Audubon History

Reproduced here by permission of The New-York Historical Society


From the final years of the eighteenth century until the first half of the nineteenth century lived a man of nature by the name of John James Audubon.  His life was filled with romance, hardship, idealism, persistence and an unusually strong sense of purpose.  During his lifetime, Audubon took in the sights of places surrounding the Atlantic, Caribbean, France, United States and England.  Although at times he suffered from adversity and disappointment, he was fortunate to obtain financial well-being, distinguished artistic achievement and public acclaim from both sides of the Atlantic, albeit delayed in his adopted homeland.  John James Audubon even today continues to be the most celebrated American bird painter.  His well deserved fame remains firmly established in his extraordinary book, Birds of America.

Birth and Early Years

On April 26th, 1785, John James Audubon was born illegitimate in Les Cayes on the southern coast of what is now Haiti.  He was the son of Lieutenant Jean Audubon, a French naval officer with a plantation on the island and Mademoiselle Jeanne Rabin, a French Creole woman.  John James Audubon's mother died before he reached the age of seven months on November 10th, 1785.  However, in August, 1790, when Lieutenant Audubon returned home to Nantes, France, his wife accepted John James as her own son.  

Young Audubon observed all of nature but was keenly interested in the birds.  At the family villa in Coueron,  near Nantes, France, he began to draw birds he watched in the ponds, meadows, hedges and woods.  The era he lived in did play a part in sparking this interest he had for birds.  The writings of people such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott and Daniel Boone all encouraged the idea of "the natural man in the natural world."

Audubon had little education.  He lacked formal training in speaking or writing either French or English.  Private lessons, though, were given to him in mathematics, geography, music and fencing.  Around the year 1805 at Coueron, Aububon made his earliest drawings of life-size birds drawn with crayon and watercolor. 

Coming to America

In 1803, he found himself on his father's farm on Mill Grove, near Philadelphia.   The reasons for this move are varied.  At the time, Napoleon was in control of France.  The First Consul's agents were seeking conscripts for the army.  Jean Audubon may have wanted to keep his son from the army or spare him the mark of illegitimacy.  Either way, John James was now in Mill Grove.  Here is where he began his studies of the American bird life.  Although he would shoot the birds for sport, he also shot them in order to paint their features. 

However, Audubon was not sent to America to become a naturalist.  His father sent him there to superintend and develop the lead mines of Mill Grove.  Both he and his business associate lacked the necessary talents in the business world.  Hence, Audubon had to put forth much effort to try to learn and succeed at his trade duties.   He found himself torn between the wish of his father and his hobby of drawing birds.

Audubon early realized that drawing birds from stuffed specimens produced stiff paintings, lifeless and dull.  So he proceeded to use inserted wires to display his models in natural positions.  This process enabled him to add drama, life, and vigor to his paintings.

John James experienced much joy at Mill Grove.  He was able to awaken, fashion and pursue his artistic talents.  It was also at Mill Grove where he met his future wife, Lucy Bakewell.  Despite this happiness, though, due to his lack of business skills, he not only lost his job but also his home.

His Move West

In search of new income, Audubon and Ferdinand Rozier, his business associate, started off for the West.  They traveled over the Allegheny Mountains to Pittsburgh in a stagecoach and then down the Ohio River in a flatboat to Maysville, Kentucky.  Having traveled a thousand miles, they found themselves in Louisville. 

Audubon and Rozier decided to make Louisville the home of their newly established store.  Audubon's more ambitious and enterprising partner, ran the store while Audubon continued painting.  By the year 1810, his portfolio contained over two hundred paintings of American birds.  These were all life-size, usually in pastel with watercolors depicting the eyes, bill and feet.

In the spring of 1808, Audubon returned to Mill Grove and married Lucy Bakewell on April 5th.  The day after their marriage they began their journey together to Louisville.  They lived in the Indian Queen, an inn on the Ohio River.  This was the birthplace of their son, Victor Gifford Audubon, on June 6th, 1809.

