John James Audubon (April 26, 1785 – January 27, 1851) was a French-American ornithologist, naturalist, hunter, and painter. He painted, catalogued, and described the birds of North America in a manner far superior to what had gone before. Born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and raised in France as a youth, in his embrace of America and his outsize personality and achievements, he represented the new American people of the United States.
Audubon was born in the Les Cayes in the French colony of Saint-Domingue on his father’s sugar plantation. He was the illegitimate son of Lieutenant Jean Audubon, a French naval officer (and privateer), and his mistress Jeanne Rabin, a chambermaid recently arrived from France. They named the boy Jean Rabin. His mother died when the boy was a few months old, as she had suffered from tropical diseases since arriving on the island. His father already had two mixed-race children by his mulatto housekeeper, Sanitte, and he took up with her again and had another daughter following Jeanne Rabin’s death. Sanitte also took care of the infant boy Jean.
During the American Revolution, Jean Audubon was imprisoned by the British Empire. After his release, he helped the American cause. A slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue in 1788 convinced Jean Audubon to sell his holdings and return to France with his French son and infant mixed-race daughter, who was very fair (she was the daughter of Sanitte).
The boy was raised by his father and stepmother Anne Moynet Audubon in Nantes, France, who formally adopted both the children in 1794. 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.
From his earliest days, Audubon had an affinity for birds. “I felt an intimacy with them…bordering on frenzy [that] 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 years of the French Revolution and its aftermath, Audubon grew up to be a handsome and gregarious young man. He played flute and violin, and 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 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.
Immigration to the United States
In 1803, his father obtained a false passport so that Audubon could go to the United States to avoid conscription in the Napoleonic Wars. Jean Audubon and Claude Rozier arranged a business partnership between their sons to pursue in Pennsylvania. It was based on Claude Rozier’s buying half of Jean Audubon’s share of a plantation in Haiti, and lending money to the partnership as secured by half interest in the lead mining at Mill Grove in Pennsylvania.
Audubon caught yellow fever upon arrival in New York City. The ship’s captain placed him in a boarding house run by Quaker women. They nursed Audubon to recovery and taught him English, including the Quaker form of using “thee” and “thou”, otherwise then anachronistic. He traveled with the family’s Quaker lawyer to the Audubon family farm Mill Grove, near Philadelphia. The 284-acre (1.15 km2) homestead, bought with proceeds from the sale of his father’s sugar plantation, is located on the Perkiomen Creek a few miles from Valley Forge.
Audubon lived with the tenants in what he considered a 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 wrote, “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 the lead mines on the property could be commercially developed, as lead was an essential component of bullets. This could provide his son with a profitable occupation. Audubon met his neighbor William Bakewell, the owner of the nearby estate “Fatland Ford”, whose daughter Lucy he married five years later. The two young people shared many common interests, and early on began to spend time together, exploring the natural world around them.
Plate 41 of Birds of America by John James Audubon depicting Ruffed Grouse
Audubon set about to study American birds with the goal of illustrating his findings in a more realistic manner than most artists did then. 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. After an accidental fall into a creek, Audubon contracted a severe fever. He was nursed and recovered at Fatland Ford, with Lucy at his side. Risking conscription in France, Audubon returned in 1805 to see his father and ask permission to marry. He also needed to discuss family business plans. While there, he met the naturalist and physician Charles-Marie D’Orbigny, who improved Audubon’s taxidermy skills and taught him scientific methods of research. Although his return ship was overtaken by an English privateer, Audubon and his hidden gold coins survived the encounter.
Audubon resumed his bird studies and created his own nature museum, perhaps inspired by the great museum of natural history created by Charles Willson Peale in Philadelphia. Peale’s 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 proficient at specimen preparation and taxidermy.
With his father’s approval, Audubon sold part of the Mill Grove farm, including the house and mine, as they deemed the mining venture too risky. He retained some land for investment. He went to New York to learn the import-export trade, hoping to find a business to support his marriage to Lucy. The protective Mr. Bakewell wanted to see the young Frenchman established in a solid career before releasing his daughter to him.
