A multifaceted and enigmatic person whose life story has at times been portrayed with a mix of facts, fiction, and legend both by himself and others, John James Audubon continues to fascinate, perplex, and even disturb those who take an interest in him and his work. With limited formal training in either art or science, he came to be regarded as one of the most important artist-naturalists of the nineteenth century. In the United States his name became associated long after his death with new movements for nature conservation and the popularized study of birds. During his lifetime Audubon studied and drew almost 500 species of American birds, and close to 100 species of mammals. The publication of his drawings, and the many reproductions of them produced since, assured his enduring fame.
Audubon was born April 26, 1785, in Les Cayes, Saint-Domingue, then a French colony, now Haiti. Audubon's father was Jean Audubon, a French sea captain who owned a sugar plantation in the colony. The identity of Audubon's mother is still controversial, though it may have been Jeanne Rabin, a French chambermaid, who died a few months after his birth. Jean had other illegitimate children with an enslaved woman, and he took his son John James and one of his biracial half-sisters to France as unrest grew in the buildup to the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804). John James and his half-sister were adopted by Jean's wife, Anne Moynet Audubon. The family lived near the port city of Nantes, an important port in the transatlantic slave trade, in which Jean was involved.
Audubon had little formal schooling but showed an early interest in birds and drawing. He came of age during the tumult of the French Revolution, and Audubon’s father eventually sent him to the United States in 1803 to avoid conscription into Napoleon's army. Audubon was put in charge of a property his father owned in eastern Pennsylvania, where the young man found ample opportunities for outdoor pursuits such as hunting, as well as observing and drawing birds. Marriage to Lucy Bakewell (1787-1874), daughter of an English neighbor, turned Audubon to commerce to support a family. The couple moved to Louisville and later Henderson, Kentucky, where he operated a general store and was involved in several additional business ventures between 1807 and 1819. These were times of economic success for the Audubons, and his family spent some of their wealth purchasing nine enslaved people. Four children were also born to the couple during this time, with sons Victor Gifford (1809-1860) and John Woodhouse (1812-1862) surviving to adulthood.
At a time when much of the United States was still considered wilderness and its bird life had been only partially documented by Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) in his American Ornithology, Audubon keenly observed the migrations and behaviors of the birds he encountered and continued developing his artistic techniques for drawing them. The idea of possible publication of his drawings began to take root after business failures and debts forced Audubon into bankruptcy in Kentucky following the panic of 1819. Audubon's financial woes prompted the sale of all of the family's enslaved workers. Following his bankruptcy Audubon became newly determined to provide for his family by means of his artistic abilities, as well as to collect and draw as many North American bird species as possible. After a brief residence in Cincinnati teaching drawing, making portraits, and working as a taxidermist and artist at a newly opened natural history museum, Audubon headed south by flatboat in fall 1820 in search of migratory birds along the Mississippi flyway.
Arriving in New Orleans at the beginning of 1821, Audubon worked as a portraitist and drawing teacher while continuing to add to his portfolio of birds. An unexpected offer to tutor the daughter of the Pirrie family at Oakley Plantation near St. Francisville led to a four-month stay there in summer and fall 1821, during which Audubon was able to explore the abundant bird life of the area and make some of his finest drawings. Joined by his wife and sons in New Orleans, he then went to Natchez, Mississippi in 1822, for further stints of teaching. Lucy became employed as a teacher on a plantation near St. Francisville in early 1823, and for the next several years Audubon continued observing and drawing birds in this area of Louisiana, when not on travels elsewhere. The Audubons regained some financial security during this time and acquired three enslaved people, Cecelia and her sons Ruben and Lewis. There is no firm record of what happened to this family, but they were no longer with the Audubons after 1830.
Audubon endeavored to portray birds as alive and in motion, not as museum specimens. Ironically, in addition to observing the birds closely, this also meant that he killed large numbers of specimens -- a common practice at the time -- to better depict species' variations. He perfected his techniques with watercolors and pastels, depicting the birds life size in dramatic ways while also capturing details of their coloring, feathers, and other distinctive features. He sought support for his work among scientific circles in Philadelphia and New York during travels there in 1824, expanding his network of contacts, but it was clear his ambition of getting the bird drawings published could only be accomplished by more advanced printers in Europe. Audubon sailed from New Orleans to England in 1826 with about 250 drawings and multiple letters of introduction, beginning what became the twelve-year undertaking of publishing The Birds of America elephant folio. Audubon and his drawings caused a sensation when exhibits of his work were arranged not long after his arrival in Liverpool. Finding enough subscribers willing to sign up for an expensive publication that would take many years to complete was no easy task. Audubon's first stay in Britain lasted almost three years, during which engraving and printing of the large plates based on his drawings began in Edinburgh but was quickly moved to London after a labor strike halted coloring of the prints. Subscribers received installments of five hand-colored prints at a time as they were issued by the engraver, while Audubon continually sought additional enrollments to fund the work’s ongoing production.
During the course of the project, Audubon’s portrayals of American birds gained him membership in several scientific societies, most notably the Royal Society of London. In return trips to North America for extended stays in 1829-1830, 1831-1833, and 1836-1837, Audubon made additional drawings during travels to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Florida, and the Atlantic coast of Canada, and acquired bird specimens collected in the western United States by J. K. Townsend and Thomas Nuttall. The monumental project was completed in 1838 with a total of 435 hand-colored engravings, one of the last natural history works produced by this method. Audubon’s descriptions of the birds he had depicted were published separately in five volumes from 1831 to 1839 under the title Ornithological Biography, in which he and ornithologist William MacGillivray gave detailed accounts of each species depicted in Birds of America. Audubon also included reminiscences of his travel and work, many of which do not hold up to close scrutiny but are instead evidence of Audubon's conscious mythmaking.
The Birds of America folio established Audubon’s fame, but not financial security. After the Audubon family returned to the United States and settled in New York in 1839, work began on a smaller-format edition of Birds of America. This was published in 1840-1844 in seven volumes, with lithographic plates produced by J. T. Bowen of Philadelphia and incorporating text from Ornithological Biography. Audubon simultaneously began collaborating with John Bachman of Charleston, South Carolina on a work about North American mammals, and made an expedition in 1843 up the Missouri River to collect and draw prairie and mountain animals. Three folio volumes of lithographed plates were published as The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America from 1845 to 1848, with Bachman’s three accompanying volumes of text issued 1846-1854. John Woodhouse Audubon drew about half of the species included in the Quadrupeds, some collected during an expedition he made to Texas and others drawn from museum specimens in Europe. The Audubon sons oversaw publication of smaller-format (octavo) editions of the Quadrupeds, which combined plates and text.
Two years before the Quadrupeds folio was completed, eyesight problems and diminished mental clarity caused Audubon to give up drawing. In 1847 he began to suffer from dementia. John James Audubon died at his home in New York City at age 65 on January 27, 1851, and was buried in Trinity Cemetery.