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Audubon Biography


Audubon, John James (Apr. 26, 1785 – Jan. 27, 1851), artist and ornithologist, perhaps the most popular naturalist of America, has so long been a figure of sentiment and idealism, and as a man and a scientist has suffered so from the touching up of enthusiastic biographers, that it has been difficult to divorce the romance of fiction from that of truth in what was in any case a most colorful and adventurous life. The facts of Audubon’s birth and parentage, long obscured by the haze of legend, have been established through the researches of Prof. Francis Herrick. Audubon’s father, Jean Audubon, a native of Les Sables d’Olonne on the Bay of Biscay, from boyhood had followed the sea. In 1770 he entered the Santo Domingo trade, and from 1774 captained his own ship. Captured by the British in 1779, he was held a prisoner in New York for several months. A short time after his release he was placed in command of the Queen Charlotte, with which in October 1781 he joined the fleet of De Grasse before Yorktown. After successively commanding several armed and trading vessels, in 1783 he was engaged by a firm of colonial merchants at Nantes to take charge of their West Indian trade, which centered at Les Cayes, Santo Domingo. He resided almost continuously at Les Cayes for a period of six years, and as merchant, planter, and dealer in slaves amassed a considerable fortune. During these years his wife, Anne Moyet Audubon, whom he had married in 1772, remained in France.

On his father’s plantation at Les Cayes the future naturalist was born. Little is known of his mother except that she was called “Mlle. Rabine” and was “a Creole of Santo Domingo” (Herrick, I, 52); it is probable that she died within a year after her son’s birth. In 1789 Jean Audubon with the boy, who was called Jean Fougere, or sometimes Jean Rabine, and his younger half-sister called Muguet, the daughter of another Creole, returned to France, where he settled in Nantes and became prominent figure in the Revolution. His wife received the children tenderly, and in 1794 they were legalized by a regular act of adoption in the presence of witnesses as the children of Jean and Anne Moyet Audubon. On Oct. 23, 1800, at Nantes, Fougere, “adoptive son of Jean Audubon…and Anne Moyet his wife” was baptized Jean Jacques Fougere Audubon. Confusion has been caused to biographers by the fact that young Audubon adopted for a time the fanciful name La Forest; some of his bird drawings of 1805-07 and possibly others of later date, are signed “J.L.F.A.” or “J.J.L. Audubon,” but he used the La Forest only sporadically, and later dropped it (Ibid., p.61).

Audubon’s education was that of a well-to-do bourgeois; he was instructed in mathematics, geography, music, and fencing, but his father, occupied with the affairs of the Republic, left the supervision of the boy’s studies to the indulgent stepmother, with the result that his formal schooling was sometimes neglected. Audubon, years afterward, regretted that as a boy he had no drill in writing his native tongue. He did, however, absorb the atmosphere of the revival of interest in nature which Rousseau, Buffon, and Lamarck had made popular, and by the time he was fifteen had begun a collection of his original drawings of French birds. Recognizing the boy’s lack of discipline, his father put him into a military school for a year, but the experience did not have much permanent effect, and, having always encouraged the lad’s taste for natural history and drawing, in 1802-03 Jean Audubon enabled him to study drawing for a few months in Paris.

In the autumn of 1803 young Audubon left France for America. Early in 1804 he reached the estate his father had bought in 1789, “Mill Grove,” near Philadelphia, where for a time he lived the life of a country gentleman, essentially free from money cares, hunting with dog and gun, a sentimental and enthusiastic observer of nature. The Audubon Societies that now form a league of bird protection over the country have created a picture of Audubon as a passionate protector of wild life. In his early years, at least, he was, by his own admission, a great sportsman, killing for amusement as well as food, and he remained a hunter even after he had achieved a reputation as an ornithologist. Only to the middle period of his life, too, belongs the familiar picture of Audubon as a pioneer; in his early years he roamed the placid Pennsylvania countryside in satin pumps and silk breeches. Nevertheless, it was during this period that he began his studies of American bird life. Peewees nesting in a cave attracted his attention; he took the cave for a study, and “it must be set down to Audubon’s credit that in the little cave on the banks of the Perkioming, in April 1804, he made the first ‘banding’ experiment on the young of the American wild bird.” He fastened a light silver thread to the legs of some of the baby peewees, and the next spring found that two of them had returned to the region and were nesting a little way up the creek from their place of birth. “Little could he or anyone else then have thought that 100 years later a Bird Banding Society would be formed in America to repeat his test on a much wider scale, in order to gather exact data upon the movements of individuals of all migratory species in every part of the continent” (Ibid., pp. 107-8).

