One of America’s first wildlife artists, John James Audubon has a name synonymous with conservation, but his realization about protecting the environment came late in his lifetime. He was an avid hunter, who killed the specimens depicted in his publications, but his in-depth studies have left a strong awareness of the beauties and complexities of nature. No artist before him or after has painted the lives of birds on such a heroic scale.
Audubon was born in Santa Domingo, now Haiti in 1785. He was the natural son of Jean Audubon, who was a successful French naval officer, merchant, planter, and slave dealer and Jeanne Rabine, a Creole that he met on a voyage to Santo Domingo. At the age of six, he had arrived in France, where his father and his fatherâ€™s legal wife lovingly raised him. The young Audubon was educated among the upper classes. By age 15, he was drawing French birds, and by age 17, he was studying drawing in Paris.
In 1803, Audubon fled with his father to the United States because Napoleon was seeking soldiers for his army. While he was in Pennsylvania managing his father’s estate, Mill Grove and developing a love for the outdoors, he began his ventures into ornithology. After selling his fatherâ€™s property, he married Lucy Bakewell of nearby Fatland Ford Plantation. They went to Kentucky in 1808 where the natural beauty and abundant wildlife of the frontier fascinated Audubon. In 1820, he along with his wife and two sons moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. He traveled the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and Great Lakes, settling in New Orleans. Unable to find a publisher for his collection in the United States, he succeeded in London where he stayed from 1826 to 1831, and found William Lizars and Robert Havell, Jr. as engravers. The association with Lizars was terminated in the first half of 1827. By 1839, he had achieved his life-long ambition of finishing his four volume series of life-sized bird portraits, “The Birds of America.” The plates were published between 1827 and 1838, and the accompanying letterpress titled “Ornithological Biography” was completed finished in 1839. This unparalleled study reveals the dynamics of birds living in habitats. After the initial success of his large engravings, Audubon wanted his art to be more accessible to the public at a lower price and in a smaller size, thus the original Royal Octavo edition was created between 1840 and 1844. For this edition, the engravings were redrawn and newly discovered birds were added so that brought the total number of different images to 500. This edition was created as stone lithographs measuring approximately 8 to 9 x 5 Â½ to 6 inches. The lithographs were delicately hand colored and published by J.T. Bowen of Philadelphia and the work was done under the supervision of Audubon. Audubon made several collecting trips back to the United States, the first in 1829, during which he repaired his damaged relationship with his wife, Lucy. On his 1831-1832 trip, he spent time in Charleston, South Carolina where he met the Reverend John Bachman who became a close friend and important ally in helping Audubon to establish a reputation as a credible naturalist. Two of Bachman’s daughters eventually married Audubon’s two sons, Victor Gifford Audubon and John Woodhouse Audubon. In 1843, he took the steamer, Omega, from St. Louis up the Missouri River to Fort Union and then went overland to the Yellowstone River, making stops in Nebraska in May and October, 1843. Along the way, he saw birds and animals, and he focused on an idea he had begun developing with Bachman in 1836, which was to do a series on American mammals. The purpose of this 1843 trip was to gather specimens for painting, and dressed in Indian hunting clothes, he returned to St. Louis with live deer, badgers and foxes. Bachman wrote the text for Audubon’s second great series, “The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America,” which, published in three volumes between 1845-1848, made the reputation of the senior Audubon. His collaborators in this project were his two sons, John Woodhouse who did about half of the animals depicted in the series, and Victor who did most of the backgrounds. Bachman’s sister-in-law, and later his second wife, Maria Martin, also assisted in painting the backgrounds and plants. The Letterpress by Bachman was published in three volumes from 1846 to 1854.