John James Audubon (1785-1851)

John James Audubon

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John James Audubon, a French-American ornithologist, naturalist and painter, was born on April 26, 1785 in Les Cayes in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti).  He was notable for his expansive studies to document all types of American birds and for his detailed illustrations that depicted the birds in their natural habitats.  He identified 25 new species and a number of new sub-species. 

John James Audubon was the illegitimate son of French naval officer, Lieutenant Jean Audubon and his mistress Jeanne Rabin, a chambermaid from France.  At the age of 4, Audubon traveled to France where he was educated among the upper classes.  At the age of 15 he was drawing French birds, and by age 17, he was studying drawing in Paris.  In 1823 Audubon took lessons in oil painting technique from John Steen, a teacher of American landscape, and history painter Thomas Cole.

Audubon made his goal the publication of an anthology of bird drawings, and financing his way with portraiture, he traveled the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and Great Lakes, settling in New Orleans.  He was unable to find a publisher in the United States, so he traveled to London where he stayed from 1826 to 1831.  Here he used William Lizars and Robert Havell, Jr. as engravers; however the association with Lizars ended in 1827.

In 1839, he finished a four volume series of life-sized bird portraits, The Birds of America.  The plates were published between 1827 and 1838, and the accompanying letterpress,Ornithological Biography, was completed in 1839.

Reverend John Bachman became a close friend and important ally in helping Audubon establish a reputation as a credible naturalist.  From 1845 to 1848, John Audubon’s second series, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, was published in three volumes.  The text was written by Bachman.

John Audubon developed his own method for drawing birds.  First, he killed them using fine shot, then used wires to prop them into a natural position.  This was unlike the common method of many ornithologists, who prepared and stuffed the birds into a rigid pose.  His paintings are set true-to-life in the birds’ natural habitat, and are all draw life size.  He often portrayed them as if caught in motion, especially feeding or hunting.  Audubon worked primarily with watercolor early on.  He used colored chalk or pastel to add softness to the feathers.  He employed multiple layers of watercolor, and sometimes used gouache. 

He died on January 27, 1851. Audubon is buried in the graveyard at the Church of the Intercession in the Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum at 155th Street and Broadway in New York City.

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