Today's Hours
Museum: Closed
Gardens: 7:00 AM - 5:30 PM
Today's Hours
Museum: Closed
Gardens: 7:00 AM - 5:30 PM
Audubon, John James
(1785-1851)
Collection: American Collection
John James Audubon will always remain a bit of an enigma: an esteemed, if
amateur naturalist who disdained the "cabinet naturalists" who possessed
the scientific knowledge he lacked, a vastly gifted self-taught painter
who claimed lessons he never had, and a man of apparent openness bordering
on naivete who succeeded in shrouding his origins in such mystery that it
was more than a hundred years after his death before the truth was
discovered. We wouldn't bother, of course, if it weren't for the work.
Audubon's The Birds of America wasn't the first illustrated book on
American ornithology, but it remains the greatest. Even more than a
splendid opus on natural science, it is a magnificent work of art.

The romance of Audubon's life was almost enough to obscure his major
accomplishment. Myths about his origins have abounded. There was a rumor
during his lifetime later held by some of his descendants that he was
actually the "Lost Dauphin", the missing heir to the throne of France. Yet
he and his family also claimed not even to know the year of his birth.
According to his earliest written testimony, he was born around 1780 at
his father's plantation in Louisiana, the son of an exceptionally
beautiful Spanish Creole woman and a French admiral. In fact, he was born
Jean Rabin on April 26, 1785 in Les Cayes, Saint Domingue (later Haiti),
the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and merchant, Jean Audubon,
and a French chambermaid, Jeanne Rabin. When he was 3, young Jean was
brought to France and placed in the care of his father's indulgent wife.
He and his mulatto half-sister Rose were formally adopted by the Audubons
in 1794 and he was re-named Jean Jacques Fougere Audubon. But when his
father sought to protect him from conscription into Napoleon's forces in
1803, he was sent to Pennsylvania with a falsified passport that gave his
place of birth as Louisiana (making him nominally American) and his name
as John James Laforest Audubon, the name he would use the rest of his
life.

In 1808, Audubon married Lucy Bakewell whose family had recently emigrated
from England where they had been closely associated with prominent
scientists like Joseph Priestley and Erasmus Darwin. John James promptly
carried his young bride off to the wilds of Kentucky, where a series of
business disasters in Louisville and Henderson left them and their 2 sons
bankrupt by 1820. Audubon secured brief employment as a taxidermist at the
museum of Cincinnati College, but left when the directors proved unable to
pay his salary.

Audubon had been painting birds for close to 20 years by that point and
had encountered 2 notable amateur naturalists, Alexander Wilson and
Constantine Rafinesque, both of whom were planning illustrated books. He
and Lucy decided that his work was easily the equal of theirs and that his
energies should be put to gathering information and creating enough
paintings for a definitive work on American ornithology. Lucy took a
teaching position and supported herself and their sons while John James
explored the world of birds along the Mississippi and painted portraits
and gave drawing lessons in New Orleans to support himself while he
searched the swamps and bayous for new species.

In 1824, having accumulated enough paintings for a prospectus, Audubon
went to Philadelphia to seek publication. But friends of Alexander Wilson
denounced him and so denigrated his work that he was unable to find an
American publisher. Supporters urged him to try Europe where he would find
better engravers in any case. Once again, his wife's support was
indispensable. She gave him her savings and with $2,000 to make his dream
come true, he sailed for England in 1826. Fortunately, the English were
far more enthusiastic about his work than the Americans. Audubon quickly
became a sought-after dinner guest and media celebrity, the "American
Woodsman", complete with long, curly hair tamed with bear grease and
buckskin coat. The exhibitions of his paintings made him a tidy profit
while newfound friends introduced him to the best engravers available,
William Howe Lizars in Edinburgh, and when Lizars's colorists went on
strike, Robert Havell, Sr. and Robert Havell, Jr. in London. To complete
the establishment of his legitimacy as a naturalist, he was elected to the
Royal Society in 1830.

The Birds of America was a critical success and, with the issuance
of the royal octavo edition in 1846, 1851, and 1854, a financial success
as well. Now celebrated in his own country (Audubon had been naturalized
in 1812) as well as Europe, John James decided to extend his expertise to
mammals. In 1839, he began a collaboration with the Reverend John Bachman
on The Vivaparous Quadrupeds of North America. Unfortunately,
Audubon's health was beginning to fail and he was unable to complete the
sort of field studies that had been responsible for the beauty and
accuracy of his bird paintings. Eventually, close to half of the paintings
for Quadrupeds were done by John Woodhouse Audubon instead of his
father.

John James didn't live to see the publication of the full edition of
Quadrupeds. He died January 27, 1851 , Lucy by his side. Today,
Audubon's work is considered among the masterpieces of 19th century
American art and this man, born in the Caribbean and raised in France, is
considered perhaps the first quintessentially American artist.

Everl Adair, Director of Research and Rare Collections