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  • Biography

    John James Audubon 1785-1851


    John James Laforest Audubon

    One of America's first wildlife artists, John Audubon has a
    name synonymous with conservation, but his realization about protecting
    the environment came late in his lifetime. He was an avid hunter, who
    killed the specimens depicted in his publications, but his in-depth
    studies have left a strong awareness of the beauties and complexities
    of nature.

    Audubon was born in Santa Domingo, now Haiti, of a
    French Chambermaid mother, Jeanne Rabin, and French father, Jean
    Audubon, who was a successful naval officer, merchant, planter, and
    slave dealer.  They traveled on the same ship to Haiti in October,

    In France, where he was taken at age 4, the young Audubon
    was educated among the upper classes.  By age 15, he was drawing
    French birds, and by age 17, he was studying drawing in Paris.  It
    has been written that he studied in Paris with Jacques-Louis David, a
    story that Audubon allowed to continue, but no credible evidence
    supports this assertion.

    From 1803, while he was in Pennsylvania
    managing his father's estate, and developing a love for the outdoors,
    he began his ventures into ornithology.  In 1820, he made his goal
    the publication of an anthology of bird drawings, and financing his way
    with portraiture, he traveled the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and Great
    Lakes, settling in New Orleans.  Unable to find a publisher for
    his collection in the United States, he succeeded in London where he
    stayed from 1826 to 1831, and found William Lizars and Robert Havell,
    Jr. as engravers.  However, the association with Lizars terminated
    in the first half of 1827.

    By 1839, he had achieved his life-long ambition of finishing his four volume series of life-sized bird portraits, The Birds of America
    The plates were published between 1827 and 1838, and the accompanying
    letterpress titled "Ornithological Biography" was completed finished in
    1839.  This unparalleled study reveals the dynamics of birds
    living in habitats.

    Audubon made several collecting trips back
    to the United States, the first in 1829, during which he repaired his
    damaged relationship with his wife, Lucy.  On his 1831-1832 trip,
    he spent time in Charleston, South Carolina where he met the Reverend
    John Bachman who became a close friend and important ally in helping
    Audubon to establish a reputation as a credible naturalist.  Two
    of Bachman's daughters eventually married Audubon's two sons, Victor
    Gifford Audubon and John Woodhouse Audubon.

    In 1843, he took
    the steamer, Omega, from St. Louis up the Missouri River to Fort Union
    and then went overland to the Yellowstone River, making stops in
    Nebraska in May and October, 1843.  Along the way, he saw birds
    and animals, and he focused on an idea he had begun developing with
    Bachman in 1836, which was to do a series on American mammals. 
    The purpose of this 1843 trip was to gather specimens for painting, and
    dressed in Indian hunting clothes, he returned to St. Louis with live
    deer, badgers and foxes.

    Bachman wrote the text for Audubon's second series, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America,
    which, published in three volumes between 1845-1848, made the
    reputation of the senior Audubon.  His collaborators in this
    project were his two sons, John Woodhouse who did about half of the
    animals depicted in the series, and Victor who did most of the
    backgrounds.  Bachman's sister-in-law, and later his second wife,
    Maria Martin, also assisted in painting the backgrounds and
    plants.  The Letterpress by Bachman was published in three volumes from 1846 to 1854.

    Without doubt the best-known ornithological and zoological artist of all time, John James Laforest Audubon's ambitious and eventually popular "Great Idea" of making and publishing his own drawings of all the birds of North America resulted in the most monumental and perhaps most "American" natural history works ever published. The monumental format of The Birds of North America originated with Audubon's insistence that he depict all known species found on the continent and that each species be shown life-sized. He took the work to England where he could find engravers with the technical and scientific proficiency to translate his paintings into prints. He eventually met Robert Havell and his son Robert, Jr., the latter of whom became the principal collaborator with the artist on the enormous project. Together they achieved the greatest of all bird books and perhaps the highest achievement of ornithological art of all time. Audubon's "imperishable monument, " as the North American Review called it, was the final illustrated bird book to be produced in England by the craft of metal engraving and aquatint.

