John James Audubon’s name conjures up an image of mythological proportions. Today most people know of the National Audubon Society, but few know much about the an whose name is synonymous with out nation’s growing interest in birding and conservation of the environment.
Audubon was born April 26, 1785, on his father’s plantation on the Island of Santo Domingo (now known as Haiti). His father, Jean Audubon, was a ship captain, slave-trade merchant, former naval officer, and planter. Although married to a woman in France, the elder Audubon had mistresses on his Santo Domingo plantation. One mistress known only a Mademoiselle Rabin became John James Audubon’s mother. His original birth name was given as Fougére, meaning fern. Audubon’s birth mother soon died and he was taken to France along with a younger sister from another mistress by their father. Madame Audubon accepted both children as her own, and the young Audubon was formally adopted at the age of nine. At fifteen, he was baptized and given the name, Jean Jacques Fougére Audubon.
Little is known about young Audubon’s education, but it is believed he was taught the basics as well as lessons in fencing, dancing, music, shooting, drawing, and the study of nature.
At eighteen, Audubon’s father sent him back to America to avoid service in Napoleon’s Army. Young Audubon moved into the comfortable stone house known as Mill Grove near Valley Forge in eastern Pennsylvania. Mill Grove was surrounded by woods and near Perkioming Creek where Audubon first became acquainted with American bird life and where he courted Lucy Bwkewell, his wife to be.
In 1804, Audubon started a business partnership, arranged by his father, with Ferdinand Rozier. When Mill Grove was sold, Rozier and Audubon departed for Louisville where they established a retail store and import business. Once established, Audubon returned to Pennsylvania to marry Lucy Bakewell and bring her west.
Audubon’s partnership with Rozier dissolved a few years later, and he became a storekeeper in Henderson, Kentucky. Eventually all of Audubon’s business ventures seemed to fall short of expectations including one in New Orleans with his brother-in-law. In 1819 Audubon was jailed for his debts and declared bankruptcy. By this time he had two sons, Victoria ad John, and two daughters, both of whom died in infancy.
It was during this time that he turned to his artistic talents to eke out a living. Audubon did sign painting and lettering for steamboats and flatboats, and chalk portraits. He also found work at the Western Museum in Cincinnati. There he painted backgrounds and did taxidermy. It was this experience which gave him the courage to strike out on his own.
At age thirty-five Audubon finally made the decision that determined his destiny and forged his legacy.
Up to this point in American history, Alexander Wilson was considered the foremost expert in ornithology. Wilson’s nine volume set, American Orinthology, was the standard of its day, but Audubon thought that he could do his own edition of all the birds of North America. This turned out to be a task of monumental proportions, the likes of which have never been duplicated.
Audubon, assisted at first by one of his Cincinnati students, Joseph Mason, and later by his son John, set out on a flatboat down the Ohio river. This adventure would eventually chart some forty thousand miles in search of his avian subjects.
Unable to find an American publisher, Audubon departed for England in 1826 and within two weeks found a willing publisher in London named Robert Havell. Havell turned out to be Audubon’s saving grace. Together they created an artistic achievement unequaled in history.
Audubon’s The Birds of North America (1826-1838) contains 435 hand-colored plates with the birds of America depicted life size. The pages measure twenty-nine and one-half by thirty-nine and one-half inches. These large sheets were known in the printing trade as “double-elephant” giving reference to The Birds of North America as the Double Elephant Folio.
Over the ensuing years Audubon struggled to keep his publishing efforts alive by raising money through private subscriptions and turning out numerous paintings for sale.
All in all, some 190 Folios were sold. In addition to the Folios, Audubon produced for The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Audubon worked on this project until 1846 when his eyes started to fail and senile dementia began to take hold. Quadrupeds was completed by his two sons in 1854. His last days were spent at home along the Hudson River just below the place where George Washington Bridge now stands. Audubon died in 1851 and is buried in Trinity Church Cemetery at 155th Street and Broadway in New York City.
Audubon’s contributions to art to ornithology are now part of our National heritage, and on the 150th anniversary of his passing it is fitting tribute that he has been elected as a Hall of Fame Laureate.