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John James Audubon, Painter and Naturalist, Created an American Masterpiece

Audubon's Birds of America Was a Landmark Work of Art

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John James Audubon

John James Audubon

Library of Congress
John James Audubon created a masterpiece of American art, a collection of paintings titled Birds of America published in a series of four enormous volumes from 1827 to 1838.

Besides being a remarkable painter, Audubon was a great naturalist, and his visual art and writing helped inspire the conservation movement.

Early Life of James John Audubon

Audubon was born as Jean-Jacques Audubon on April 26, 1785 in the French colony of Santo Domingo, the illegitimate son of a French naval officer and a French servant girl. After the death of his mother, and a rebellion in Santo Domingo, which became the nation of Haiti, Audubon's father took Jean-Jacques and a sister to live in France.

Audubon Settled in America

In France, Audubon neglected formal studies to spend time in nature, often observing birds. In 1803, when his father became worried that his son would be conscripted into Napoleon's army, Audubon was sent to America. His father had purchased a farm outside Philadelphia, and the 18-year-old Audubon was sent to live on the farm.

Adopting the Americanized name John James, Audubon adapted to America and lived as a country gentleman, hunting, fishing, and indulging in his passion for observing birds. He became engaged to the daughter of a British neighbor, and soon after marrying Lucy Bakewell the young couple left the Audubon farm to venture into the American frontier.

Audubon Failed in Business in America

Audubon tried his luck at various endeavors in Ohio and Kentucky, and discovered that he was not suited for a life of business. He later observed that he spent too much time looking at birds to worry about more practical matters.

Audubon devoted considerable time to ventures into the wilderness on which he would shoot birds so he could study and draw them.

A sawmill business Audubon ran in Kentucky failed in 1819, partly due to the widespread financial crisis known as the Panic of 1819. Aubudon found himself in serious financial trouble, with a wife and two young sons to support. He was able to find some work in Cincinnati doing crayon portraits, and his wife found work as a teacher.

Audubon traveled down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, and was soon followed by his wife and sons. His wife found employment as a teacher and governess, and while Audubon devoted himself to what he saw as his true calling, the painting of birds, his wife managed to support the family.

A Publisher Was Found In England

After failing to interest any American publishers in his ambitious plan to publish a book of paintings of American birds, Audubon sailed to England in 1826. Landing in Liverpool, he managed to impress influential English editors with his portfolio of paintings.

Audubon came to be highly regarded in British society as a natural unschooled genius. With his long hair and rough American clothes, he became something of a celebrity. And for his artistic talent and great knowledge of birds he was named a fellow of the Royal Society, Britain's leading scientific academy.

Audubon eventually met up with an engraver in London, Robert Havell, who agreed to work with him to publish Birds of America.

The resulting book, which became known as the "double elephant folio" edition for the immense size of its pages, was one of the largest books ever published. Each page measured 39.5 inches tall by 29.5 inches wide, so when the book was opened it was more than four feet wide by three feet tall.

To produce the book, Audubon's images were etched on copper plates, and the resulting printed sheets were colored by artists to match Audubon's original paintings.

Birds of America Was a Success

During the production of the book Audubon returned to the United States twice to collect more bird specimens and sell subscriptions for the book. Eventually the book was sold to 161 subscribers, who paid $1,000 for what eventually became four volumes. In total, Birds of America contained 435 pages featuring more than 1,000 individual paintings of birds.

After the lavish double elephant folio edition was finished, Audubon produced a smaller and much more affordable edition which sold very well and brought Audubon and his family a very good income.

Audubon Lived Along the Hudson River

With the success of Birds of America, Audubon purchased a 14-acre estate along the Hudson River north of New York City. He also wrote a book titled Ornithological Biography containing detailed notes and descriptions about the birds which appeared in Birds of America.

Ornithological Biography was another ambitious project, eventually stretching into five volumes. It contained not only material on birds but accounts of Audubon's many travels on the American frontier. He recounted stories about meetings with such characters as an escaped slave and the famed frontiersman Daniel Boone.

Audubon Painted Other American Animals

In 1843 Audubon set off on his last great expedition, visiting the western territories of the United States so he could paint American mammals. He traveled from St. Louis to the Dakota territory in the company of buffalo hunters, and wrote a book which became known as the Missouri Journal.

Returning to the east, Audubon's health began to decline, and he died at his estate on the Hudson on January 27, 1851.

Audubon's widow sold his original paintings for Birds of America to the New York Historical Society for $2,000. His work has remained popular, having been published in countless books and as prints.

The paintings and writings of John James Audubon helped inspire the conservation movement, and one of the foremost conservation groups, The Audubon Society, was named in his honor.

Editions of Birds of America remain in print to this day, and original copies of the double elephant folio fetch high prices on the art market. Sets of the original edition of Birds of America have sold for as much as $8 million.

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