skills were minimal. This assistance came from
William MacGillivray who later published the five volume History of British Birds.
The winter of 1830 to 1831 was spent writing the text together.
The financial expenses of printing were carried by Audubon
himself. Although he acquired much success with his first published volume, Audubon
was still very concerned about the financial aspect of the work. For this reason, he
turned towards the United States. His goal would be to recruit new subscribers along
with the collection of more birds.
Edward Everett, his Washington connection, once again helped Audubon
upon his return to the United States. Public exhibitions both in the Library of
Congress and in the Boston Athenaeum were arranged by Everett. He also arranged for
the nomination of Audubon for a fellowship in the American Academy of Arts and
Sciences. Audubon's stay in the United States was very victorious as he finally won
the praise of critics, acknowledging his artistic talents.
Between 1831 and 1834, Audubon was involved in new travels,
searching for additional specimens. His first journey brought him to Charleston,
South Carolina. Accompanying him were George Lehman, who painted many of Audubon's
backgrounds, and Henry Ward, an English taxidermist. A Lutheran minister of
Charleston, Reverend John Bachman, turned his house into Audubon's headquarters.
Maria Martin, Bachman's sister-in-law, later began to paint backgrounds for Audubon's
birds. Another interesting fact between Bachman and Audubon was that Audubon's sons
married the preachers two daughters. The relationship that these two men shared
turned out to be one of the most valuable friendships Audubon experienced.
Leaving Charleston, Audubon commenced an expedition along the east
coast of Florida, beginning with St. Augustine. From here, his journey led him up
the St. John's River to the islands between St. Augustine and Key West. In his
mission for new specimens, Audubon would shoot a minimum of a hundred birds each
day. This particular expedition afforded him the opportunity to draw the Great White
Heron. In this print, George Lehman reproduced the town of Key West for the
background. Lehman and Audubon other associate, Henry Ward, were both dismissed at
the end of the Florida journey.
Audubon returned to Philadelphia where his family was still living
in the spring of 1832. With the dismissal of Audubon's two associates, he enlisted
the help of his two sons in his growing business. Victor would travel to London to
address financial details and overlook the engraving and coloring of the plates.
John would travel with his father on expeditions to assist in collecting and drawing both
birds and their backgrounds.
The one hundred and eighty subscribers in the beginning of 1833 all
expected to receive a total of four hundred plates over the course of seven or eight
years. Therefore, Robert Havell had to continually be supplied with new drawings so
that no interruption would occur in the income secured from the subscribers. Due to
this demand, Audubon spent another year in the United States in order to collect new
material. The summer of 1833 was spent studying breeding habits of the water birds,
making twenty-three drawings and collecting around two hundred birds and a small amount of
mammals. Although in Audubon's seventeen hour work day he hoped to discover new
species on this trip, he was not able to find new ones.
Audubon next traveled to Charleston, South Carolina again and
visited with John Bachman. Since the mid-eighteenth century, Charleston was abundant
in the study of natural history and Bachman knew all of the active physicians and
naturalists involved. Bachman introduced Audubon to them and he was able to receive
much support for his efforts. Audubon's gratitude for their kindness led him to
embellish the Long-billed Curlew plate with a few of both Charleston and Fort Sumter.
The planning of volumes three and four were now in Audubon's mind
upon his return to London in May 1834. William MacGillivray once again helped with
the text in these volumes. The Ornithological Biography was published in
December of 1835. With the publication came Audubon's announcement to publish the
last of his work along with the final volume of text by the end of 1838.
Another journey to the southern and western sections of the United
States was taken by Audubon and his son John. They arrived in New York in September
1836 as they now concentrated on finding new specimens. Audubon heard that John Kirk
Townsend of Philadelphia and Thomas Nuttall, ornithologist of Harvard University,
discovered new birds and had sent these new specimens to the Philadelphia Academy of
Natural Sciences. The Academy only allowed for Audubon to have a brief view of
these birds which did not give sufficient time for him to inspect and draw these new
species. However, Audubon did meet Nuttall in his trip to Boston. Nuttall
respected his interests and decided to sell Audubon ninety-three duplicate specimens
retrieved from the regions of the Rocky Mountains and Columbia River. Audubon was
ecstatic with this offer and included a number of these duplicates in his work.
Audubon, accompanied by Edward Harris and Audubon's son John, set
out on a journey to Galveston Bay. Protection was given to the three of them since
the Republic of Texas had just recently won its independence from Mexico. Although
no new species were discovered, Audubon was able to see many different birds on this
expedition of Galveston Island.
The dream that Audubon had envisioned of the publication of his book
was now fulfilled on June 20th, 1838. Now fifty-four years of age, the completion of
his fifth volume freed Audubon from the responsibilities linked to this project, therefore
enabling him to return to the United States. The return back home did not stop him
from working, though. Audubon started work on miniature editions of Birds of
America and The Quadrupeds of America. The total cost of this work was
one hundred dollars which was about one-tenth what was charged for his other work.
Now that Audubon had received enough income from all of his hard
work, he bought thirty-five acres of land of what is presently known as Washington Heights
in New York City. He worked on illustrating the Quadrupeds here and this is
also the house where he set out on an exploration of the Missouri and Yellowstone
Following 1847, Audubon no longer had the ability to draw or
paint. The Quadrupeds project had to be completed by his son Victor.
With deteriorating mind and health, Audubon died on January 27, 1851.
Different aspects involved in Audubon's work show many qualities to
admire. For example, unlike others, the financial expenses of Audubon were never
taken care of by the federal government, state agency or other foundations.
Audubon's entire financial burden was carried by himself and the family of his wife,
Lucy. Although some uncertainties went along with keeping the burden within the
family, doing this also made Audubon's achievements more rewarding and permanent.
Today, bird illustrators have many easy ways to access the
information needed for them to draw accurate paintings. They enjoy the comfort that
travel can bring, sophisticated optical equipment and a numerous amount of publications
dealing with the natural world. Looking at Audubon's work, many are amazed that he
did this with only his legs, eyes and a gun at his disposal.
Another aspect deserving admiration was that up until the nineteenth
century, Audubon's book was the largest and most expensive that was published. Since
all of his paintings were made life-size, this took much creativeness on his part to
accomplish the production of such a different style.
Audubon's paintings are not only filled with such vitality and
beauty, but they are also informative. He added information including what birds
eat, their behavior, habits, where they live and how they breed. This detailed
information along with the extraordinary paintings make Audubon's work both factual and
visually pleasing to the eye. This goal is something to be reached by all students
of the natural world. Whether students or just observers, the work of John James
Audubon is a legacy that will continue to be enjoyed by all.
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