John James Audubon (1785-1851) was not the first person to attempt to paint and describe all the birds of America (Alexander Wilson has that distinction), but for half a century he was the young country’s dominant wildlife artist. His seminal The Birds of America, a collection of 435 life-size prints, quickly eclipsed Wilson’s work and is still a standard against which 20th and 21st century bird artists, such as Roger Tory Peterson and David Sibley, are measured.
It’s fair to describe John James Audubon as a genius, a pioneer, a fabulist, and a man whose actions reflected a dominant white view of the pursuit of scientific knowledge. His contributions to ornithology, art, and culture are enormous, but he was a complex and troubling character who did despicable things even by the standards of his day. He was contemporaneously and posthumously accused of—and most certainly committed—both academic fraud and plagiarism. But far worse, he enslaved Black people and wrote critically about emancipation. He stole human remains and sent the skulls to a colleague who used them to assert that whites were superior to non-whites.
Complicating this history is his ambiguous background: Some researchers have credibly argued that Audubon was born to a woman of mixed race, which would mean that the most famous American bird artist was a man of color. Others insist that Audubon’s mother was white. Audubon himself lied about the circumstances of his birth, claiming to have been born in Louisiana. Whatever his circumstances of his birth, his beliefs and actions speak for themselves.
Audubon died decades before the first Audubon societies were founded, so how did National Audubon Society come to bear his name? George Bird Grinnell, one of the founders of the early Audubon Society in the late 1800s, was tutored by Lucy Audubon, John James’s widow, and chose the name because of Audubon’s stature in the world of wildlife art and natural history.
John James Audubon was born in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) in 1785, the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and sugar plantation owner. The identity of his mother is in dispute; she could have been a French chambermaid named Jeanne Rabine, but there is compelling evidence that she was a mixed-race housekeeper named Catherine “Sanitte” Bouffard. At the age of 5—which coincided with the beginnings of the Haitian Revolution—Audubon was sent to Nantes, France and was raised by his father’s wife, Anne. There, John James Audubon took an interest in birds, nature, drawing, and music.
In 1803, at the age of 18, he was sent to America, in part to escape conscription into Emperor Napoleon’s army. He lived on the family-owned estate at Mill Grove, near Philadelphia, where he hunted, studied and drew birds, and met his wife, Lucy Bakewell. While there, he conducted the first known bird-banding experiment in North America, tying strings around the legs of Eastern Phoebes; he learned that the birds returned to the very same nesting sites each year.
Audubon spent more than a decade as a businessman, traveling down the Ohio River to western Kentucky—then the frontier—and setting up a dry-goods store in Henderson. He continued to draw birds as a hobby, amassing an impressive portfolio. He also bought and sold enslaved people during this time to support his venture. Audubon was successful in business for a while, but hard times hit, and in 1819 he was briefly jailed for bankruptcy.
With no other prospects, in the early 1820s Audubon set off to depict America’s avifauna, with nothing but his gun, artist’s materials, and a young assistant. In 1826, he sailed with his partly finished collection to England, where his life-size, highly dramatic bird portraits, along with his embellished descriptions of wilderness life, hit just the right note at the height of the Continent’s Romantic era. Audubon found a printer for The Birds of America, first in Edinburgh, then London, and later collaborated with the Scottish ornithologist William MacGillivray on the ornithological biographies—life histories of each of the species in the work.
The last print was issued in 1838, by which time Audubon had achieved fame and a modest degree of comfort, traveled the country several more times in search of birds, and settled in New York City. He made one more trip out West in 1843, the basis for his final work of mammals, the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, which was largely completed by his sons and the text of which was written by his long-time friend, the Lutheran pastor John Bachman (another anti-abolitionist whose daughters married Audubon’s sons).
Audubon died at age 65. He is buried in the Trinity Cemetery at 155th Street and Broadway in New York City.
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