Starting out in business
Carolina Pigeon, (now called Mourning Dove)
The business partnership between Audubon and Ferdinand Rozier was moved west at various stages, ending ultimately in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, the first European settlement west of the Mississippi River. Shipping goods ahead, Audubon and Rozier started a general store in Louisville, Kentucky; on the Ohio River, it was the most important port between Pittsburgh and New Orleans. Soon he was drawing bird specimens again. He regularly burned earlier efforts to force continuous improvement. He also took detailed field notes to document his drawings. Because rising tensions with the British resulted in President Jefferson’s embargo of British trade, Audubon’s business was not thriving. In 1810, Audubon moved his business to the less competitive Henderson, Kentucky area. He and his new wife Lucy took over an abandoned log cabin. In the fields and forests, Audubon wore typical frontier clothes and moccasins “and a ball pouch, a buffalo horn filled with gunpowder, a butcher knife, and a tomahawk on his belt.”
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.” Audubon had great respect for native Americans: “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 admired the skill of Kentucky riflemen and the “regulators”, citizen lawmen who created a kind of justice on the Kentucky frontier. In his travel notes, he claims to have encountered Daniel Boone.
Audubon and Ferdinand Rozier ended their partnership at Ste. Genevieve on April 6, 1811 when Audubon decided to work at ornithology and art, as well as to return to Lucy. The partnership dissolved by mutual agreement, Ferdinand agreed to pay Audubon $3,000 (equivalent to ~$120,000 in 2010 dollars), with $1,000 in cash and the balance to be paid to Audubon over time.
Audubon witnessed the 1812 New Madrid earthquake while out riding, which was among the most severe to strike the mid-continent. When Audubon arrived home, he was relieved to find no major damage, but the area was shaken by aftershocks for months. Again while on horseback, he encountered his first tornado, thinking it was another earthquake. Ever the naturalist, he described how its “horrible noise resembled the roar of Niagara.” He noted that as the tornado retreated, “the air was filled with an extremely disagreeable sulphurous odor.”
Marriage and family
In 1808, six months after arriving in Kentucky, Audubon married Lucy Bakewell. Though their finances were tenuous, the Audubons started a family. They had two sons: Victor Gifford (1809-1860) and John Woodhouse Audubon (1812-1862); and two daughters who died while young: Lucy at two years (1815–1817) and Rose at nine months (1819–1820). Both sons would help publish their father’s works. John W. Audubon became a naturalist, writer and painter in his own right.
Citizenship and debt
During a visit to Philadelphia in 1812, following Congress’ declaration of war with Great Britain, Audubon gave up his French citizenship to become an American citizen. After his return to Kentucky, he found that rats had eaten his entire collection of more than 200 drawings. After weeks of depression, 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. 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. Audubon bought land and slaves, founded a flour mill, and enjoyed his growing family. After 1819, Audubon went bankrupt and was thrown into jail for debt. The little money he earned 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.”
Early ornithological career
Audubon, Golden Eagle, 1833-4
After a short stay in Cincinnati to work as a naturalist and taxidermist at a museum, Audubon with his gun, paintbox, and assistant Joseph Mason, traveled south on the Mississippi. He was committed 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. Though he could not afford to buy Wilson’s work, Audubon used it to guide him when he had access to a copy.
On October 12, 1820, Audubon started into Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida in search of ornithological specimens. He traveled with George Lehman, a professional Swiss landscape artist. The following summer, he moved upriver to the Oakley Plantation in the Felicianas, where he taught drawing to Eliza Pirrie, the young daughter of the owners. Though low paying, the job was ideal, as it afforded him much time to roam and paint in the woods. (Located at 11788 Highway 965, between Jackson and St. Francisville, the plantation is now the Audubon State Historic Site.) Audubon called his future work Birds of America. He attempted to paint one page each day. Painting with newly discovered technique, he decided his earlier works were inferior and re-did them. He hired hunters to gather specimens for him. Audubon realized the ambitious project would take him away from his family for months at a time.
Audubon sometimes used his drawing talent to trade for goods or sell small works to raise cash. He made charcoal portraits on demand at $5 each and gave drawing lessons. In 1823 Audubon took lessons in oil painting technique from John Steen, a teacher of American landscape, and history painter Thomas Cole. Though he did not use oils much for his bird work, Audubon earned good money painting oil portraits for patrons along the Mississippi. (Audubon’s account reveals that he learned oil painting in December 1822 from Jacob Stein, an itinerant portrait artist, and after they had enjoyed all the portrait patronage to be expected in Natchez, Mississippi during January–March 1823, they resolved to travel together as perambulating portrait-artists.)
Lucy became the steady breadwinner for the couple and their two young sons. Trained as a teacher, she conducted classes for children out of their home. Later she became a local teacher in Louisiana and took up residence, with her children, at the home of a wealthy plantation owner.
