Painting: John Syme courtesy of White House Historical Association

 Painting: John Syme courtesy of White House Historical Association

John James Audubon, 1785 - 1851

Audubon was born in Saint Domingue (now Haiti), he was the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and plantation owner and his Creole mistress. Audubon developed an interest in drawing birds during his boyhood in France. At age 18 he was sent to the United States in order to avoid conscription and to enter business. He lived on his family-owned estate at Mill Grove, near Philadelphia, where he hunted, studied, and drew birds, and eventually met his wife, Lucy Bakewell. 

At Mill Grove, he conducted the first known bird-banding experiment in North America by tying strings around the legs of Eastern Phoebes. The experiment revealed that the birds returned to the very same nesting sites each year.

With Frederick Rozier, Audubon attempted to operate a mine and then a general store first in Louisville, Kentucky, and then later in Henderson, Kentucky, but both ventures ended in failure and the partners went their separate ways. Audubon then attempted a few more business ventures with his brother-in-law, but these also failed. The hard times hit, and in 1819 he was briefly jailed for bankruptcy.

With no other prospects, Audubon set off with nothing but his gun, artist’s materials, and a young assistant. He floated down the Mississippi, living a rugged existence in the South, while Lucy supported their growing family as a tutor and governess to wealthy plantation families. 

By 1824 we was ready to publish his bird drawings and was advised to find a publisher in Europe, where he would find better engravers and a greater interest in his subject. In 1826, he sailed with his partly finished collection to England. He was literally an overnight success.

Until 1839, Audubon divided his time between Europe and the United States, gathering material, completing illustrations, and financing his publications through subscription.

He made one more trip out West in 1843, the basis for his final work of mammals, the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, completed with the aid of his sons and his friend, the naturalist John Bachman.

Audubon spent his last years in senility and died at 65.

Audubon was an avid hunter, but had a deep appreciation and concern for conservation. Many of his later writings sounded the alarm regarding the destruction of birds and habitat.

Selected Collections
Toronto Public Library, Toronto, ON
The Feckless Collection, Vancouver, BC
New York Historical Society, New York, NY
White House Art Collection, Washington, DC
University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC, USA
The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC