“A true conservationist is a man who knows
that the world is not given by his fathers,
but borrowed from his children.”
John James Audubon
I recently read, This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon. It’s a short book of just 171 pages about Audubon and what he accomplished in his life.
Jean Jacques Audubon was born in Les Cayes in the French colony of Saint-Domingue now known as Haiti on April 26, 1785. He was raised in Couëron, near Nantes, France until 1803 when at the age of 18 his father obtained a false passport for his son to go to America to avoid being drafted in the Napoleonic Wars. Upon arriving in America, his father changed his son’s name to, John James Audubon.
As a young man, Audubon had a kinship for birds. “I felt an intimacy with them…bordering on frenzy that must accompany my steps through life.” Studying American birds, he was determined to illustrate his findings in a more realistic manner than most artists. Along with drawing and painting birds, he also recorded their behavior. He conducted the first known bird-banding on the continent: he tied yarn to the legs of eastern phoebes and discovered that they returned to the same nesting spots every year.
Audubon developed his own methods for drawing birds. First, he killed them, then used wires to prop them into a natural position, unlike the common method of many ornithologists, who prepared and stuffed the specimens into a rigid pose. He became proficient at specimen preparation and taxidermy.
Often when working on a large bird such as an eagle, he would spend up to four 15-hour days, preparing, studying, and drawing it. Each paintings are set true-to-life in their natural habitat, portraying the birds as if caught in motion, especially feeding or hunting.
Although he did paint the birds in his drawings, it was his assistant Joseph Mason who painted the plant life and backgrounds of many of Audubon’s bird studies. Unfortunately, Mason was never credited in any of Audubon’s drawings.
By 1824 Audubon began to seek a publisher for his bird drawings. He met Thomas Sully, one of the most famous portrait painters of the time and a valuable ally, however Audubon was rejected for publication. He took oil painting lessons from Sully and met Charles Bonaparte, who admired his work and recommended he go to Europe to have his bird drawings engraved.
Two years later at age 41, Audubon took his growing collection of work to England. He sailed from New Orleans to Liverpool with his portfolio of over 300 drawings. Audubon quickly gained notoriety in England where he raised enough money to begin publishing his major work, a color-plate book entitled The Birds of America. It was printed on sheets measuring about 39 by 26 inches and contains more than 700 North American bird species, including 25 new species identified by Audubon. The cost of printing the entire work was $115,640 (over $2,000,000 today) and is considered one of the finest ornithological works ever completed.
Today most copies of The Birds of America can only be found in museums. However, a complete copy of the first edition was sold in January 2012 at Christie’s auction house in Manhattan for $7.9 million.
Audubon died at his family home in northern Manhattan on January 27, 1851. Fifty-four years after his death, George Bird Grinnell, who was appalled by the negligent and mass slaughter of birds that he saw taking place created the National Audubon Society. As a boy, Grinnell was inspired by Audubon’s work. So much so, that when Grinnell decided to create an organization devoted to the protection of wild birds and their eggs, he didn’t hesitate in using Audubon’s name.
Because of market hunting and the fashion industry many of the birds Audubon painted became extinct. Thanks to the work of the National Audubon Society there are thousands of birds that have been saved. John James Audubon’s work and research inspired many. He left a body of work for generations to enjoy which makes him truly, the bird man of America.