Few men wore so many hats as John James Audubon. Although famous for his ornithological artwork, Audubon also taught dancing, operated a mill that ground grain, ran a lumber business, drew charcoal portraits, performed taxidermy, and had other small side businesses to support both his family and work. Audubon was born in Santo Domingo, which is known as Haiti today, to a French captain and his French chamberlain mistress. Although he sprung from an illegitimate union, the wife of Mr. Audubon accepted John into the family and he begun living with them in Nantes, France. John James Audubon came to America in 1803, to avoid being drafted into the French army. There, he lived on his father’s estate in Philadelphia named Mill Grove, but later moved to Kentucky after his marriage to Lucy Bakewell in 1807.
During his time in France and now in the United States, John James Audubon had a love of nature and animals. In America, John James Audubon conducted the first bird banding experiment sometime in 1803, where he wrapped wire around the feet of captured birds. The first bird he tracked was the Eastern Phoebe, who returned the following year to nest and breed at the same site. Around this time he also began developing his hunting skills and drew wildlife sketches of specimens that he shot. When he returned to France to visit, he would often continue developing his bird sketches.
In order to create his art pieces, John James Audubon captured and killed specimens, then used wire to pose them in realistic forms. He preferred to sketch them right away since he never kept the specimen thereafter. To simulate flight, he would hang the birds upside down so that the wings spread open for added realism. Alexander Wilson, a famous ornithologist and artist at the time, encouraged Audubon to continue his pursuits into art and nature. Thereafter, Audubon started going on expeditions akin to the infamous Theodore Roosevelt- garbed in buckskin clothing, trudging into the wild frontiers with his art supplies, guns, and an assistant to help him.
The artworks he painted sprung from his expeditions into various regions of America to create a catalog of North American birds. Between 1827 and 1838 he traveled into Florida, New Orleans, and other Mid-Atlantic states to capture and illustrate birds. Altogether Audubon painted 1,065 birds that were compiled into seven volumes and sold as a subscription for $1,000 dollars each. After Audubon painted the birds, other artists added the landscapes and floral decorations to the image. Then, Life-sized lithographs and prints were made, two by three feet in size, and were thus printed in a book titled The Birds of America. The volumes were accompanied by his Ornithological Biography which includes his scientific essays and notations. At the time, Audubon’s books were unpopular in the United States and couldn’t even find a publisher. Many Americans were still loyal and in love with Alexander Wilson who had previously inspired Audubon to continue his artwork. However, Audubon created a following back in Europe with his artwork in tow, managing to obtain publications in England and Scotland. Audubon sold over 200 sets of his books that allowed him to not have to keep all those side jobs and support his family adequately.
Later in his life, Audubon began another book series that focused on American mammals called Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. From 1845 to 1848 he ventured into North and South Dakota, and adventured beside the Missouri river. The book contained 150 images of various mammals such as badgers, rabbits, cougars and foxes. Some of these paintings had to be completed by Audubon’s son, John Woodhouse Audubon, because his father was losing his vision and becoming senile. John James Audubon passes away in 1851, when he was 65. Audubon’s artwork made large contributions to the field of ornithology and his illustrated archive of the beautiful birds flying in the American countryside displays the incredible specimens that grace the skies.