Jean Jacques Audubon aka John James Audubon, was a French-American ornithologist, naturalist and artist. He is most recognized for his expansive travels to document all species of American birds and detailed illustrations that depicted the birds in their natural habitats. His major work, a color-plate book entitled “Birds of America,” is still considered one of the finest ornithological works ever completed. Audubon had identified 25 new species.
Jean Jacques Audubon was born in Les Cayes in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) on his father’s sugar plantation. He was the son of Lieutenant Jean Audubon, a French naval officer from the south of Brittany, and his mistress, Jeanne Rabine, a 27-year-old chambermaid from Les Touches in the same Province of Brittany (now in the modern region Pays de la Loire). His mother passed away when Audubon was just a few months old.
Senior Jean Audubon married Anne Moynet whom he had two other children with prior to young Jean and later had two more children after young Jean. Jean was considered an illegitimate child through the courts, so his father legally adopted him at the age of 18 and Jean Jacques Audubon formally changed his name to John James Audubon.
The Audubon family had homes in Saint-Domingue and in Philadelphia. John would travel back and forth between the estates and immigrated permanently to the United States in 1803.
Audubon caught yellow fever upon arrival to 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.”
Audubon lived with his family and servants in a two-story stone house called Mill Grove in an area that he considered paradise. 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.”
At Mill Grove, Audubon met the owner of the nearby estate, William Bakewell, whose daughter Lucy he would marry 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.
From his earliest days, Audubon had an affinity for birds. He was quoted to say, “I felt an intimacy with them…bordering on frenzy that must accompany my steps through life.” Audubon would point out the elegant movement of the birds and the beauty and softness of their plumage. He called attention to their show of pleasure or sense of danger, their perfect forms and splendid attire.
Audubon set about to study American birds determined to illustrate 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 they returned to the same nesting spots year after year. He also began drawing and painting birds and recording their behavior.
In 1805, he met the naturalist and physician, Charles-Marie D’Orbigny, who improved Audubon’s taxidermy skills and taught him scientific methods of research and how to master distinguishing bird species.
After a short stay in Cincinnati to work as a naturalist and taxidermist at a museum, Audubon traveled south on the Mississippi with his gun, paint box and assistant Joseph Mason. 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 in 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. Audubon called his future work “Birds of America.” He attempted to paint one page each day. He hired hunters to gather specimens for him because Audubon realized the ambitious project would take him away from his family for months at a time.
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.
In 1826 with his wife’s support, 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 quickly gained their attention.
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 Artist.” 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. They were printed on sheets measuring 39” x 26.”
The cost of printing the entire work was $115,640 (over $2,000,000 today). This was paid 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.
Audubon was published in multiple ornithological books and publications during his lifetime, but the “Birds of America” is by far his most noted accomplishment.