While in Louisville, Alexander Wilson, the father of American ornithology, influenced Audubon.  Wilson was a Scotsman who traveled to the United States around 1794.   He was encouraged by his friend and Philadelphian naturalist, William Bartram, to study and draw birds.  Chiefly on foot, Wilson searched the East, the Ohio and Mississippi valley frontier and the Deep South for material found in his work American Ornithology.  During this time he discovered thirty-nine species of American birds, all of which are described by the biographies of the birds and pictorial detail in his book.  Audubon shared his paintings that demonstrated the grace and power of avian movement to Wilson.  Audubon's paintings were a combination of romantic verve and classical monumentality while Wilson's drawings were more factual and useful.   Regardless of the different style these two artists possessed, Wilson's book suggested that it was possible to publish a book featuring Audubon's own artistic work.


The population and business activity in Louisville was growing because of the increased westward migration.  Nevertheless, Audubon and Rozier did not profit in their business.  They decided that the business had a chance to profit if they moved one hundred and twenty-five miles down the river to Henderson, Kentucky.  The move did not change the management of the business.  Rozier still looked after the store while Audubon hunted and fished in the woods.

This was not the final move for the two business partners, though.  After about six months, they moved down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to a French settlement in Missouri called Ste.-Genevieve.  Audubon sold his interest in the business to Rozier in April 1811.  Rozier enjoyed much profit in this area until his death in the year 1864.

It can be said that the decade between 1811 and 1820 was a very difficult on in the life of Audubon.  He did not succeed in his second business interest.  The inheritance of his wife was used on ventures that did not last.  A partnership with his brother-in-law, Thomas Woodhouse Bakewell, was started in New Orleans to carry on trade with England.  However, this partnership failed when the War  of 1812 began.  The last of Audubon's funds was used at a sawmill and gristmill in Henderson, Kentucky.  In 1819, Audubon found himself jailed due to enormous debts.  He realized that his business failures followed by his bankruptcy cost him both money and friends.

Audubon's main comfort was his family.  His wife, Lucy, understood his passion in recording the birds of America.  Therefore, she was consistent in her support and encouragement even though this meant risking her inheritance and her family's favor, not to mention having to deal with the long absences of Audubon when he was working in the wilderness.  Perhaps she continued supporting him because she was able to experience firsthand the stories of his creative work and the enjoyment apparent in his eyes.   Whatever the reason, she along with their two sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse, were the source of Audubon's comfort.

Aware of the responsibility to provide for his household, Audubon returned to Louisville in 1819 and began using crayon to draw commissioned portraits of sitters.   Though there was a demand for this work, he did not abandon his passion of drawing birds.  Audubon continued creating portraits in order to support his family until he sailed to England in 1826.

Beginnings of The Birds of America

Audubon was now thinking of publishing his own portfolio, ten years after meeting Alexander Wilson.  This portfolio would include all the North American birds, life-size and how they are found in their natural surroundings.  He did not yet have enough material, though, to accomplish this task.  So he planned an extensive trip that would take him down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans, east to the Florida Keys and then to Cincinnati by way of Arkansas and Hot Springs.  This trip would enable him to search for new bird specimens that he would shoot, dissect and draw.   During the trip he would also study the habitat and vegetation in order to include text with his drawings.

The 1820 Trip

Accompanied by a thirteen year old student of his, Joseph Mason, Audubon sailed on a flatboat from Cincinnati on October 12, 1820.  Mason would grow to be one of Audubon's most important associates in the making of the Birds of America.  Of the four hundred and thirty-five paintings, Joseph Mason painted the floral backgrounds in over fifty of these.  Audubon met Lucy's brother-in-law on Christmas Day, 1820 when their flatboat reached Natchez, Mississippi.  He invited Audubon to join him in the trip to New Orleans on his keelboat.  They reached  New Orleans on January 7, 1821.  Having no money for lodging, Audubon used his talents of producing portraits to support himself.  The journey to New Orleans turned out to be unsuccessful as Audubon spent little time  producing portraits or working on  the Birds of America project.

