Of all the expeditionary artists I’ve featured in this series, John James Audubon (1785–1851) must be the most famous today, both through his paintings of birds, and for his rich legacy to ornithology and through organisations like the National Audubon Society.
Born Jean-Jacques Rabin in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, today’s Haiti, Audubon’s father was a French naval officer who owned a plantation on the island. In 1789, the latter sold some of his land there to buy a small farm near Philadelphia, PA, then moved his children to live with his wife in Couëron, near Nantes in France. When he was eighteen, Jean-Jacques emigrated from France to the US and changed his name to John James Audubon.
When he arrived in New York in 1803, he caught yellow fever, and was nursed in a Quaker boarding house, where he also learned English. He then moved to live on his father’s farm Mill Grove near Philadelphia, where he developed his interest in ornithology. In 1808 he moved to Kentucky, which was being settled rapidly at the time, and married six months later. Together with Jean Ferdinand Rozier he ran a trading business with a general store in Louisville, KY. He seems to have taught himself to draw and paint primarily wildlife, particularly birds.
In 1810, Audubon moved his business further west and his family into a log cabin, from where he roamed the countryside, often meeting First Nation people including Shawnee and Osage hunters. Three years later, he decided to concentrate on ornithology and painting, so sold out of his partnership with Rozier. He relinquished his French citizenship and became an American citizen in 1812, but lost his collection of over two hundred drawings which were destroyed by rats. After 1819, he went bankrupt and for a while he was imprisoned for debt.
Audubon had increasing contact with naturalists from 1820 onwards, and travelled to Mississippi, Alabama and Florida with a Swiss landscape painter, George Lehman, to collect specimens of birds and sketch their habitats. It was then that he developed the idea of publishing an account of The Birds of America featuring a complete set of colour illustrations. To achieve this, he set himself a target of painting one page each day, and obtained additional specimens from hired hunters. He was often away from home for weeks or even months on end.
His watercolour of a Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) from 1822 shows this bird which is common across much of America to the east of the Rocky Mountains, and has a fondness for grain crops such as corn/maize. Its brilliant yellow eye is distinctive, as is the irridescent plumage which Audubon hasn’t captured.
In the same year, he painted these Peregrine Falcons (Duck Hawks) (Falco peregrinus) in oils. This is the world’s most widespread bird of prey which is common throughout North America. Those in colder climates are often migratory. Audubon shows this pair feeding on a couple of ducks.
In 1823, he decided to produce more oil paintings, and his technique improved thanks to lessons from John Steen, Thomas Cole and later Thomas Sully. He started to look for a publisher for The Birds of America as it was nearing completion.
Audubon painted this Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) and Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) in watercolour and mixed media in about 1825. The bobwhite is commonly known as the Virginia quail, or in Audubon’s note as the Virginia partridge, and is found throughout the US to the east of the Rocky Mountains. The hawk attacking the bobwhites is limited to the eastern states, and a strip down the West Coast.
The first of at least two oil paintings he made of this distinctive North American bird, his Wild Turkey Cock, Hen and Young (Meleagris gallopavo) from 1826, features a bright and modern setting suitable for illustration. The wild turkey is found across much of the US and in parts of Mexico, with a separate species, the ocellated turkey, being found in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.
In 1826, Audubon sailed to Britain in search of a publisher for his book. His portfolio of more than three hundred drawings was well-received, and he was able to raise sufficient money to self-publish the first edition, consisting of 435 hand-coloured aquatint engravings of 1,065 birds from 489 species. This edition was fully subscribed, immediately successful, and resulted in him being elected a fellow of the Royal Society.
After a false start with another etcher, it was Robert Havell (1793-1878) who made the plates for Audubon’s prints, including this of a Goshawk and Stanley Hawk in 1827. The northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) is a fairly common bird of prey found across much of the northern hemisphere, and this plate appears to show a juvenile goshawk at the top, and an adult on the left. Presumably the bird on the right, named here as a Stanley hawk (Falco Stanleii), is a relative, but I’m afraid that I’m unsure as to its identity.
This Snowy Heron, or White Egret is another of Havell’s fine prints made from Audubon’s paintings for Birds of America (1827). I believe this to be what’s now known as a snowy egret (Egretta thula), which is found on the East and West Coasts of the US. It’s the American equivalent of the Old World little egret, and like that species appears to be growing in numbers.
Audubon’s watercolour of an American Stork from 1827-28 shows what is more commonly known as a wood stork (Mycteria americana), which is the only stork which breeds in North America. It’s now quite an unusual bird, with only small breeding populations in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.
I believe Audubon’s oil painting of Black Cocks from 1828 shows a European species, the black grouse (Lyrurus tetrix) which he may have come across during his time in the UK. The sketchy landscape background would certainly be compatible with this being set in the uplands of Scotland.
Audubon’s slightly later version of Wild Turkey Cock, Hen, and Chicks from about 1828-29 rearranges the chicks and has a more antique landscape setting, suggesting it was painted to appeal to a patron.
In 1829, Audubon returned to America to make further paintings for his book. A sequel Ornithological Biographies provided detailed life-histories of the species illustrated in The Birds of America, which helped him avoid having to provide free copies of his prints to the Crown (now Copyright) Libraries in the UK.