John James Audubon Biography

By John James Audubon
John James Audubon (American, b. Haiti, 1785-1851). Robert Havell (American, 1793-1878), Engraver after John James Audubon. American Flamingo, 1838. From The Birds of America (plate CCCCXXX1). Hand-colored etching and aquatint on Whatman paper. Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The Basics:

The word "Audubon" has long been synonymous with anything related to the creatures of flight. And it's all because of this artist. John James Audubon was a French-American naturalist and painter. He is best known for his study and illustrations of birds in their natural habitats.

Early Life:

Audubon was born Jean Rabine on April 26, 1785 in Les Cayes, Santo Domingo (modern Haiti). He was the illegitimate offspring of French sea captain Lieutenant Jean Audubon and Spanish–Creole chambermaid Jeanne Rabine, the latter of whom was killed in a slave uprising a few months after her son's birth.

Lieutenant Audubon brought three year old Jean back to France in 1788 and, along with his new (and legitimate) wife, formally adopted the boy. Jean Rabine then became Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon.

On the heels of a childhood spent largely outdoors in the countryside near Nantes, it is believed that Audubon went to Paris sometime before 1802 to train as an artist. He later claimed that Jacques-Louis David had been one of his teachers, although there is no surviving record of such.

Whatever training he did (or didn't) receive was short-lived. In 1803 Jean Audubon sent his son to America for two reasons. (1) Ostensibly, he'd purchased an estate near Philadelphia that needed overseeing and, (2) primarily, the youth had turned 18 and was due at any moment to be conscripted into Napoleon's army. It was after his move to American that he became known as "John James Laforest Audubon."

His Art:

At the Mill Grove, Pennsylvania estate, Audubon met the great passions of his life: American birds and his neighbor's daughter, Lucy Bakewell (whom he married in 1808).

He began collecting all things ornithological and making pencil and pastel sketches of birds. As his confidence as an artist grew, he ventured into watercolors -- the medium he would most often employ for the rest of his career.

It quickly became evident that Audubon was ill-suited to oversee an estate or, indeed, much of anything that kept him away from the study of birds.

He would go on to try his hand at several other business ventures, all of which failed. Audubon largely became a traveling artist, teaching occasional pupils, but always painting local birds and their natural habitats.

After finally declaring bankruptcy in 1819, his only goal in life became to publish a folio of his bird paintings. Interestingly, he had to take his work to London in order to make the book Birds of America a success in America.

Audubon is best known today for his highly dramatic bird and animal watercolors (along with around 70 oil canvases), as well as the National Audubon Society (formed in 1886) named in his honor. Audubon died on January 27, 1851 in New York City.

Important Works:

  • The Birds of America, 1827-38; the original, "double elephant" folios
  • The Ornithological Biographies, 1831–38 (text complementing Birds...)
  • The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, 1845-48

Famous Quote:

"I am at work, and have done much, but I wish I had eight pairs of hands and another body to shoot the specimens." -- from a letter dated October 11, 1829

Sources and Further Reading:

  • Audubon, John James, and Lucy Audubon (ed.).
    The Life of John James Audubon, the Naturalist
    New York : G. P. Putnam & Son, 1869.
    Full text available online.
    • Meyers, Amy. "Audubon, John James (Laforest)"
      Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, 22 February 2008.

    Read a review of Grove Art Online.

      • Reynolds, Gary A. (ed.) John James Audubon and his Sons (exh. cat.).
        New York : Grey Art Gallery and Study Center, 1982.
      • Rodgers, David. "Audubon, John James"
        The Oxford Companion to Western Art.
        Ed. Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford University Press, 2001.
        Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, 22 February 2008.

      Go to Artist Profiles: Names beginning with "A" or Artist Profiles: Main Index