Audubon came across James Pirrie, a prosperous cotton planter of Feliciana Parish, on his travels to the north.  From June, 1821 to October of the same year, Audubon served as the tutor for Pirrie's daughter, Eliza, in drawing, music and dancing.   Finding the region of Feliciana Parish filled with fauna and flora, he spent spare moments portraying the birds there.  This five month period was most favorable for both Audubon and Mason, his student.  During this time, Mason unveils his expertise in painting a realistic setting for the birds while Audubon demonstrated his talents in producing the color, design and drama of the birds.

After the five months in Feliciana Parish, Audubon and Mason returned to New Orleans.   Upon his return, Audubon recruited students for drawing lessons and started the task of arranging, correcting and revising the notes that would supplement the birds.   By the time he left Cincinnati, he finished sixty-two drawings of birds and plants along with about fifty portraits.  Even though he sent money home to his wife in Kentucky, Audubon suffered from a feeling of emptiness.  He missed his wife and sons and the negative comments received from others hurt his sense of well-being and purpose.

December of 1821 brought the reunion of Audubon and his family.  Lucy was able to obtain work as a nurse to further provide for the family's needs.  Although Audubon was happy with this reunion, he was bothered by his own position financially.   Therefore, he soon made up his mind to seek financial stability in Natchez where he would teach French, music and drawing in a school.  With this added work, he was unable to progress in the production of his book.

Confusion, bankruptcy and aimlessness are words that can be used to describe Audubon's life between the years of 1821 and 1824.  His personality was filled with vanity and he possessed a heavy ill-temper and ingratitude in his dealings with others.  He did not fit the world of a charismatic artist. 

Philadelphia in 1824

Audubon returned to Philadelphia in the spring of 1824.  A main contribution to this troublesome visit was his arrogance and quarrelsome temperament.  There in Philadelphia, Audubon met Charles Lucien Bonaparte, the twenty-one year old son of Napoleon Bonaparte's brother, Lucien.  Charles Lucien arrived in the United States with his Uncle Joseph, Spain's former King, who settled in Philadelphia.  A distinguished naturalist, Charles Lucien published one hundred birds that were not earlier discovered in his work American Ornithology Not Given by Wilson.  His kindness not only imparted him to introduce Audubon to the members of the Academy of Natural Sciences, but also made arrangements for an exhibit of Audubon's drawings at the Academy.  Nevertheless, Audubon succeeded in making three enemies.  Titian R. Peale, the primary illustrator of Bonaparte's book, was proud that his portraits were not drawn from stuffed specimens.  Despite Peale's close connection with Bonaparte, Audubon did not hide his disdain of Peale's drawings.  Another enemy was the engraver of Wilson's book, Alexander Lawson.  Now preparing the plates for Bonaparte's book, Lawson revealed his disdain for Audubon's work saying that his drawings were not fit for engraving and were not realistic.  Lastly, Wilson's friend, biographer and editor of the final two volumes of his work, George Ord, became Audubon's foe.  Ord did not welcome a competitor, especially one that could lessen the success and significance of his own work.  It came as no surprise when Audubon praised his drawings over those of Wilson's, while Ord criticized the habit Audubon had of encircling his birds with forms of embellishment such as plants or tree branches. 

Audubon received clear hints that no one in Philadelphia would publish his book.   However, he was well received by Edward Harris, a wealthy man from Morristown, New Jersey.  Harris not only bought some drawings of Audubon, but he also joined him on the expedition to Florida in 1837.  Audubon likewise leaned toward a trip to Europe as Bonaparte suggested that he would be able to publish his drawings there.

Off to England

On May 17, 1826, Audubon began his sail from New Orleans to Liverpool, England equipped with letters of introduction.  He was quickly befriended by Richard Rathbone upon his arrival on July 21st.  Audubon was fortunate to be looked after by Rathbone, whose family was prominent in banking and business.  Rathbone took the opportunity to introduce Audubon to community leaders.  Besides this, he also arranged for an exhibition at the Royal Institution for two hundred and twenty-five of Audubon's drawings.   Prominent citizens  expressed their adulation for Audubon's achievements, making this exhibition a great accomplishment.  Unlike Philadelphia, Audubon's visit to England served to upbuild his sense of purpose and well-being due to the warm public reception and praise given to him. 

