Audubon, John James

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Audubon, John James

(ô`dəbŏn), 1785–1851, American ornithologist, b. Les Cayes, Santo Domingo (now Haiti). The illegitimate son of a French sea captain and plantation owner and a Creole chambermaid who died months after his birth, he was educated in France and in 1803 came to live in his father's estate, "Mill Grove," near Philadelphia. There he spent much time observing birds and making the first American bird-banding experiments. In 1808 he married Lucy Bakewell, whose faith and support were factors in his eventual success. Between 1808 and 1820 he lived mostly in Kentucky, frequently changing his occupation and neglecting his business to carry on his bird observations. He began painting portraits for a livelihood and descended the Mississippi to New Orleans, where for a time he taught drawing. From 1823 to 1828 his wife conducted a private school, in which he taught for a short time, in West Feliciana parish, La.

In 1826 Audubon traveled to Great Britain in search of a publisher and subscribers for his bird drawings, meeting with favorable response in Edinburgh and London. The Birds of America, in the large elephant folio size, was published in parts between 1827 and 1838, with engravings by Robert Havell, Jr. Unlike the static ornithological portraits of most of his predecessors, Audubon created drawings and paintings of birds infused with life and frequently including backgrounds that show their natural habitats. The accompanying text, called the Ornithological Biography (5 vol., 1831–39), was prepared largely in Edinburgh in collaboration with the Scottish naturalist William MacGillivray, who was responsible for its more scientific information. Extracts from Audubon's contributions, edited in 1926 by F. H. Herrick as Delineations of American Scenery and Character, reveal his stylistic qualities and furnish many pictures of American frontier life. Audubon worked on a smaller edition of his great work and also, in collaboration with John Bachman, began The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, which was completed by his sons Victor Gifford Audubon and John Woodhouse Audubon (plates, 30 parts, 1842–45; text, 3 vol., 1846–54). During these years his home was on the Hudson River in N Manhattan. While Audubon's works on bird life may not wholly satisfy either the critical artist or the meticulous scientist, their achievement in both areas is considerable. Reprinted many times, they are widely popular and remain one of the great achievements of American intellectual history.


See his journal (1929) and letters (1930, repr. 1969), both ed. by H. Corning; John James Audubon's Journal of 1826: Voyage to The Birds of America (2011), ed. by J. D. Patterson; biographies by A. Ford (1988) S. Streshinsky (1993), W. Souder (2004), and R. Rhodes (2004); The Art of Audubon: The Complete Birds and Mammals (1981), R. C. Tyler, ed., Audubon's Great National Work: The Royal Octavo Edition of "The Birds of America" (1993), A. Blaugrund and T. E. Stebbins, Jr., ed., The Watercolors for "The Birds of America" (1993), and S. V. Edwards, ed., Audubon: Early Drawings (2008); studies by A. J. Tyler (1937), S. C. Arthur (1937), A. E. Ford (1964), A. B. Adams (1966), F. H. Herrick (2d ed. 1938, repr. 1968), K. H. Proby (1974), and D. Hart-Davis (2004).

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Audubon, John James (b. Jean Jacques ?Fougere)

(1785–1851) painter, naturalist; born in Les Cayes, Haiti. The illegitimate son of a French sea captain and merchant, Jean Audubon, and a Creole woman, he was taken to France and legally adopted by Audubon and his wife (1794). He began drawing birds as a teenager (but few now accept his claim that he studied under the great David in Paris). In 1803 he moved to his father's estate near Philadelphia, where he spent his time hunting, experimenting with birds (he is credited with the first banding of wild birds in America), and also drawing the birds he hunted. After convincing her father that he could support her, in 1808 he married Lucy Bakewell; but soon he was going bankrupt operating stores and other business enterprises in Kentucky while he pursued his two real passions: observing and drawing wildlife. To make his finished paintings—for which he used a mix of pastel, watercolor, tempera and, later, oils—he would shoot or trap birds and other wildlife (or sometimes buy dead specimens in the market); at home he set them in lifelike poses by passing wires through the animals. Audubon moved to New Orleans in 1821, and Lucy soon was providing much of their income by tutoring, while Audubon contributed some by doing portraits and teaching art. Determined to publish his bird paintings in a large format, he was advised to go to Europe to find skilled engravers; he went to Great Britain (1826) where, in addition to lining up subscribers, he eventually obtained the help of master engraver Robert Havell, Jr. The great "double elephant" folio edition of The Birds of America (4 vols., 1827–38), with hand-colored engravings, enjoyed immediate success; the text was published separately (5 vols., 1831–39) as Ornithological Biography. He returned to America (1829–30 and 1831–34) to continue his search for as many species of birds as he could find. He went back to Europe (1834–39), and then settled permanently in the U.S.A. He issued a smaller edition of The Birds of America (1840–44), and with the naturalist John Bachman, worked almost until his death on The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (3 vols., 1845–54). Although criticized for certain scientific and artistic failings, Audubon's work still engages people with its dramatic and detailed images of wildlife.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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intended to sell, some I intended to keep." John James Audubon was born by the name of Jean Rabin in 1785 on a
Jean Rabin was one of many illegitimate children of Jean Audubon,