John James Audubon

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JOHN JAMES AUDUBON American (1785-1851)

John James Audubon ornithologist, naturalist and painter, is known as America's most important wildlife artist. Known for his expansive approach to the study of birds and their natural habitats, his widely acclaimed, critically important work, 435 hand colored etchings the Birds of America (1827 - 1839) is considered one of the finest and most comprehensive ornithological works ever produced. Audubon's goal for the work was to document all the American bird species, life size shown in their native habitat, His amazingly original compositions combined with his eye for scientific detail along with the massive scale of the finished images make the Birds of America a true work of American genius. Not content to rest once his study of American birds was complete, he continued his work, publishing the Royal Octavo edition of the Birds of America, The Quadrupeds of North America, and the octavo edition of the Quadrupeds. .Along with contributing beautifully detailed, unprecedented images, Audubon identified 25 new species and various new sub-species during the course of his studies.

Born Jean-Jacques Audubon in the French colony of Saint-Dominique (now Haiti) to French naval officer, Jean Audubon, and his mistress, Jeanne Rabine, the artist was raised by his father and stepmother, Anne Audubon, in Nantes, France. From an early age, he showed a great interest in nature and art, with a special affinity for birds. "I felt an intimacy with them," he once said, "...bordering on frenzy that must accompany my steps through life."

Growing up amidst the chaos of post-Revolution France, Audubon took refuge in nature. He often explored the woods, returning with nature's own souvenirs such as birds' eggs and nests which became models for his sketches. At 18, Audubon immigrated to America, in part to escape conscription into Napoleon's army. Anglicizing his name to John James Audubon, he headed for his family's estate in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania, where he continued his pursuit of nature. He soon met Lucy Bakewell, a young teacher who would become his wife, and embarked on the first of his famous bird-banding experiments in North America, enhancing his knowledge of bird nesting habits.

To support his family, Audubon spent more than a decade in business, eventually traveling down the Ohio River into western Kentucky to establish a dry-goods store in Henderson. While in Kentucky, Lucy gave birth to two sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse, as well as two daughters, Rose and Lucy, both of whom died in early childhood. Audubon was not successful in his business ventures and was actually jailed for his bad debts. Once released from jail, he sold crayon portraits which gave him hope that he might support himself with his artistic talent.

With Lucy's blessing, Audubon eventually set off on his life's true quest: to document America's bird population. His goal was to challenge the work of Alexander Wilson, the premiere ornithological artist up to that point. In 1826, he brought his collection of over 300 drawings to Britain and found an immediately captive audience. Celebrating him as "The American Woodsman," the British fell in love with his exquisite bird portraits, characterized by a narrative quality and rich depictions of the creature portrayed and its habitat, a sort of precursor to the modern study of ecology. He raised enough money to begin publishing his monumental Birds of America, which redefined ornithological art.

By1838, Audubon had achieved fame and a modest degree of comfort. He traveled the country several more times in search of birds, eventually settling in New York City. He made one more trip out West in 1843, the basis for his final work, the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Audubon died in 1851 at age 65, and is buried in the Trinity Cemetery at 155th Street and Broadway in New York City.