Audubon's strong desire to paint the birds of North America remained.  He was overwhelmed by the reception he received in Liverpool since the lack of appreciation elsewhere had contributed to much uncertainty.  Audubon once remarked, "My poor heart is at last relieved...for I now know that I have not worked in vain."

Now focusing on the chore of publishing his work, Audubon was as energetic as he was when painting the birds.  Potential publishers and subscribers in Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh, reviewed the prospects of printing his life-sized paintings.   Originally, he desired to print four hundred paintings in eighty parts consisting of five parts each.  The fee for this would be two guineas per part.  Each plate would be made of one full page, two medium and two small illustrations.  Four hundred and thirty-five illustrations in eighty-seven parts completed the contents of the final work.  Subscriber fees would meet the amount of the engraver's expenses. 

Edinburgh engraver, William Lizars, finished the printing of the first group of plates in February 1827.  These five paintings were the Wild Turkey, the Prothonotary Warbler, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, the Purple Finch and the Canada Warbler.  The Wild Turkey now enjoys the recognition of being Audubon's most famous plate.  Audubon was able to give his subscribers a pick of diverse and colorful birds and backgrounds which were masterfully enhanced by Joseph Mason's artistic abilities. 

In order to publicize the publication of Birds of America, Audubon traveled to London, a place where international culture, finance and politics came together.

His Relationship with Havell Begins

Once in London, Audubon was disappointed to hear from William Lizars that the production of Birds of America had come to a stand still due to a strike of the colorists in Edinburgh.  Besides the fact that this strike delayed the printing schedule, it also decreased the needed income from the subscribers' fees, which was to cover the cost of underwriting the project.  To Audubon's delight, he came into contact with Robert Havell, Jr., whose family owned The Zoological Gallery in Newman   Street, London.  Among other things, such as artists' supplies and books of natural history, The Zoological Gallery more importantly sold engravings.  Havell quickly became indispensable to Audubon in the production of Birds of America.   Without a doubt, Havell's impressive engravings was a strong foundation for the distinguished reputation that Audubon later earned. 

Although Audubon and Havell became good friends, his services were not taken for granted by Audubon.  In order to cover all the expenses, Audubon took on the job of a diligent salesman, promoting his work to potential subscribers.  He also painted portraits regularly as he had before to cover the different costs that presented themselves.

Success in Paris

To further advance the interests in Birds of America, Audubon traveled to Paris in September 1828, meeting and introducing his paintings to the distinguished class.   He was favorably received  at the Museum of Natural History by Baron Georges Leopold Cuvier, naturalist and paleontologist.  Audubon was able to display his works before members of the Academie Royale des Sciences which was made possible by Cuvier.   To say the least, Audubon was overwhelmed by the favorable expressions of this talented group of men.

Audubon even succeeded in having a nobleman as a subscriber.  This was the  Duc d'Orleans, who later became King Louis Phillipe, along with the Duchess.   Pierre-Joseph Redoute, renowned flower painter, arranged this presentation of Audubon's portfolio.  As can be seen, Audubon was able to come into contact with the right people in his endeavor to promote his work.  His stay in Paris ended with the total recruitment of fourteen new subscribers.

Loneliness was now creeping up on Audubon.  Upon his return to London, he longed for the company and comfort of his loving family.  Due to this strong desire, Audubon began preparations to rejoin his family by sailing to New York in April, 1829.  John George Children , a member of the zoology department of the British Museum and the secretary of the Royal Society, was put in charge by Audubon to supervise the business.   It turns out that this was a good choice on the part of Audubon as Children proved to be one of the best advocates for him among London's upper class.