    Audubon's desire to make his work more affordable and widely available resulted in his production of a miniature publication, the first edition of which was completed in five years (1839-1844) and comprised 1,200 sets. One-eighth the size of the original engravings, the octavo lithographs exhibit a remarkable degree of attention to quality and detail. Using the camera lucida, the images were reduced in size from the originals and then drawn onto lithographic stones. Some compositional changes were made to accommodate the smaller size. Unlike the "double elephant" originals, the octavo lithographs were issued in correct phylogenic order.

    In 1839 Audubon had at last completed all 435 paintings for his seminal Birds of North America. Not one to rest on his laurels, however, and forever in need of money, he almost immediately embarked on a new and even more ambitious project. He decided he would do with mammals what he had just completed with the birds, and with the artistic help of his son John Woodhouse, he initiated the first attempt ever to document and depict all the mammals of North America. Audubon also solicited technical assistance from his close friend, the Reverend John Bachman, an expert on small mammals. Bachman spent 12 years researching and writing descriptions of each species, as well as acting as scientific editor for the entire project.

    Meanwhile, Audubon feverishly worked on the drawings, taking what would become his last field expedition up the Missouri River in the summer of 1843. Ultimately, the artist and his son painted 147 species (plus eight separate "varieties") on 150 plates. In 1846, when it became clear that his father's physical condition was deteriorating, John Woodhouse took over the entire task of painting the mammals. To reproduce the paintings for distribution, Audubon engaged the distinguished Philadelphia printer J. T. Bowen who elected to use the relatively new process of lithography, an excellent medium by which to capture the tactility of the animals' fur.  Each lithograph was hand-painted and shaded by a team of colorists according to the field notes describing the animal. The first plates of the imperial folio were rushed to the printer at the end of 1842 and three completed volumes were published in 1845, 1846, and 1848.

    Refs.: John James Audubon and the Rev. John Bachman, The Imperial Collection of Audubon Animals: The Quadrupeds of North America, edited and with new text by Victor H. Cahalane (1967); Susanne M. Low, A Guide to Audubon's Birds of America (2002); Ron Tyler, Audubon's Great National Work (1993).

    John James Audubon is best known for his ornithological magnum opus, The Birds of America; from Original Drawings. Published between 1827-38 in an edition of around 200, The Birds of America represents the culmination of Audubon's life work as a naturalist-artist, depicting in 435 plates every bird species from North America. In order to feature the birds as life-size, Audubon insisted that the engravings were printed on "double-elephant" broadsheets measuring 39 ½ x 26 ½", about twice the size of the drawing paper on which he made the original watercolor studies.

    Audubon's path to becoming the world's greatest bird painter was circuitous, if not serendipitous. Born in 1785 in Les Cayes, Santo Domingo, the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and his Creole mistress, Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon grew up in Nantes, France. It was here that he developed his passion for birds, collecting countryside specimens that he would stuff, display, and illustrate. To prevent his son's conscription in the Napoleonic Wars, Jean Audubon sent him in 1803 to a farm he had recently purchased outside of Philadelphia, where young Audubon (having anglicized his name to John James) preferred collecting birds to running the family's mining business. Five years later, Audubon and his Pennsylvania bride, Lucy Bakewell, settled in Kentucky, and he cobbled together jobs as a merchant, miller, and portrait painter. All some time, he feverishly studied and rendered birds, creating a system of suspending specimens from wires as a means of simulating lifelike poses. His discovery of new bird species on trips during the early 1820s through Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida convinced him to compile an illustrated book of native birds, despite his flimsy fortune and Lucy's hardship as the family breadwinner.

