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From a humble beginning in Haiti to an adult life spent trekking across North America in study of nature, John James Audubon was a self-made man with a serious fascination for birds and wildlife. The following lesson introduces the paintings and books of this American artist and naturalist. We’ll review Audubon’s life and work, as well as his influence on later scientists and conservationists.

Overview

Imagine your sweetie returning home from a long trip abroad – and bringing with him three dogs, two cats and 265 live birds! That’s the kind of passion – one might even say obsession – that fueled John James Audubon. A self-taught naturalist and painter, Audubon’s life goal was to catalogue and draw every single bird species in North America.

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His work was widely admired during his lifetime and continues to inform and inspire ornithologists, artists and nature lovers today.

Biography

Early YearsThe life of John James Audubon is a rags-to-riches American tale. He was born in 1785 in what is today Haiti, the illegitimate son of a French sea captain with a wandering eye and an equally wandering career.

As a child, Audubon’s father sent him back to France where he was raised by his father’s wife, who adopted him to keep the family intact. Young Audubon enjoyed a more luxurious lifestyle in Europe and spent his time drawing and painting, exploring the outdoors, reading literature and playing the flute and violin. However, life couldn’t carry on in such a carefree way forever. When Napoleon began raising soldiers for an army in preparation for his Napoleonic Wars, the 18-year-old Audubon set out for America in 1803 to avoid military duty.

John James Audubon
Portrait of Audubon

Life in AmericaAudubon settled in Pennsylvania, where he married Lucy Bakewell, with whom he had two sons. During this time, he developed his lifelong infatuation with birds.

In his backyard, he designed several experiments, including the first ever bird-banding project, in which he tied bits of colored string to the legs of Eastern Phoebes. By doing this, he was able to prove that the birds did indeed return to the same nesting sites every year. Audubon had to make a living, though, to support all of this studying, so he moved to Kentucky, where he attempted to run a goods store business. He was only successful for a while, however – eventually he went bankrupt and had to serve a short stint in jail as a result of his financial circumstances.

Adventures and StudyDuring all this, Audubon’s bird-mania never lessened. He made a life-changing decision soon after his bankruptcy to leave his wife behind, so she could earn money tutoring the rich children at nearby plantations. In 1820, Audubon set off down the Mississippi with his paint box, an assistant and his hunting rifle to track down and draw every bird in North America. Audubon didn’t manage to sketch them all, but he did an admirable job of cataloguing all the birds then known, as well as 25 new species he discovered himself.

Books and FameAfter years of painstaking research, methodical drawing and back-and-forth travel across the country, Audubon took the results of his work to England in 1826. His first collection, a book of life-sized bird prints called The American Woodsman, was an immediate hit with the public. This earned Audubon enough cash and fame to begin work on his bird-study masterpiece, The Birds of America. Eventually encompassing 435 life-sized bird prints, the book is still regarded as one of the most important ornithological studies ever made.Audubon wrote other natural studies texts, including a collaboration with a Scottish scientist called Ornithological Biography, a collection of essays about bird lives and habits. After settling down in New York City, Audubon wrote his last book about mammals: Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, which his sons helped him complete.

Audubon died in New York in 1851. After his death, his friends and relatives compiled several of his memoirs and autobiographical sketches to form the Life of John James Audubon.

A flamingo drawn by Audubon.
A flamingo by Audubon

Legacy and Influence

Audubon was hugely influential in his day.

His drawings and paintings, which were beautiful, as well as scientifically accurate, were sought after by researchers and laypeople alike. In the early 19th century, the Romantic Movement swept through Europe and America, inspiring widespread interest in the natural world through art and literature. Many naturalists, including Charles Darwin, drew on Audubon’s research and studies. Audubon’s life and work also inspired generations of naturalists, including the founders of the National Audubon Society, an organization devoted to the protection of birds and other wildlife.

Artistic Style

Part of what made Audubon’s work so impressive is the painstaking care and passion Audubon poured into it. The Birds of America, for example, took him 18 years to complete. Audubon also created a unique and distinctive drawing style that set him apart from other naturalists of his day.

His methodology began with hunting – in the early 19th century, admiring wildlife while simultaneously hunting it down weren’t mutually exclusive activities. After killing a bird, he’d prop it up in a lifelike pose and draw it from a variety of vantage points. He then painted the bird’s natural habitat into the final drawing.It was this emphasis on the lifelike that distinguished Audubon from other naturalists of his day. Before that, most scholarly nature drawing had a stiff and academic feel to it. Audubon brought together science and art in a way that made it accessible and exciting to a wide audience.

In addition, several of Audubon’s works included narrative sketches and memoirs that piqued readers’ interest in the American landscape.

Summary

From a ragged childhood at a Haitian plantation to worldwide fame, Audubon’s passion for birds guided both his travels and his career. A self-taught painter and naturalist, his lifelike images of wildlife were admired by both artists and scientists. Audubon’s devotion to the plants and animals of North America continues to inspire conservationists and nature enthusiasts today.

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