Although the reunion with Lucy and visiting friends was the priority of his trip, Audubon also took the opportunity to gather new material.  Not only did he wish to shoot and preserve the skins of many birds, but he also wished to make revisions to a portion of his earlier paintings.  The Lyceum of Natural History in New York agreed to show an exhibition of Audubon's paintings.  Audubon also made it a point to visit Philadelphia in order to see Dr. Richard Harlan, naturalist and author of Fauna Americana, and Thomas Sullly, esteemed portrait painter.  Then traveling to Camden, New Jersey, the Delaware River was chosen as Audubon's place to hunt, study, and paint the avifauna.  Great Egg Harbor was the setting for several of the original drawings of the plates of Birds of America:  the Vestor Sparrow, Ovenbird, Yellow-breasted Chat, Acadian Flycatcher, Rough-legged Hawk and Warbling Vireo.  Two months were next spent in the Great Pine Swamp in Pennsylvania where Audubon collected and drew many small land birds that resided there.  Audubon did not forsake the birds living in the woods near Feliciana.  He took the time to draw them when he was again reunited with his wife.

New Year's Day of 1830 found the Audubons aboard a steamboat that was bound for Louisville.  The purpose of this journey was to spend a few months with Lucy's relatives.  These months also afforded Audubon the chance to stuff birds surrounding the falls of the Ohio River.  Their next journey together was to Washington, D.C., where they met Edward Everett, leader of the House of Representatives.  Everett arranged for the drawings and plates of Audubon to be presented before the members of Congress.  He also arranged for the Library of Congress to become a new subscriber to Birds of America.    During this occasion, the Audubons also had the privilege of being entertained by President Andrew Jackson.

On April 1, 1830, the Audubons sailed for Liverpool as the business in London now required personal attention from Audubon.  While Lucy remained in Liverpool with her sister, Audubon traveled on into London.  There he was told that his journey to the United States had cost him some subscribers, which presented the need to paint pictures and enroll new subscribers again.  However, while he was away, Audubon was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.  Since this was the most prominent British learned Society, he was no doubt pleased to hear this good news.

Audubon enlisted the editorial assistance for the text of Birds of America as his writing skills were minimal.  This assistance came from William MacGillivray who later published the five volume History of British Birds.  The winter of 1830 to 1831 was spent writing the text together. 

The financial expenses of printing were carried by Audubon himself.  Although he acquired much success with his first published volume, Audubon was still very concerned about the financial aspect of the work.  For this reason, he turned towards the United States.  His goal would be to recruit new subscribers along with the collection of more birds.

Edward Everett, his Washington connection, once again helped Audubon upon his return to the United States.  Public exhibitions both in the Library of Congress and in the Boston Athenaeum were arranged by Everett.  He also arranged for the nomination of Audubon for a fellowship in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  Audubon's stay in the United States was very victorious as he finally won the praise of critics, acknowledging his artistic talents.

Between 1831 and 1834, Audubon was involved in new travels, searching for additional specimens.  His first journey brought him to Charleston, South Carolina.   Accompanying him were George Lehman, who painted many of Audubon's backgrounds, and Henry Ward, an English taxidermist.  A Lutheran minister of Charleston, Reverend John Bachman, turned his house into Audubon's headquarters.  Maria Martin, Bachman's sister-in-law, later began to paint backgrounds for Audubon's birds.  Another interesting fact between Bachman and Audubon was that Audubon's sons married the preachers two daughters.  The relationship that these two men shared turned out to be one of the most valuable friendships Audubon experienced. 

Leaving Charleston, Audubon commenced an expedition along the east coast of Florida, beginning with St. Augustine.  From here, his journey led him up the St. John's River to the islands between St. Augustine and Key West.  In his mission for new specimens, Audubon would shoot a minimum of a hundred birds each day.  This particular expedition afforded him the opportunity to draw the Great White Heron.  In this print, George Lehman reproduced the town of Key West for the background.  Lehman and Audubon other associate, Henry Ward, were both dismissed at the end of the Florida journey.

Audubon returned to Philadelphia where his family was still living in the spring of 1832.  With the dismissal of Audubon's two associates, he enlisted the help of his two sons in his growing business.  Victor would travel to London to address financial details and overlook the engraving and coloring of the plates.  John would travel with his father on expeditions to assist in collecting and drawing both birds and their backgrounds.

