Friday, October 7, 2011

John James Audubon

Though many may not think of him immediately as a great American artist, John James Audubon’s work embodies the curiosity and adventurous spirit that shaped the development of the United States. As Dean Amadon points out in his introduction to a 1967 edition of Audubon’s “The Birds of America”: “John James Audubon is one of those fortunate individuals whose fame, more than a century after his death, is increasing”.[i]

Born as an illegitimate child of a chambermaid and a lieutenant in the French Navy, John James Audubon, born “Jean Rabine”, had rather humble beginnings. He was born on a sugar plantation in what is now Haiti in 1985, where he resided only until about the age of four, when he moved to France with his father to be raised by his stepmother (name changed to Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon[ii]). Even as a child Jean had a particular interest in birds and ”claimed that his childhood drawings were almost exclusively of birds”[iii]. Jean had no desire to serve in the Navy (as his father hoped he would) and so he was sent (at age 18, in 1803) to a family property in Philadelphia in an effort to avoid getting drafted under Napoleon (it is at this point that he anglicized his name to John James Audubon[iv]). In the following years, he got married , became a US citizen, and continued to spend time in both the US and France. It wasn’t until 1820 that Audubon set out to do the work that made him famous: he began working on his drawings for “Birds of America”. “He was committed to find and paint all the birds of North America for eventual publication. His goal was to surpass the earlier ornithological work of poet-naturalist Alexander Wilson”[v]. As he made his way through Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama, “[h]e made charcoal portraits on demand at $5 each and gave drawing lessons”[vi]. In addition to teaching art lessons he also took some including formal instruction in oil painting. Taking such classes helped him to network within the artistic and printing community. Six years after beginning his endeavor, he went to England and had his works published. “Birds of America” was printed as a series over nearly 13 years; it was funded by those who subscribed to his collection. His works were printed using copperplate etching, engraving, and aquatint, and then colored by hand with watercolor paint[vii]. The birds were life-sized, thus each page was 39.5in x 38.5 in; the entire collection contained 435 plates which were only used for 200 runs – making the original prints incredibly valuable today. After the publication of his masterpiece, he continued to study and draw birds but with the sufficient income from “Birds of America” he did not produce any more large scale works. He lived with his family in the US until his death in 1851.

“Wood Thrush”, 1806.

Watercolor and graphite on paper.

Source: Foshay. John James Audubon.

It is characteristic of Audubon’s earlier works to show a bird in profile view. As he progressed as an artist, he really brought birds to life on the page using simple mediums such as watercolor, pastels, pencil, charcoal, chalk, pen & ink, and gouache.[viii] One way that he portrayed such energy is the way he set up his subjects. To truly study a bird, Audubon would kill the bird and then “[arrange] the bird on mounting wires in the position he had studied and selected”. In his depiction of a Golden Eagle, Audubon “worked on the drawing for sixty hours,[…] across about four days-about fifteen hours a day”[ix].

“Carolina Parakeet” (below) is a great example of an energetic scene with a dynamic composition. It is easy to see the artistic progress Audubon made in the years leading up to “Birds of America”.


In one version (pictured below!) of this Golden Eagle painting, there is a man, believed to be Audubon himself stretching across the log. Perhaps implying that the artist was at work observing or sketching the eagle – although, we know this was not his actually process. It is clear that even though Audubon was very focused on getting the birds anatomically correct, he also saw his drawings as art.

Golden Eagle


As a person who loves the outdoors, I have always adored and been inspired by Audubon’s work. One only needs look at the heron and egret drawing in my own sketchbook to realize that I have a great interest in the same subject matter.

Sources of information:

Audubon, John James. Audubon: Early Drawings. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2008. Print.

Audubon, John James. John James Audubon, Writings and Drawings. New York: Library of America, 1999. Print.

Audubon, John James. The Birds of America. Vol. 1 of 7. New York: Dover Publications, 1967. Print.

"The Birds of America." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 07 Oct. 2011. .

Foshay, Ella M. John James Audubon. New York: H.N. Abrams, in Association with the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1997. Print.

Gourdin, Henri. Jean-Jacques Audubon, 1785-1851: Biographie. Arles: Actes Sud, 2002. Print.Language: French

Hart-Davis, Duff. Audubon's Elephant [The Story of John James Audubon's Epic Struggle to Publish the Birds of America]. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003. Print.

"John James Audubon." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 30 Sept. 2011. Web. 07 Oct. 2011. .

Rhodes, Richard. Audubon: the Making of an American. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Print.

Streshinsky, Shirley. Audubon: Life and Art in the American Wilderness. Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 1998. Print.

[i] Audubon, J. J. The Birds of America.

[ii] Wikipedia. Audubon.

[iii] Foshay

[iv] Wikipedia.Audubon.

[v] Wikipedia.Audubon.

[vi] IBID.

[vii] Wikipedia. Birds of America.

[viii] Wikipedia. Birds of America.

[ix] Hart-Davis

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