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John Audubon

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John James Audubon

John James Audubon
John James Audubon
[picture from one of his books]

One of the happiest men, and one of the most interesting characters we have had in America, was John James Audubon, the celebrated painter and biographer of American birds. He was one of the few men whose pursuits were in perfect accordance with his tastes and his talents; and, besides this, he enjoyed almost every other felicity which falls to the lot of a mortal.

His father was a French admiral who, about the middle of the last century, emigrated to Louisiana, where he prospered, and reared a family. His distinguished son was born in 1780. While he was still a little boy, he showed a remarkable interest in the beautiful birds that flew about his father's sugar-plantation, particularly the mocking-bird, which attains its greatest perfection in that part of Louisiana. He soon had a considerable collection of living birds; and he tells us that his first attempts to draw and paint were inspired by his desire to preserve a memento of the beautiful plumage of some of his birds that died. In delineating his feathered friends he displayed so much talent that, at the age of fourteen, his father took him to Paris, and placed him in the studio of the famous painter, David, where he neglected every other branch of art except the one in which he was destined to excel. David's forte was in painting battle-pieces; but his pupil was never attracted to pictures of that kind, and he occupied himself almost exclusively in painting birds. At seventeen, he returned to Louisiana and resumed, with all his former ardor, his favorite study.

"My father," he says, in one of his prefaces, "then made me a present of a magnificent farm in Pennsylvania, on the banks of the Schuylkill, where I married. The cares of a household, the love which I bore my wife, and the birth of two children, did not diminish my passion for Ornithology. An invincible attraction drew me toward the ancient forests of the American continent, and many years rolled away while I was far from my family."

To facilitate his design of studying birds in their native woods, he removed his family to the village of Henderson, upon the banks of the Ohio, whence, for fifteen years, he made excursions into the forest with his portfolio, rifle, and game-bag.

From the great lakes to the extremest point of Florida, from the Alleghanies to the prairies far beyond the Mississippi, through impenetrable forests, in cane-brakes almost impassable, and on the boundless prairies, he sought for new varieties of birds, copying them of the size of life, and measuring every part with the utmost nicety of mathematics. Up with the dawn, and rambling about all day, he was the happiest of men if he returned to his camp at evening carrying in his game-bag a new specimen with which to enrich his collection. He had no thought whatever of publishing his pictures.

"It was no desire of glory," he assures us, "which led me into this exile, I wished only to enjoy nature."

After fifteen years of such a life as this, he paid a visit to his relations in Philadelphia, carrying with him two hundred of his designs, the result of his laborious and perilous wanderings. Being obliged to leave Philadelphia for some weeks, he left these in a box at the house of one of his relations. On his return, what were his horror and despair to discover that they were totally destroyed by mice!

"A poignant flame," he relates, "pierced my brain like an arrow of fire, and for several weeks I was prostrated with fever. At length, physical and moral strength awoke within me. Again I took my gun, my game-bag, and portfolio, and my pencils, and plunged once more into the depths of my forests. Three years passed before I had repaired the damage, and they were three years of happiness. To complete my work, I went every day farther from the abodes of men. Eighteen months more rolled away, and my object was accomplished."

During his stay at Philadelphia, in 1824, Audubon became acquainted with Prince Lucien Bonaparte, who strongly urged the naturalist to publish his designs. This, however, was a work far too expensive to be undertaken in America alone. He proposed to issue several volumes of engravings colored and of life-size, with other volumes of printed descriptions. The price of the work was fixed at a thousand dollars. Before he had obtained a single subscriber, he set his engravers to work and proceeded to enlist the cooperation of the wealthy men of England and France. He was received in Europe with great distinction, and obtained in all one hundred and seventy subscribers, of whom about eighty were Europeans. While the first volume was in course of preparation, he returned to America, and spent another year in ranging the forests to add to his store. In 1830, the first volume of his wonderful work appeared, consisting of a hundred colored plates, and representing ninety-nine varieties of birds. The volume excited enthusiasm wherever it was exhibited. The king of France and the king of England inscribed their names at the head of his list of subscribers. The principal learned societies of London and Paris added Audubon to the number of their members, and the great naturalists, Cuvier, Humboldt, Wilson, and others, joined in a chorus of praise.

The work, which consists of four volumes of engravings and five of letter-press, was completed in 1839. For the later volumes he again passed three years in exploration, and, at one time, was enabled to study the birds on the coast of Florida in a vessel which the government of the United States had placed at his disposal. Returning to New York, he purchased a beautiful residence on the shores of the Hudson, near the city, where he prepared for the press an edition of his great work upon smaller paper, in seven volumes, which was completed in 1844.
Many New Yorkers remember that about that time he exhibited in the city a wonderful collection of his original drawings, which contained several thousands of animals and birds, all of which he had studied in their native homes, all drawn of the size of life by his own hand, and all represented with their natural foliage around them.
He was now sixty-five years of age, but his natural vigor appeared to be in no degree abated. Parke Godwin, who knew him well at that time, described him as possessing all the sprightliness and vigor of a young man. He was tall, and remarkably well formed, and there was in his countenance a singular blending of innocence and animation. His head was exceedingly remarkable. "The forehead high," says Mr. Godwin, "arched and unclouded; the hairs of the brow prominent, particularly at the root of the nose, which was long and aquiline; chin prominent, and mouth characterized by energy and determination. The eyes were dark-grey, set deeply in the head, and as restless as the glance of an eagle." His manners were extremely gentle, and his conversation full of point and spirit.

John James Audubon
John James Audubon
From the James Brady collection

Still unsatisfied, he undertook in his old age a new work on the quadrupeds of America, for which he had gathered much material in his various journeys. Again he took to the woods, accompanied, however, now by his two sons, Victor and John, who had inherited much of his talent and zeal.

Audubon House
Audubon House, NY -- 1916
Library of Congress

Returning to his home on the banks of the Hudson, he proceeded leisurely to prepare his gatherings for the press, assisted always by his sons and other friends. "Surrounded," he wrote, " by all the members of my dear family, enjoying the affection of numerous friends, who have never abandoned me, and possessing a sufficient share of all that contributes to make life agreeable, I lift my grateful eyes toward the Supreme Being, and feel that I am happy."

He did not live to complete his work upon the quadrupeds. Attacked by disease in his seventy-first year, which was the year 1851, he died so peacefully that it was more, like going to sleep than death. His remains were buried in Trinity Cemetery, which adjoins his residence.

Mr. Audubon left an autobiography, which, perhaps, may see the light. Besides his eminent talents as an artist, Audubon was a vigorous and picturesque writer. Some passages of his, descriptive of the habits of birds, are among the finest pieces of writing yet produced in America, and have been made familiar to the public through the medium of the school reading-books.

We learn from the career of this estimable man that he who would accomplish much in the short lifetime of a human being, must concentrate his powers upon one object, and that object congenial with his tastes and talents. Audubon did in his life one thing: he made known to mankind the birds of his native land; but he did this so well, that his name will be held in honor as long as the materials last of which his volumes are composed.

Source: "People's Book of Biographies", by James Parton, 1868
Submitted by Cathy Danielson



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