John James Audubon

Jun 22nd, 2011 | By | Category: Painting & Sculpture
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John James Audubon1785 – 1851  John James Audubon channeled a passionate interest in birds and their environment into a new way of depicting wildlife, and became one the of the great artists of the 19th century in the process. His audacious work, depicting every North American bird species, exemplified the new country’s pioneer spirit, and his name continues to represent a love for the wilderness.

Call of the Wild

Audubon was born in 1785 on the island of Santo Domingo, a French colony now known as Haiti. He was an illegitimate son of a French sea captain and his Creole mistress. Following his mother’s death, he was taken at age three to France, and raised by his father and new stepmother. Audubon showed an affinity for the outdoors, and drew and collected birds’ nests and eggs. Partly to avoid conscription in the army of French Emperor Napoleon, he was sent in 1803 to manage his father’s farm in Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. This proved to be a commercial failure, partly because Audubon spent much of his time exploring the neighboring woods, hunting and drawing specimens. He also conducted the first known experiment in banding birds’ legs to trace their migratory patterns, and met Lucy Bakewell whose father owned the neighboring property. During a one-year sojourn with his family in France at age 20, he received permission to marry Lucy and they wed in 1808.

She would prove to be a dedicated partner, working as a tutor and teacher as they ventured south to Kentucky. Audubon himself combined a series of business ventures with a growing interest in drawing and painting, “…prompted by an innate desire to acquire a thorough knowledge of the birds of this happy country.” While in Kentucky, Lucy gave birth to two sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse. Business was only sporadically successful, and Audubon was jailed briefly in 1819 for indebtedness. Soon thereafter he began making chalk portraits for sale, and in 1820 worked as a taxidermist in Ohio.

By this time, Audubon had fixed on the idea of illustrating every bird species in North America, and publishing the results. Accompanied by an artist assistant who specialized in insects and plants, he traveled the lengths of the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri Rivers, the Gulf Coast, and much of the Atlantic coast, gathering specimens and painting. During this period, Audubon began expanding his tools from pastels to watercolors, eventually adding other elements to the mix, and developing a uniquely naturalistic style. Previously, wildlife illustrators relied on stuffed specimens, depicted in stiff scientific poses. Audubon developed his own method of wiring freshly-killed birds in expressive postures, then painting them with a rich mixture of media in settings representing their natural environment and in full life-size representations.

With a representative portfolio in hand, Audubon returned to Philadelphia in 1824 to seek support. Dressed in buckskins and promoting himself as a pioneer, he gained some significant sponsors, including one accomplished artist who offered to give him free lessons in oil painting. However, a conservative faction was threatened by the brash newcomer’s attitude and radically new aesthetic. They succeeded in preempting his efforts, as a result of which Audubon traveled to Scotland and England in 1826 to seek support. There the pioneer persona of “The American Woodsman” met with great success, as did his original art and bold plan. He was able to sell 200 subscriptions to his proposed complete illustrations of the birds of North America at the then-huge price of $1,000, and engaged a prominent London engraving firm to reproduce hand-colored “double elephant folio” pages measuring over two feet by three feet each. It was the height of Europe’s Romantic Era, and Audubon had found his market. In 1829, he returned to America and his calling.

A Masterwork in the Making

Assisted by his sons, both artists in their own right trained to participate in their father’s undertaking, Audubon spent the next decade obsessively traveling, capturing and painting new species of birds. Apart from several brief trips to England, the work took all of his time. “The Birds of America” was completed in June of 1838. It was published in 87 parts, each containing five engraved plates, with a total of 435 hand-colored engravings depicting 489 species and 1,065 birds. Another published work, entitled “The Ornithological Biographies,” reflected Audubon’s observations of bird behavior in the field, with an ornithologist’s history of each species.

The success of his masterwork was immediate, and brought fame to Audubon. He lectured at public gatherings, was quoted in the press, and met such dignitaries as President Andrew Jackson. During this period, Audubon created another version of “The Birds of America” with smaller illustrations, reproduced via lithography instead of engravings, published from 1839 to 1843. Then in collaboration with his son John, he published “The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.” Based on their experience during a trip to the western frontier in 1843, it featured hand-colored lithographs of watercolors done by father and son, and was printed from 1845 to 1848.

Audubon retired in material comfort at this point, enjoying the results of his lifelong pursuits. He had bought a 35 acre piece of property called Minnie’s Land on the Hudson River shore of what is now upper Manhattan, where he spent his final years descending into senility. He died there at the age of 65 on January 27, 1851. In the course of his life and work (first editions of which now sell for as much as $4 million), he revolutionized the standards for wildlife illustration, developed a style and ability that ranked him among the great fine artists of his time, and presaged the development of the modern environmental conservation movement. His legacy continues in the work of The Audubon Society, which chose its name to reflect this pioneering artist’s love of birds and interest in preserving their natural habitat.


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