In 1804, also, he met and became engaged to Lucy, daughter of William Bakewell, an Englishman settled on a neighboring estate. Early in 1805, having quarreled with his father’s agent, who owned an interest in a lead mine at Mill Grove, and was acting as Audubon’s guardian, he walked to New York, obtained money to pay his passage from Benjamin Bakewell, the uncle of his fiancée, and went back to France. After a year, during which he may have served for a time in the French navy, in 1806 he formed a partnership with Ferdinand Rozier, the son of one of his father’s business associates, and returned to America. For a time they tried without success to operate the lead mine, then sold the Audubon interest in Mill Grove; Rozier found a position in Philadelphia, and Audubon entered Benjamin Bakewell’s counting house in New York. In August 1807 the partners decided to seek their fortunes in the West, bought a stock of goods in New York, and went to Louisville, where they opened a general store. Although the business suffered somewhat as a result of the Embargo Act, Audubon went to Philadelphia in June 1808, married Lucy Bakewell, and took her back to Louisville.

In Kentucky, then almost a wilderness, Audubon’s penchant for natural history had fresh scope and encouragement, and, entirely out of touch with other ornithologists, working as an artist and a lover of nature more than a scientist, he went on with his bird paintings. But his interest in mercantile affairs was not sufficient to win success against competition in the growing town of Louisville, so in the spring of 1810 he and Rozier loaded up a flatboat and floated 125 miles down the Ohio to Henderson, Ky. Here history was repeated; “during their stay in Henderson Rozier was in his habitual place behind the counter and attended to what little business was done, while Audubon with a Kentucky lad named John Pope, who worked as nominally a clerk, roamed the country in eager pursuit of rare birds, and with rod and gun bountifully supplied the table” (Ibid., p. 237).

At Henderson and in other parts of Kentucky to which business vicissitudes or whimsy removed him, Audubon gathered a rich store of the flavor and the personalities of pioneer life on the Ohio, which formed the basis of the sketches of western life scattered throughout the “Ornithological Biography”. His acquaintance with Daniel Boone has perhaps been overstressed by some biographers, and has gone far to tinge with the color of the great huntsman and explorer the really very different personality of Audubon. During these Kentucky years, he was visited by some famous people, and each visit has built up the curious picture of Audubon which tradition has left. Possibly the most famous of these episodes is the chance meeting, in 1810, with Alexander Wilson, the foremost ornithologist of America at that time, over the counter of Audubon's store. The two had never met nor heard of one another before, and the interview was not cordial. Audubon, out of jealousy, as he admits (Audubon and His Journals, vol. II, p. 200), did not subscribe for a set of Wilson's ornithological works and found the little Scottish stranger dour and secretive, while Wilson records of his visit that “science or literature has no one friend in this place” (American Ornithology, IX, 39). This meeting and the charges of plagiarism growing out of if formed the basis for a feud, revived and nurtured in later years by George Ord, the friend and biographer of Wilson. Another episode, the visit of Constantine Samuel Rafinesque in 1818, is an exhibition of the prankish and unpredictable character of our artist-naturalist, but unfortunately had consequences not foreseen at the time. Rafinesque was gullible in the extreme, and Audubon could not resist the temptation to sketch for him, in all solemnity, fishes and birds most marvelous and mythical, which Rafinesque proceeded to publish as new species, much to the bewilderment of later zoologists. Here and in some of his own bird drawings, Audubon showed a disregard for the truth that science demands which has done irreparable hurt to his reputation as a naturalist.