    Unable to find a publisher in Philadelphia for his proposed book of bird drawings, Audubon traveled to England and Scotland in 1826 in search of support. Abroad, he met luminaries in the scientific community, including the botanist William Roscoe, who helped him exhibit his drawings in Manchester; the ornithologist William Swainson; the naturalist William MacGillivray, who later edited the text for The Birds of America; and William Home Lizars, an engraver in Edinburgh who, impressed by Audubon's work, agreed to print the massive folio. However, when Lizars was only able to complete the first ten plates, Audubon approached the established London engraver Robert Havell, who together with his son Robert, Jr., took up the project. Ultimately, The Birds of America was issued serially in five-plate sets, for a total of 435 plates, over the course of a decade.

    John James Audubon

    Born: Les Cayes, Haiti 1785

    Died: New York City 1851

    Important bird and quadruped painter, naturalist, work in "Birds of America," "Quadrupeds of North America"

    Audubon's father was a ship captain successful as merchant, planter, and slave dealer in Haiti while his wife remained in France. Audubon's mother was a Creole slave. Brought to France at four, Audubon was legitimatized and educated among the well-to-do. At 15 he was drawing French birds, and at 17 studied drawing with David in Paris. In 1803, Audubon was sent to Pennsylvania to manage his father's estate, a sportsman in pumps, beginning his ventures into ornithology. From 1807 to 1819 he engaged in a series of failing businesses on the Kentucky frontier. When he was jailed for debt, bankruptcy left him only his clothes, his gun, and his drawings of birds. After a short stay as taxidermist at the Cincinnati museum 1819-20, he set his goals on publishing his bird drawings. While Mrs. Audubon supported the family, he traveled the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and the Great Lakes, exploring for birds. Unable to find a publisher in Philadelphia in 1824, Audubon went to Liverpool, Edinburgh, and London 1826-27 where William Lizars and Robert Havell, Jr. were his engravers. The original drawings of more than 1,000 birds were in mixed media, watercolor, pencil, pens, and pastel to accomplish the various effects desired, but when he paid his way with copies were in oil, Audubon returned to the US in 1831 as its foremost naturalist.

    In 1837, Audubon was granted a navel cutter to explore the coastline from New Orleans to Galveston where he spent three weeks. In Houston, he met with Gen. Houston at the time of the celebration of Texas independence, but found no new bird species. In 1843, Audubon went up to Missouri to Fort Union and made an overland trip along the Yellowstone, seeing birds where Carlin had seen Indians. He returned in Indian hunting dress with live deer, badgers, and foxes in addition to his portfolios and collected artifacts. His later years were spent at his Hudson River estate.


    James Audubon's entire career was devoted to preserving images of
    rapidly declining species of birds and wild animals in watercolor and

    Audubon was born in Santa Domingo (now Haiti) to a French
    naval officer and his Creole mistress.  He was raised in France during
    the French Revolution.  In 1803, Audubon fled with his father to the
    United States because Napoleon was seeking soldiers for his army.

    he studied with Jacques-Louis David (France) and John Stein in Natchez,
    Mississippi, Audubon was largely self-taught as an artist and a
    scientist.  Audubon soon became enthralled with every bird in North
    America, and he traveled extensively up and down the Ohio and
    Mississippi River basins and as far south as the Florida Keys to study
    birds and to produce watercolors in preparation for The Birds of

    From 1819-1839, the ornithologist Audubon catalogued
    as many species as he could and his notes and paintings are represented
    in the now-famous John James Audubon: The Watercolors for the Birds of

    The artist, naturalist, explorer, publisher was also
    an entrepreneur, writer and an active, vocal environmentalist.  He
    realistically and enthusiastically painted wildlife (especially birds)
    in flying or grounded positions with detailed accuracy and preserved in
    paint many now-extinct birds for future generations to study and

    After 1826, Audubon went to Great Britain to raise
    subscription money and find engravers and publishers for Birds of
    , published eventually from 1828-1838 with the help of Scottish
    engraver William Home Lizars (the early part of the series) and English
    engraver-publisher Robert Havell, Jr.

    From 1831-1832, Audubon
    returned to Florida to paint more birds.  From 1845-1848, the series Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America was published and made the
    reputation of this naturalist