James Audubon

James Audubon

Jean-Jacques Audubon was born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) on his father's sugar plantation. He was the illegitimate  son of Lieutenant Jean Audubon, a French naval officer and his mistress Jeanne Rabine, a 27-year-old French chambermaid. They named the boy Jean Rabin. His mother died when the boy was a few months old, as she had suffered from tropical disease since arriving on the island.

The senior Audubon in 1789 sold part of his plantation in Saint-Domingue and purchased a 284-acre farm called Mill Grove, 20 miles from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to diversify his investments. Rising unrest in Saint-Domingue convinced Jean Audubon to return to France. In 1791 he arranged for John to be delivered to him in France.

John was raised in Coueron, near Nantes, France, by Audubon and his wife Anne Moynet Audubon, whom he had married years before. In 1794 they formally adopted John to regularize his legal status. They renamed the boy Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon. When Audubon, at age 18, boarded ship for immigration to the United States in 1803, he changed his name to an anglicized form: John James Audubon.

In France during the chaotic years of the French Revolution and its aftermath, the younger Audubon grew up to be a handsome and gregarious man. He played flute and violin, and learned to ride, fence, and dance. A great walker, he loved roaming in the woods, often returning with natural curiosities, including birds' eggs and nests, of which he made crude drawings. His father planned to make a seaman of his son. At twelve, Audubon went to military school and became a cabin boy. He quickly found out that he was susceptible to seasickness and not fond of mathematics or navigation. After failing the officer's qualification test, Audubon ended his incipient naval career. He was cheerfully back on solid ground and exploring the fields again, focusing on birds.

Making Nature Come Alive

Audubon's place in history was assured by the way in which he forever changed how birds were illustrated. While replicating physical features with uncanny veracity, he incorporated narrative elements and aesthetic touches that not only made birds come alive in their natural environments, but also lifted the images to the status of fine art.

His famous Birds of America stands out as Audubon's crowning achievement. These 453 life-sized paintings of north American birds were remarkable for their accuracy of color and realism. After the publication of Birds of America, Audubon issued a highly successful, smaller 7-volume octavo edition. He also compiled an important work documenting mammals; The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. That collection comprised 150 hand-colored lithographs in 3 volumes.

In addition to his artistic talents, Audubon was a prolific writer. His journals and Bird Biographies documented his observations of the land that he traveled during the first half of the 19th century, as well as the people of the emerging American nation.

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