The original edition of The Birds of America established Audubon’s reputation as America’s leading nature artist.
Artist, naturalist, ornithologist. Audubon was born Jean Rabine Fougere in Les Cayes, Santo Domingo (later Haiti), on April 26, 1785, the son of a French sea captain, Jean Audubon, and a servant, Jeanne Rabine. His mother died seven months after his birth, and in 1788 he was brought to his father’s native home in Nantes, France. Spending his youth on a nearby country estate, Audubon developed the habit of observing and drawing birds and wildlife in nature, which he would develop into his vocation as an artist-naturalist.
Audubon’s father sent him to America in 1803 to manage his plantation, Mill Grove, near Philadelphia. In 1808 he married Lucy Bakewell, and they settled in Kentucky. Audubon continued to hunt, study, and draw birds in Kentucky, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. By 1820 he was supporting himself as a portrait artist and taxidermist when he determined to accomplish his dream of accurately portraying and publishing all the birds of North America. He spent the next decades traveling in America, England, and France to undertake this monumental project, published as The Birds of America between 1827 and 1838 and issued by subscription in sets of five prints each. The oversized, four-volume folio comprises 435 hand-colored, aquatint engravings based on Audubon’s brilliant, detailed, and realistic watercolors of native birds. The artist continually refined his sketches and innovative techniques to render the birds life-sized in dynamic, fully dimensional poses, a dramatic transformation of the flatter, more static formal traditions of his noted predecessors, Mark Catesby and Alexander Wilson. To accompany the images, he published his Ornithological Biography in five volumes between 1830 and 1839, providing written descriptions of all the bird species, as well as numerous essays on nature and culture.
In 1831 Audubon traveled to Charleston to find and paint southern birds for The Birds of America. His lowcountry travels took him to Sullivan’s Island, Cole Island, and Liberty Hall Plantation northwest of Charleston. Audubon befriended the Lutheran minister and avid naturalist John Bachman, who became a lifelong friend and associate. Bachman helped the artist collect, store, and document new species. During the 1830s, between collecting expeditions to Florida and Labrador, Audubon made Bachman’s home the center of his work in America. There he had a studio and space to prepare and draw specimens, and he was assisted by Maria Martin, Bachman’s sister-in-law, who painted botanical settings for his paintings. Audubon also sold subscriptions to The Birds of America to the Charleston Library Society and South Carolina College.
The original edition of The Birds of America established Audubon’s reputation as America’s leading nature artist, while the wide success of a second, smaller edition provided him with financial security for the first time in his career. In 1841 he purchased Minnie’s Land, an estate named for his wife, located on the Hudson River in upper Manhattan, and settled with his family for the last productive years of his life. He made his last American expedition to the upper Missouri River in 1843 to produce work for the his final three-volume work, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1845–1848), coauthored by Bachman and completed by his sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse Audubon. Audubon died on January 27, 1851, in New York City. See plate 7.
Ford, Alice. John James Audubon. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.
Foshay, Ella M. John James Audubon. New York: Abrams, 1997. Sanders, Albert E., Warren Ripley, and William A. Jordan. Audubon: The
Charleston Connection. Charleston, S.C.: Charleston Museum, 1986. Shuler, Jay. Had I the Wings: The Friendship of Bachman and Audubon. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.