Audubon, John James

Audubon, John James ô´dəbŏn [key], 1785–1851, American ornithologist, b. Les Cayes, Santo Domingo (now Haiti). The illegitimate son of a French sea captain and plantation owner and a Creole chambermaid who died months after his birth, he was educated in France and in 1803 came to live in his father's estate, Mill Grove, near Philadelphia. There he spent much time observing birds and making the first American bird-banding experiments. In 1808 he married Lucy Bakewell, whose faith and support were factors in his eventual success. Between 1808 and 1820 he lived mostly in Kentucky, frequently changing his occupation and neglecting his business to carry on his bird observations. He began painting portraits for a livelihood and descended the Mississippi to New Orleans, where for a time he taught drawing. From 1823 to 1828 his wife conducted a private school, in which he taught for a short time, in West Feliciana parish, La.

In 1826 Audubon traveled to Great Britain in search of a publisher and subscribers for his bird drawings, meeting with favorable response in Edinburgh and London. The Birds of America, in the large elephant folio size, was published in parts between 1827 and 1838, with engravings by Robert Havell, Jr. Unlike the static ornithological portraits of most of his predecessors, Audubon created drawings and paintings of birds infused with life and frequently including backgrounds that show their natural habitats. The accompanying text, called the Ornithological Biography (5 vol., 1831–39), was prepared largely in Edinburgh in collaboration with the Scottish naturalist William MacGillivray, who was responsible for its more scientific information. Extracts from Audubon's contributions, edited in 1926 by F. H. Herrick as Delineations of American Scenery and Character, reveal his stylistic qualities and furnish many pictures of American frontier life. Audubon worked on a smaller edition of his great work and also, in collaboration with John Bachman, began The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, which was completed by his sons Victor Gifford Audubon and John Woodhouse Audubon (plates, 30 parts, 1842–45; text, 3 vol., 1846–54). During these years his home was on the Hudson River in N Manhattan. While Audubon's works on bird life may not wholly satisfy either the critical artist or the meticulous scientist, their achievement in both areas is considerable. Reprinted many times, they are widely popular and remain one of the great achievements of American intellectual history.


See his journal (1929) and letters (1930, repr. 1969), both ed. by H. Corning; John James Audubon's Journal of 1826: Voyage to The Birds of America (2011), ed. by J. D. Patterson; biographies by A. Ford (1988) S. Streshinsky (1993), W. Souder (2004), and R. Rhodes (2004); The Art of Audubon: The Complete Birds and Mammals (1981), R. C. Tyler, ed., Audubon's Great National Work: The Royal Octavo Edition of The Birds of America (1993), A. Blaugrund and T. E. Stebbins, Jr., ed., The Watercolors for The Birds of America (1993), and S. V. Edwards, ed., Audubon: Early Drawings (2008); studies by A. J. Tyler (1937), S. C. Arthur (1937), A. E. Ford (1964), A. B. Adams (1966), F. H. Herrick (2d ed. 1938, repr. 1968), K. H. Proby (1974), and D. Hart-Davis (2004).

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