Audubon returned to Philadelphia in 1824 to seek a publisher for his bird drawings. Though he met Thomas Sully, one of the most famous portrait painters of the time and a valuable ally, Audubon was rebuffed for publication. He had earned the enmity of some of the city’s leading scientists at the Academy of Natural Sciences. He took oil painting lessons from Sully and met Charles Bonaparte, who admired his work and recommended he go to Europe to have his bird drawings engraved.
Birds of America
Main article: Birds of America (book)
Plate from Birds of America, featuring the Ivory-billed Woodpecker
With his wife’s support, in 1826 at age 41, Audubon took his growing collection of work to England. He sailed from New Orleans to Liverpool on the cotton hauling ship “Delos”, reaching England in the autumn of 1826, taking a portfolio of over 300 drawings. 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 could not get enough of his images of backwoods America and its natural attractions. He met with great acceptance as he toured around England and Scotland, and was lionized as “the American woodsman.” He 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 of various sizes depending on the size of the image. They were printed on sheets measuring about 39 by 26 inches (660 mm). The work contains just over 700 North American bird species.
The pages were organized for artistic effect and contrasting interest, as if the reader were 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 was the Wild Turkey, which had been Benjamin Franklin’s candidate for the national bird. It lost to the Bald Eagle.
The cost of printing the entire work was $115,640 (over $2,000,000 today), paid for from advance subscriptions, exhibitions, oil painting commissions, and animal skins, which Audubon hunted and sold. Audubon’s great work was a remarkable accomplishment. It took more than 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.”
Colorists applied each color in assembly-line fashion (over fifty were hired for the work). The original edition was engraved in aquatint by Robert Havell, Jr., who took over the task after the first ten plates engraved by W. H. Lizars were deemed inadequate. Known as the Double Elephant folio after its double elephant paper size, it is often regarded as the greatest picture book ever produced and the finest aquatint work. By the 1830s, the aquatint process was largely superseded by lithography. 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 publicize the book. He had his portrait painted by John Syme, who clothed the naturalist in frontier clothes. The portrait was hung at the entrance of his exhibitions, promoting his rustic image. (The painting now hangs in the White House.) The New-York Historical Society has all 435 of the preparatory watercolors for Birds of America. 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 Audubon, desperate for money, sold them for scrap to the Phelps Dodge Corporation.
King George IV was also an avid fan of Audubon and a subscriber to the book. London’s Royal Society recognized his achievement by electing Audubon a fellow. He followed Benjamin Franklin, who was the first American fellow. While in Edinburgh to seek subscriptions for the book, Audubon gave a demonstration of his method of propping up birds with wire at professor Robert Jameson’s Wernerian Natural History Association. Student Charles Darwin was in the audience. Audubon also visited the dissecting theatre of the anatomist Robert Knox. Audubon was a hit in France as well, gaining the King and several of the nobility as subscribers.
Audubon, White Gyrfalcons
Audubon returned to America in 1829 to complete more drawings for his magnum opus. He also hunted animals and shipped the valued skins to British friends. He was reunited with his family. After settling business affairs, Lucy accompanied him back to England. Audubon found that during his absence, he had lost some subscribers due to the uneven quality of coloring of the plates. Others were in arrears in their payments. His engraver fixed the plates and Audubon reassured subscribers, but a few begged off. 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 Birds of America with a sequel Ornithological Biographies. This was a collection of life histories of each species written with Scottish ornithologist William MacGillivray. The two books were printed separately to avoid a British law requiring copies of all publications with text to be deposited in Crown libraries, a huge financial burden for the self-published Audubon. Both books were published between 1827 and 1839.
During the 1830s, Audubon continued making expeditions in North America. 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 before returning to the field in the evening, a routine he kept up for weeks and months. In 1833, Audubon set forth from Maine accompanied by his son John, and five other young colleagues to explore the ornithology of Labrador. On the return voyage, the Ripley made a stop at St.George’s, Newfoundland and Audubon and his assistants documented 36 species of birds. 
In 1839 having finished the Ornithological Biography, Audubon returned to the United States with his family. 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. It earned $36,000 and was purchased by 1100 subscribers. Audubon spent much time on “subscription gathering trips”, drumming up sales of the octavo edition, as he hoped to leave his family a sizable income.
Audubon made some excursions out West where he hoped to record Western species he had missed, but his health began to fail. In 1848, he manifested signs of senility, his “noble mind in ruins.” He died at his family home on January 27, 1851. Audubon is buried, close to the location of his home, in the graveyard at the Church of the Intercession in the Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum at 155th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. There is an imposing monument in his honor at the cemetery, which is the center of the Heritage Rose District of NYC. 
