John James Audubon was born on April 26, 1785, in Les Cayes, Saint Domingue, Hispaniola (a former French colony; now Haiti). Audubon conducted his first scientific studies from his father's Pennsylvania estate. After trying and failing in several different types of business ventures, he concentrated on drawing and studying birds, and began traveling around the country to pursue this work. He got his extraordinary four-volume Birds of America published in London in 1827 and followed it up with several related works. He died in New York City in 1851.
John James Audubon was born in Les Cayes, in what is now Haiti, on April 26, 1785. The illegitimate son of French plantation owner Captain Jean Audubon and his Creole servant Jeanne Rabin, he was given the name Jean Rabin at birth. However, when his mother died shortly after his birth, he and his sister were sent to Nantes, France, where they were raised by the captain’s wife, Anne. The couple legally adopted the children in 1794 and gave Jean a new name: Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon.
Audubon’s new name came new privileges. He was given the education worthy of a wealthy merchant’s son, which included lessons in art, music and natural history. The boy was also afforded an abundance of leisure time to explore the world around him. It was during his youthful wanderings that Audubon began to develop an interest in the natural world. He grew particularly fascinated with birds, and was soon using his artistic abilities to sketch them on a regular basis.
In 1803, when Audubon was 18, war broke out between France and England. To keep him from being conscripted into the Emperor Napoleon’s army, his father sent him to his estate in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. He also put Audubon in charge of the lead mining operations there. Changing his name to John James Audubon en route, he wholeheartedly embraced the new world that he found waiting for him. Focusing his attention on birds, he continued his careful observations of their behavior, determined to depict them more accurately than his contemporaries did.
The year after his arrival in the United States, Audubon met and fell in love with a young woman named Lucy Bakewell. They married in 1808. When the mining operations in Mill Grove failed, they moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where Audubon set up a general store and Lucy gave birth to their first son. When business slowed there, Audubon moved his family and store further west to the town of Henderson, Kentucky.
While attempting to keep his business afloat and family fed, Audubon also took time to travel and hunt, becoming progressively more intimate with the natural environment and dedicated to documenting it. During this time, the couple had three more children, a son and two daughters; sadly, both of the girls died while they were both very young. Those personal tragedies were compounded by the ultimate failure of his business, which briefly landed Audubon in jail for unpaid debts.
Unsure of where to turn next, in 1820 Audubon headed south to study and draw birds. He eventually settled with his family in New Orleans. They survived on Lucy’s income as a governess, supplemented by the money Audubon could pull together by painting portraits on the street and teaching drawing. During this time, Audubon continued to build on his talents as an artist and credentials a naturalist, amassing a huge collection of drawings that distinguished themselves for their dramatic and life-like qualities.
Birds of America
By 1824, Audubon had grown intent on finding a publisher for his work, but was unable to generate any serious interest in the United States. Two years later, he set sail for the United Kingdom, where he hoped to at least be able to find engravers skilled enough to properly reproduce his work. The decision immediately proved a good one. He exhibited his work in both Scotland and England to great acclaim, fascinating the public with his impressive drawing skills as well as some tall tales he relayed about life on the American frontier.
The success of his exhibitions would finally lead to the first publication of the book for which he is now best known: Birds of America. Featuring more than 400 plates of his drawings, the four-volume work was printed in London by Havell & Son in 1827 and serialized until 1838. Accompanying it was Ornithological Biography, which featured text about the lives and behaviors of his subjects as well as highlights about Audubon’s adventures. He followed these seminal works with 1839’s A Synopsis of the Birds of North America.
Throughout this period, Audubon traveled back and forth between the United States and Europe, overseeing the publication of his works and also selling them in popular serialized subscriptions to admirers who included King George IV and United States President Andrew Jackson. His fame and fortune firmly established, in 1841 Audubon moved his family to a large rural estate on the Hudson in upper Manhattan, where he began work on a more compact edition of Birds of America.
However, neither advancing age nor public adulation would reduce the lure of the natural world for Audubon. So, in 1843 he ventured west to the Missouri River where he undertook research for a new work on mammals titled The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. However, by the time he began to assemble his drawings for the project, Audubon’s eyesight began to fail him and he became steadily more reliant on his sons and his collaborator, Reverend John Bachman, to help him complete it. In 1848, he suffered an incapacitating stroke that also began to affect his mind.
John James Audubon died at home on January 27, 1851, and was buried at Trinity Cemetery in New York City. He is remembered as one of the most important naturalists of his era, and his respect and concern for the natural world clearly marks him as one of the forefathers of the modern conservationism and environmentalism movements. In 1886, the first bird-preservation society, the National Audubon Society, was named in his honor. Countless wildlife sanctuaries, parks, streets and towns also bear his name and honor his legacy.
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