The business partnership with Rozier was not a success, so after another fruitless venture it was dissolved, though the friendship continued. Audubon then, in association with his brother-in-law, Thomas Bakewell, and others, attempted successively several different enterprises, the last being a steam grist and lumber mill, at Henderson, which was too elaborate for the needs of the new country and failed in 1819. Audubon, the heaviest loser, was jailed for debt, but was released on the plea of bankruptcy with only the clothes he wore, his gun, and his original drawings. This disaster ended his business career. Turning to account for his artistic skill, for a time he did crayon portraits at five dollars a head, then, in the winter of 1819-20, he took his family to Cincinnati, where he became a taxidermist in the new Western Museum, just founded by Dr. Daniel Drake. Some time in 1820 the possibility of publishing his bird drawings occurred to him, and thereafter his life had a definite aim. In October of that year he started down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, exploring the country for birds, and paying his expenses by portraits. After a period in New Orleans, where Audubon worked as a tutor and drawing teacher, and even painted street signs, Mrs. Audubon obtained a position as a governess and took upon her shoulders the burden of the needy family – a burden she sustained for some twelve years.

In 1824 Audubon made a journey to Philadelphia, in a search of a publisher. He was encouraged by C.L. Bonaparte, and by Thomas Sully, who gave him lessons in the use of oils, but encountered the opposition of the friends of Alexander Wilson, under the leadership of George Ord. Bonaparte and the engraver Fairman advised him to seek a publisher in Europe, where he would find a greater interest in his subject, and the requisite skill to reproduce his drawings. He returned to the West by way of Niagara Falls and the Great Lakes, and spent the next year with his wife at Francisville, La., teaching music and drawing to her pupils. In the spring of 1826, with the funds raised from teaching and Mrs. Audubon's savings, he took his drawings to Europe. He was favorably received at Liverpool, where he obtained his first subscribers, and he was lionized in Edinburgh. He formed a pleasant acquaintanceship with Sir Walter Scott, and in March 1827 was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. The man of the hour in Scotland, he continued, as during the lean years in America, to pay his expenses by painting, though copies in oils of his birds had superseded portraits. In 1827 he went to London, with many letters of introduction but was not enthusiastically received as he had been in Edinburgh, though at last the king subscribed for his books and set the fashion in his favor.

Wm. Lizars, the Edinburgh engraver who had undertaken the work of publishing the birds, gave it up after producing ten plates, and Audubon was forced to find another engraver. He finally reached an agreement with Robert Havell, Sr. and Robert Havell, Jr., of London, “who, through eleven years of the closest association with his new patron became one of the greatest engravers in aquatint the world has ever seen” (Herrick, I, 362).

The Birds of America, in elephant folio size, began to appear in 1827, in parts of 5 plates each: it occupied in its several publication and subsequent reprintings eleven years, and frequent trips to and from America. During all this time Audubon was engaged in obtaining subscribers, a task more favorable in Europe with a ready scientific audience, than in America. Among the people whom he approached was the famous Baron Rothschild, with whom Audubon had, as he relates it, an unpleasant dealing, discreditable to the Baron's honesty. Whatever the rights of the case may be, it is evident that as success crowned his work, Audubon became by turns increasingly vain, touchy, and buoyantly good-natured. He has been called egotistic, but there was nothing so ponderous in his character; he had, rather, an almost womanish vanity, that extended to his famous face, his clothes, at first elegant, then consciously rustic, and to the long backwoodsman ringlets which he would wear, no matter where he went.

In October 1830 he and Mrs. Audubon settled temporarily in Edinburgh, where he began the work on the text of the Birds of America, to be called Ornithological Biography. He had considered asking William Swainson, with whom he had became intimate, to collaborate on the text, but finally made connection with William MacGillivray, than whom "a better trained or more competent helper…could hardly have been found in Great Britain or elsewhere" (Ibid., I, 438). Edinburgh publishers would offer nothing for the first volume, so it was published in 1831 at Audubon's expense, and although several competing works appeared at about the same time, "was well received and drew forth immediate and unstinted praise from many sources" (Ibid., I, 445).