Audubon’s final work was on mammals, the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, prepared in collaboration with his good friend Rev. John Bachman of Charleston, South Carolina. Bachman supplied much of the scientific text. The work was completed by Audubon’s sons and son-in-law and published posthumously. His son John did most of the drawings.
Art and methods
Audubon, John James ~ Bobwhite (Virginia Partridge), Painted 1825. Published as Plate 76, 1829
Detail from the above image
Audubon developed his own methods for drawing birds. First, he killed them using fine shot. He then used wires to prop them into a natural position, unlike the common method of many ornithologists, who prepared and stuffed 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. He often portrayed them as if caught in motion, especially feeding or hunting. This was in stark contrast to the stiff representations of birds by his contemporaries, such as Alexander Wilson. Audubon based his paintings on his extensive field observations.
He worked primarily with watercolor early on. He added colored chalk or pastel to add softness to feathers, especially those of owls and herons. He employed multiple layers of watercoloring, and sometimes used gouache. All species were drawn life size which accounts for the contorted poses of the larger birds as Audubon strove to fit them within the page size. Smaller species were usually placed on branches with berries, fruit, and flowers. He used several birds in a drawing to present all views of anatomy and wings. Larger birds were often placed in their ground habitat or perching on stumps. At times, as with woodpeckers, he combined several species on one page to offer contrasting features. He frequently depicted the birds’ nests and eggs, and occasionally natural predators, such as snakes. He usually illustrated male and female variations, and sometimes juveniles. In later drawings, Audubon used assistants to render the habitat for him. Going beyond faithful renderings of anatomy, Audubon employed carefully constructed composition, drama, and slightly exaggerated poses to achieve artistic as well as scientific effects.
J.J. Audubon in later years
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, Audubon’s field notes comprised 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. Among his accomplishments, Audubon discovered twenty-five new species and twelve new subspecies.
* He was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Linnaean Society, and the Royal Society in recognition of his contributions.
* The homestead Mill Grove in Audubon, PA is open to the public and contains a museum presenting all his major works, including Birds of America.
* The John James Audubon State Park in Henderson, Kentucky. The Audubon Museum there houses many of Audubon’s original watercolors, oils, engravings and personal memorabilia. The Nature Center features a wildlife observatory, to nurture love for nature and the great outdoors.
* In 1905, the National Audubon Society was incorporated and named in his honor. 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.” In his journals, Audubon prophetically warned of dangers that threatened the enormous flocks of his time, including over-hunting and loss of habitat. Several species which he recorded have become extinct, including the Carolina Parakeet, the Passenger Pigeon, the Labrador Duck, and the Great Auk.
* He was honored by the United States Postal Service with a 22¢ Great Americans series postage stamp.
* On December 6 2010, Birds of America was sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $11.5 million, a record price for a single printed book.
* On his 226th birthday (26/04/2011), the web search engine giant Google celebrated it by displaying a special Google Doodle on its global homepage.
Clipper ship Audubon
* Audubon, New Jersey and Audubon Park, New Jersey are names after Audubon. Many street signs in Audubon Park are names after birds Audubon drew.
* Audubon, Pennsylvania is named in Audubon’s honor and is home to the Audubon Bird Sanctuary.
* Audubon Park, New Orleans was created on land purchased by the city for an urban park, and designed by the American landscape architect John Charles Olmsted.
* The Audubon Park and country club in Louisville, Kentucky is in the area of his former general store.
* Several towns and Audubon County, Iowa were named after Audubon.
* In Louisiana, John James Audubon Bridge (Mississippi River) was named in his honor. It will provide a crucial crossing over the Mississippi River between Pointe Coupee Parish and West Feliciana Parish.
* Bi-State Vietnam Gold Star Bridges which cross the Ohio River, connecting Henderson, Kentucky and Evansville, Indiana was originally named the Audubon Memorial Bridge.
* John James Audubon State Park and the Audubon Museum (located within the park) in Henderson, Kentucky was named after Audubon.
* Rue Jean-Jacques Audubon, in Nantes, France, was named after Audubon
* John James Audubon, Writings & Drawings (Christoph Irmscher, ed.) (The Library of America, 1999) ISBN 978-1-88301168-0
* John James Audubon, The Audubon Reader (Richard Rhodes, ed.) (Everyman Library, 2006) ISBN 1-4000-4369-7
* Audubon: Early Drawings (Richard Rhodes, Scott V. Edwards, Leslie A. Morris) (Harvard University Press and Houghton Library 2008) ISBN 978-0-674-03102-9