James Audubon was a French-American ornithologist, naturalist, hunter,
and painter. He painted, catalogued, and described the birds of North
America in a form far superior to what had gone before. In his outsize
personality and achievements, he seemed to represent the new American
nation of the United States. American artist and ornithologist
John James Audubon is mainly remembered for his Birds of America series, a book of 435 images, portraits of every bird then known in the United States, all painted and reproduced in the size of life.
Its creation cost Audubon eighteen years of monumental effort in finding the birds, making the book, and selling it to subscribers. Audubon also wrote thousands of pages about birds; he’d completed half of a collection of paintings of mammals (The Viviparous Quadrapeds of North America) when his eyesight failed in 1846.Audubon was not born in America, but saw more of the North American continent than virtually anyone alive, and even in his own time he came to exemplify America, the place of wilderness and wild things.
The history of his life reveals his era and his nation. He was, in a sense, a one-man compendium of American culture of his time. And his growing apprehension about the destruction of nature became a prophecy of his nation’s convictions in the century after his death.
John James Audubon was born in 1785 in Les Cayes, Santo Domingo (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 Rabin, a French/Spanish Creole from Louisiana. Audubon's mother died when the boy was just a toddler, perhaps in illness related to the birth of her daughter
During the American Revolution, his father Jean Audubon was imprisoned by the British. After his release, he helped the American cause. At the age of four John Audubon was taken to France and adopted by his father's legal wife, who raised John and his half-sister as if they were her own. From his earliest days, Audubon had an affinity for birds. "I felt an intimacy with them…bordering on frenzy must accompany my steps through life." In 1803, Capt. Audubon sent his eighteen year old son to Pennsylvania to manage the family's estate there, and to escape Napoleon's draft.
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 homestead, bought with proceeds from the sale of his father's sugar plantation, is located on the Perkiomen Creek, just 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".
It was here that he met Lucy Bakewell, who became his wife in 1808. Her unwavering support, through difficult financial and personal circumstances, proved critical to Audubon's ultimate success as an artist and naturalist.
While living in Mill Grove, John James Audubon conducted the first known bird-banding experiment in North America, tying strings around the legs of Eastern Phoebes; he learned that the birds returned to the very same nesting sites each year.
Audubon spent more than a decade in business, eventually traveling down the Ohio River to western Kentucky, then the frontier. He set up a dry-goods store in Henderson. Audubon continued to draw birds as a hobby, amassing an impressive portfolio. While in Kentucky, Lucy gave birth to two sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse, as well as a daughter who died in infancy. Audubon was quite successful in business for a while, but hard times hit, and in 1819 he was briefly jailed for bankruptcy.
With no other prospects, Audubon set off on his epic quest to depict America's avifauna, with nothing but his gun, artist's materials, and a young assistant. Floating down the Mississippi, Audubon lived a rugged hand-to-mouth existence in the South while Lucy earned money as a tutor to wealthy plantation families. In 1826 he sailed with his partly finished collection to England and began to attain his fame as an artist.
His life-size, highly dramatic bird portraits, along with his embellished descriptions of wilderness life, hit just the right note at the height of the Continent's Romantic era. Audubon found a printer for the Birds of America, first in Edinburgh, then London, and later collaborated with the Scottish ornithologist William MacGillivray on the Ornithological Biographies - life histories of each of the species in the work.