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John James Audubon

A closer look at the man for which the National Audubon Society is named. 

(April 26, 1785 – January 27, 1851)

Early Life

Jean-Jacques Audubon was born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) on his father's sugar plantation. He was the illegitimate  son of Lieutenant Jean Audubon, a French naval officer and his mistress Jeanne Rabine, a 27-year-old French chambermaid. They named the boy Jean Rabin. His mother died when the boy was a few months old, as she had suffered from tropical disease since arriving on the island.

The senior Audubon in 1789 sold part of his plantation in Saint-Domingue and purchased a 284-acre farm called Mill Grove, 20 miles from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to diversify his investments. Rising unrest in Saint-Domingue convinced Jean Audubon to return to France. In 1791 he arranged for John to be delivered to him in France.

John was raised in Coueron, near Nantes, France, by Audubon and his wife Anne Moynet Audubon, whom he had married years before. In 1794 they formally adopted John to regularize his legal status. They renamed the boy Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon. When Audubon, at age 18, boarded ship for immigration to the United States in 1803, he changed his name to an anglicized form: John James Audubon.

In France during the chaotic years of the French Revolution and its aftermath, the younger Audubon grew up to be a handsome and gregarious man. He played flute and violin, and learned to ride, fence, and dance. A great walker, he loved roaming in the woods, often returning with natural curiosities, including birds' eggs and nests, of which he made crude drawings. His father planned 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 susceptible to seasickness and not fond of mathematics or navigation. After failing the officer's qualification test, Audubon ended his incipient naval career. He was cheerfully back on solid ground and exploring the fields again, focusing on birds.

 

Coming to America

In 1803, his father obtained a false passport so that Audubon could go to the United States to avoid conscription in the Napoleonic Wars. John James Audubon arrived in the United States at the age of 18. Upon his arrival, he spent a majority of his time roaming the wooded hills along the Perkiomen Creek and the Schuylkill River hunting, observing, collecting and sketching. It was during this period that he experienced early stirrings of a fascination for wildlife that was to become his all-absorbing life interest. Inspired and captivated by his new surroundings, Audubon became a pioneer in portraying birds and other wildlife in natural settings. During his time at Mill Grove he built a substantial base of interest in ornithological art, and his experimentation resulted in the rapid development of his skills as an artist.

While at Mill Grove he made many drawings and performed the first recorded experiment of bird banding in America. He also developed his “wire armature,” a device that gave life to his freshly shot specimens and his drawings of the birds. This unique method of holding his specimens put him years ahead of his contemporaries. Many believe that in spite of the advantages of photography and state-of-the-art technology, no modern bird painter has equaled his achievements.

Making Nature Come Alive

Audubon's place in history was assured by the way in which he forever changed how birds were illustrated. While replicating physical features with uncanny veracity, he incorporated narrative elements and aesthetic touches that not only made birds come alive in their natural environments, but also lifted the images to the status of fine art.

His famous Birds of America stands out as Audubon's crowning achievement. These 453 life-sized paintings of north American birds were remarkable for their accuracy of color and realism. After the publication of Birds of America, Audubon issued a highly successful, smaller 7-volume octavo edition. He also compiled an important work documenting mammals; The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. That collection comprised 150 hand-colored lithographs in 3 volumes.

In addition to his artistic talents, Audubon was a prolific writer. His journals and Bird Biographies documented his observations of the land that he traveled during the first half of the 19th century, as well as the people of the emerging American nation.

The Home and Family

At the age of 20, Audubon gained his father's approval to marry Lucy Bakewell, daughter of William Bakewell, an Englishman who owned Fatland Ford, an estate that adjoined to Mill Grove. After their marriage in 1808, the Audubons moved to Kentucky. Lucy Bakewell was a tower of strength to her husband while he struggled to find his calling. During the time that Audubon traveled about as a portrait painter, music and fencing instructor and eventually, painter of the Birds of America, Lucy remained at home. She raised their two sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse, and worked intermittently as a teacher.

Audubon's Travels

In search of his specimens Audubon would travel extensively throughout the country. He would travel as far north as Laborador, Canada. He spent time in Key West and the everglades region of the south. And he would travel as far west as what was at that time the Dakota Territory.  

Audubon's Legacy

Audubon's influence on ornithology and natural history was far reaching. Nearly all later ornithological works were inspired by his artistry and high standards. Charles Darwin quoted Audubon three times in On the Origin of Species  and also in later works. Despite some errors in field observations, he made a significant contribution to the understanding of bird anatomy and behavior through his field notes. Birds of America is still considered one of the greatest examples of book art. Audubon discovered 25 new species and 12 new subspecies.