Having achieved a European reputation, Audubon returned to America in 1831 acclaimed the foremost naturalist of his country. His first American notice had appeared in the American Journal of Science in 1829; in November 1830, upon nomination of Edward Everett, he was elected a fellow of the American Academy, and in 1832 was the subject of the first of a series of articles by W.B.O. Peabody in the North American Review. There were controversies and criticisms, of course – Charles Waterton was the most persistent heckler – but on the whole the stay in America between 1831 and 1834 was a pleasant and fruitful one. The year of his return Audubon met John Bachman [q.v.] in Charleston, and began what was to be a life-long friendship, cemented by the marriage of Audubon's sons to Bachman's daughters in 1837 and 1839. He went on several expeditions, in the company of his younger son, his friend and patron Edward Harris, and others, exploring the dunes and lagoons of the Texas coast, the palmetto groves of Florida, and the wild coast of Labrador, where the destruction of the gannets in their rare breeding-grounds awoke from him a passionate cry of protest that still rings with the appeal and authority of great poetry. His Labrador Journals are stirring reading, and distinctly the best contribution to natural history among his diaries.

In 1834 he went back to Edinburgh to continue his work on the Ornithological Biography. Havell issued the last part of the Birds of America in June 1838; the concluding volume (vol.V) of the Ornithological Biography appeared in May of the next year, followed, in the summer, by the Synopsis of the Birds of North America, a methodical catalogue of the birds then known, prepared with the efficient help of MacGillivray.

The great work finished, Audubon returned to America, began work on a “miniature edition” of the Birds, and almost immediately undertook the preparation, in collaboration with John Bachman, of the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. In 1841 he bought land on the Hudson, and the next year settled finally on his estate, “Minnies’s Land,” which is now Audubon Park, New York City. With old age came a kindlier attitude toward his former rivals; he was the adviser and encourager of young artists (notably Spencer F. Baird [q.v.], who had begun a correspondence with Audubon at the age of seventeen), the revered and adored sage, and patron saint of the birds. His latter years, indeed, accorded closely with the popular legend that has grown up about him, so that at the time of his death in January 1851 the real man was already merged in the traditional Audubon of romance. His powers had failed in the last few years, and the completion of the Quadrupeds for which he had finished about half of the large drawings was left to his sons. The colored plates (originals by J.J. and J.W. Audubon) were published in two volumes (1842-45), and the text in three volumes (1846-54).

The legacy of Audubon’s work must be judged by a dual standard – as art and as science. Artists have thought him too photographic, scientists find his work too emotional and impressionistic. Though Cuvier said of the drawings that they were “la plus magnifique monument que l’art ait encore elevé à la science,” others have thought his work greatly over-praised, and even an admirer like Coues admits that many of his birds are posed in attitudes anatomically impossible. Where Audubon was interested in a bird he would lavish on its representation a microscopic detail satisfying to the most critical scientist. In other cases he washed in his colors with an eye only to the impressionistic effect produced by the bird in some strained pose caught in a split second of time. His passion for representing birds in violent action had obvious advantages and defects, but it bears witness to the fact that he studied and painted birds from life, not stuffed in museum cases. Audubon was above all an out-of-doors naturalist; he possessed no formal scientific training and no aptitude for books or taxonomy, nor did he care particularly about describing new species of birds, though he certainly observed numerous such. The Latin nomenclature and the scientific identification of most of the species in the Birds of America is largely the work of MacGillivray, whilst most of what may be called systematic science in the Quadrupeds of America is probably due to Bachman, Audubon supplying the brilliant drawings, the fund of incident and personal observation, and the peculiar literary flavor of the biographical part, which is sometimes sentimental but always vivid. Weighed with all detractions in the balance, however, Audubon remains, with Alexander Wilson, at the head of early American ornithology. Contrasted with the work of Wilson, Audubon’s ornithology had a greater usefulness in that it included many birds that Audubon had never seen but merely knew by report, while Wilson confined himself to his own observations, which had been more limited than Audubon’s in any case. As a pioneer manual of American ornithology, Audubon’s work stands out preeminently, whilst the earlier work of his great rival Wilson was more original, more steadily scientific, and more circumscribed. As to the literary style and the magnificence of the illustrations, there can be no choice between the work of the two men; the honors go to Audubon even when all his inaccuracies and mannerisms have been acknowledged.

Source: Dictionary of American Biography