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John James Audubon ( 1785 - 1851 )  Category ( Artists ) [suggest a correction]
 

John James AudubonWhen looking at a print of birds, the name Audubon almost automatically springs to mind. John James Audubon was one of the most prolific and significant naturalists and artists of nature in history. Not only did he sketch and paint birds and other animals, as well as landscapes, he was also a highly regarded naturalist and ornithologist. It is largely thanks to his efforts that there exists such a thorough record of American wildlife.

Audubon was born in Haiti to parents with troubled pasts. His father was an illegitimate son of a French naval officer and his mistress, who was a Spanish Creole. His mother died when he was very young, and after a violent slave rebellion in 1788, his father was compelled to sell his sugar plantation and other properties in Haiti. The three-year-old Audubon went with his father on his return to France. Audubon was raised in France but returned to North America when he was eighteen. His love of birds was practically a calling, and began in his early childhood. "I feel an intimacy with them...bordering on frenzy must accompany my steps through life," he once remarked. Despite his father's military background, the senior Audubon was delighted with his son's interest in nature and encouraged the development of his artistic and naturalist skills. However, this only happened after his father tried sending him to military school, which was a dismal failure.

Audubon's arrival in America was not a longing to return to his roots. Due to the timing of the Napoleonic Wars and Audubon's coming of age for military service, his father arranged for a fake passport and the son was sent to live in the United States, where he spent time with Quakers, even picking up their quaint style of English. During this time he was able to explore, walk, discover, document, and draw all that he saw in the rural Pennsylvania setting. Key to his philosophy, he paid strict attention to capturing precise and accurate detail, something not generally practiced in most art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In addition to recording his findings in a visual format, Audubon kept careful records of his observations of bird behavior, eventually learning taxidermy, scientific methods of research, and creating his own nature museum.

This type of museum was very popular during the nineteenth century when, thanks to the theories of Charles Darwin and other naturalists, many people became more interested in the natural world. He also continued to travel around the country, eventually settling in Kentucky, where he married and opened a general store. He frequently had to turn to hunting in order to feed his family, but he continued to pursue his naturalist studies and painting. He and his wife had four children, two of whom, both sons, survived to adulthood. One of his sons, John W. Audubon, became a naturalist like his father.

In 1824, after more expeditions into the Louisiana territory and Florida (all the while making money along the way by selling charcoal sketches to locals or bartering), he began to seek a publisher for his research and art. For quite a while his efforts were in vain. Fortunately, his wife was understanding of his need for financial support and she became the primary breadwinner, working as a teacher. He finally took the advice of a prominent painter and traveled to Europe to have his drawings and paintings made into prints. This would allow for his work to become widely disseminated, and prints of engravings were affordable to most people. The venture was successful, and finally Audubon was receiving credit, accolades, and money for his work. He continued to paint and sketch, traveling locally, regionally, and even across the country. He planned another trip West but began to suffer health problems and died in 1851.


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