Audubon, John Woodhouse, 1812-1862Variant names
John James Audubon (1785-1851), known as the American Woodsman, is a legend as a naturalist and bird artist. He was not the first person to attempt to paint and describe all the birds in America, but his unique technique of depicting his subjects dramatically contributed to his renown. His technique of painting freshly killed specimens surrounded by their natural habitats added a wealth of knowledge to the emerging discipline of ornithology in the nineteenth century.
Audubon was born April 26, 1785 in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) to a French naval captain, Jean Audubon, and his mistress, Jeanne Rabine. Formally adopted in 1794, Jean-Jacques Fougere Audubon was raised by the Captain's wife, Anne Moynet Audubon, and lived in France till 1803. In that year, Audubon came to America to escape conscription into Napoleon's army. He oversaw his father's farm, Mill Grove, in Pennsylvania, twenty-four miles northwest of Philadelphia. In these happy days, hunting, fishing, drawing and music completely occupied the naturalist. It was at this time, that he developed his technique for passing wires through freshly killed birds to fix them in characteristic poses on which he based his life-like sketches.
After marrying Lucy Bakewell in 1808, Audubon sold Mill Grove Farm and moved to Kentucky to try his hand in business. While there, Lucy gave birth to two sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse. After several failed commercial ventures, Audubon, at thirty-four years old, settled down to his life's ambition, to paint every bird in the United States and its territories. His plan was to have prints made from his paintings, which he would sell on a subscription basis.
In 1824, Audubon made his way to Philadelphia, portfolio in hand, to find an engraver and publisher for his work. While his decision to depict all the birds in America was an ambitious one, it was not original. Noted Scottish Naturalist, Alexander Wilson, had published a nine-volume set titled, American Ornithology, between 1808 and 1814. James Mease, curator of the American Philosophical Society, introduced Audubon to some influential individuals in the city. One of these individuals was the nephew of Napoleon, Prince Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a knowledgeable ornithologist and artist. Bonaparte then presented him to the members of the Academy of Natural Sciences. Audubon offended this august group by disparaging Wilson's work. The Academy members had intellectual, as well as, financial interest in Wilson's work. Many of the members of the Academy, particularly George Ord, saw to it that Audubon would not receive the support he sought.
As a result, in 1826, Audubon sailed to Great Britain to seek his fame and fortune. His works were more successfully received in England and Scotland. He first employed W.H. Lizars of Edinburgh to engrave copper plates and pull prints. But due to labor unrest in Lizars firm, he turned to Robert Havell & Son, of London, to do the majority of the work.
Audubon's masterpiece, The Birds of America, a four-volume elephant folio with four hundred and thirty-five colored plates of 1,065 individual birds in life-size depictions measuring more than two by three feet, accompanied by a synopsis and index was completed in June, 1838. The text to The Birds of America was published separately as a five-volume work entitled Ornithological Biography . Done in collaboration with the Scottish ornithologist, William MacGillivray, it describes life histories of each of the species with anecdotes of Audubon's adventures. This work was completed in 1839 as a companion to the elephant folio edition. Following the completion of the double elephant folio, a seven-volume octavo edition of The Birds of America was published and completed by 1844. The size, ten and a half by six and a half inches, was more popular and more affordable than the larger edition.
With the publication of the first volume of The Birds of America, Audubon's reputation in the scientific community was secured. He was elected to membership of the American Philosophical Society in 1831 and even the Academy of Natural Sciences elected him an honorary member. Each institution then subscribed to Audubon's work and both still own original copies of the elephant folio edition.
The four volumes of The Birds of America were published over a ten-year period (1827-1838). During 1831 and 1834, Audubon made additional trips for collections and paintings to Florida, South Carolina, and Labrador. It was during 1832 that Victor sailed to England to become his father's business agent. Audubon spent much of 1834 and 1835 in England working on The Birds of America and Ornithological Biography .
Audubon, over this ten-year period, acquired many helpers and friends. George Lehman, Maria Martin, and Joseph Mason are some of the artists who painted backgrounds to be incorporated into the overall work. Robert Havell not only engraved the copper plates but also completed some of Audubon's paintings. But Audubon's most loyal American supporter was the Naturalist Rev. John Bachman of Charleston, South Carolina. He supplied many specimens for The Birds of America and later collaborated with him on his final work, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America .
In 1839, Audubon and his family settled in New York City and in 1842 they built their first permanent home along the Hudson River, called "Minnie's Land." Work on the Quadrupeds began in 1840. A mammal project, John Bachman wrote much of the scientific text. Audubon undertook a final expedition up the Missouri River from March to September 1843 to gather specimens for this work. He then returned east to paint and travel to solicit subscriptions.
By the mid-1840s, Audubon had turned over much of his pursuits to his sons. John contributed substantial artistic talent to the Quadrupeds and Victor continued to be his father's business manager. Audubon died at Minnie's Land at the age of sixty-six on January 27, 1851. His sons completed publication of the Quadrupeds . Lucy Audubon, finding herself in financial straits, in 1863, sold Minnie's Land and the original drawings of The Birds of America to the New York Historical Society.
Though John James Audubon during his lifetime disconcerted both the artistic and scientific communities, his legacy is that he forever changed the way in which birds are illustrated. His ability to replicate their physical features made birds come alive in their natural environment. The freshness of his life-size images displays his genius as a meticulous ornithological recorder and as an exceptional artist.
From the guide to the John James Audubon Papers, 1821-1845, (American Philosophical Society)
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