The one hundred and eighty subscribers in the beginning of 1833 all expected to receive a total of four hundred plates over the course of seven or eight years.  Therefore, Robert Havell had to continually be supplied with new drawings so that no interruption would occur in the income secured from the subscribers.  Due to this demand, Audubon spent another year in the United States in order to collect new material.  The summer of 1833 was spent studying breeding habits of the water birds, making twenty-three drawings and collecting around two hundred birds and a small amount of mammals.   Although in Audubon's seventeen hour work day he hoped to discover new species on this trip, he was not able to find new ones.

Audubon next traveled to Charleston, South Carolina again and visited with John Bachman.  Since the mid-eighteenth century, Charleston was abundant in the study of natural history and Bachman knew all of the active physicians and naturalists involved.   Bachman introduced Audubon to them and he was able to receive much support for his efforts.  Audubon's gratitude for their kindness led him to embellish the Long-billed Curlew plate with a few of both Charleston and Fort Sumter.

The planning of volumes three and four were now in Audubon's mind upon his return to London in May 1834.  William MacGillivray once again helped with the text in these volumes.  The Ornithological Biography was published in December of 1835.   With the publication came Audubon's announcement to publish the last of his work along with the final volume of text by the end of 1838.

Another journey to the southern and western sections of the United States was taken by Audubon and his son John.  They arrived in New York in September 1836 as they now concentrated on finding new specimens.  Audubon heard that John Kirk Townsend of Philadelphia and Thomas Nuttall, ornithologist of Harvard University, discovered new birds and had sent these new specimens to the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences.   The Academy only allowed for Audubon to have a brief view of these birds which did not give sufficient time for him to inspect and draw these new species.  However, Audubon did meet Nuttall in his trip to Boston.  Nuttall respected his interests and decided to sell Audubon ninety-three duplicate specimens retrieved from the regions of the Rocky Mountains and Columbia River.  Audubon was ecstatic with this offer and included a number of these duplicates in his work.

Audubon, accompanied by Edward Harris and Audubon's son John, set out on a journey to Galveston Bay.  Protection was given to the three of them since the Republic of Texas had just recently won its independence from Mexico.  Although no new species were discovered, Audubon was able to see many different birds on this expedition of Galveston Island.

The dream that Audubon had envisioned of the publication of his book was now fulfilled on June 20th, 1838.  Now fifty-four years of age, the completion of his fifth volume freed Audubon from the responsibilities linked to this project, therefore enabling him to return to the United States.  The return back home did not stop him from working, though.  Audubon started work on miniature editions of Birds of America and The Quadrupeds of America.  The total cost of this work was one hundred dollars which was about one-tenth what was charged for his other work.

Now that Audubon had received enough income from all of his hard work, he bought thirty-five acres of land of what is presently known as Washington Heights in New York City.  He worked on illustrating the Quadrupeds here and this is also the house where he set out on an exploration of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. 

Following 1847, Audubon no longer had the ability to draw or paint.  The Quadrupeds project had to be completed by his son Victor.  With deteriorating mind and health, Audubon died on January 27, 1851.

Different aspects involved in Audubon's work show many qualities to admire.  For example, unlike others, the financial expenses of Audubon were never taken care of by the federal government, state agency or other foundations.  Audubon's entire financial burden was carried by himself and the family of his wife, Lucy.  Although some uncertainties went along with keeping the burden within the family, doing this also made Audubon's achievements more rewarding and permanent.

Today, bird illustrators have many easy ways to access the information needed for them to draw accurate paintings.  They enjoy the comfort that travel can bring, sophisticated optical equipment and a numerous amount of publications dealing with the natural world.  Looking at Audubon's work, many are amazed that he did this with only his legs, eyes and a gun at his disposal.

Another aspect deserving admiration was that up until the nineteenth century, Audubon's book was the largest and most expensive that was published.  Since all of his paintings were made life-size, this took much creativeness on his part to accomplish the production of such a different style.

Audubon's paintings are not only filled with such vitality and beauty, but they are also informative.  He added information including what birds eat, their behavior, habits, where they live and how they breed.  This detailed information along with the extraordinary paintings make Audubon's work both factual and visually pleasing to the eye.   This goal is something to be reached by all students of the natural world.   Whether students or just observers, the work of John James Audubon is a legacy that will continue to be enjoyed by all.

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