1902 Encyclopedia > John James Audubon

John James Audubon
American ornithologist and artist
(1781-1851)




JOHN JAMES AUDUBON, a well-known naturalist, was born in 1781 in Louisiana, where his parents, who were French Protestants, had taken up their residence while it was still a Spanish colony. They afterwards settled in Pennsylvania. From his early years he had a passion for observing the habits and appearances of birds, and attempting delineations of them from nature. At the age of fifteen he was sent to Paris, and remained there about two years, when among other studies he took some lessons in the drawing-school of David. On returning to America his father established him in a plantation in Pennsylvania, and he soon after married. But nothing could damp his ardour for natural history. For fifteen years he annually explored the depths of the primeval forests of America in long and hazardous expeditions, far from his family and his home. In these excursions he acquired the facility of making those spirited drawings of birds that gives such value to his magnificent work, The Birds of America. At that period he had not dreamed of any publication of his labours; as he informs us, "it was not the desire of fame that prompted to those long exiles; it was simply the enjoyment of nature." He afterwards removed with his family to the village of Henderson on the banks of the Ohio, where he continued his researches in natural history for several years, and at length set out for Philadelphia with a portfolio containing 200 sheets filled with coloured delineations of about 1000 birds. Business obliged him to quit Phila-delphia unexpectedly for some weeks, and he deposited his portfolio in the warehouse of a friend; but to his intense dismay and mortification he found, on his return, that these precious fruits of his wanderings and his labours had been totally destroyed by rats. The shock threw him into a fever of several weeks' duration, that well-nigh proved fatal. But his native energy returned with returning health; and he resumed his gun and his game-bag, his pencils and his drawing-book, and plunged again into the recesses of the backwoods. In about three years he had again filled his portfolio, and then rejoined his family, who had in the meantime gone to Louisiana. After a short sojourn there he set out for the Old World, to exhibit to the ornithologists of Europe the riches of America in that department of natural history.

In 1826 Audubon arrived at Liverpool, where the merits of his spirited delineations of American birds were immediately recognised. An exhibition of them to the public in the gal-leries of the Royal Institution of that town was so successful that it was repeated at Manchester and at Edinburgh, where they were no less admired. When he proposed to publish a work on the birds of America, several naturalists advised him to issue the work in large quarto, as the most useful size for the lovers of natural history, and the most likely to afford him a sufficient number of subscribers to remu-nerate his labours. At first he yielded to this advice, and acknowledged its soundness; but finally he decided that his work should eclipse every other ornithological publica-tion. Every bird was to be delineated of the size of life, and to each species a whole page was to be devoted ; con-sequently, the largest elephant folio paper was to receive the impressions. This necessarily increased the expense of the work so much as to put it beyond the reach of most scientific naturalists—which accounts for the small number of persons who, for a considerable time, could ba reckoned among his supporters in the gigantic undertaking. The exceptionally high character of the work, however, gradually became known ; and a sufficient number of subscribers was at length obtained in Grent Britain and America, during the ten or twelve years that the work was going through the press, to indemnify him for the great cost of the publication—leaving him, however, a very inadequate compensation for his extraordinary industry and skill. The first volume was published at New York in the end of the year 1830, the second in 1834, the third in 1837, and the fourth and last in 1839. The whole consists of 435 coloured plates, containing 1055 figures of birds the size of life. It is certainly the most magnificent work of the kind ever given to the world, and is well characterised by Cuvier, " C'est le plus magnifique monument que l'Art ait encore eleve a la Nature."

During the preparation and publication of his great work Audubon made several excursions from Great Britain. In the summer of 1828 he visited Paris, where he made the acquaintance of Cuvier, Humboldt, and other celebrated naturalists, and received from them every mark of honour and esteem. The following winter he passed in London. In April of 1830 he revisited the United States of America, and again explored the forests of the central and southern federal territories. In the following year he returned to London and Edinburgh, but the August of 1831 found him again in New York The succeeding winter and spring he spent in Florida and South Carolina; and in the summer of 1832 he set out for the Northern States, with an inten-tion of studying the annual migrations of birds, particularly of the passenger pigeon, of which he has given a striking description; but his career was arrested at Boston by a severe attack of cholera, which detained him there till the middle of August. After that he explored the coasts, lakes, rivers, and mountains of North America, from Labrador and Canada to Florida, during a series of laborious journeys, that occupied him for three years. From Charleston, accompanied by his wife and family, he took his third departure for Britain. During his earlier residence in Edinburgh he had begun to publish his Ameri-can Ornithological Biography, which at length filled five large octavo volumes. The first was issued there by Adam Black in 1831; the last appeared in 1839. This book is admirable for the vivid pictures it presents of the habits of the birds, and the adventures of the naturalist. The descriptions are characteristically accurate and interesting.

In 1839 Audubon bade a final adieu to Europe; and returning to his native country, he published, in a more popular form, his Birds of America, in seven octavo volumes, the last of which appeared in 1844. His ardent love of nature still prompted him to new enterprises, and he set out on fresh excursions; but in these he was always accompanied by his two sons, and one or two other naturalists. The result of these excursions was the projection of a new work, The Quadrupeds of America, in atlas folio, and also a Biography of American Quadrupeds, both of which were commenced at Philadelphia in 1840. The latter was completed in 1850, and is, perhaps, even superior to his Ornithological Biography.

To great intelligence in observing, and accuracy in delineating nature, to a vigorous, handsome frame, and pleasing expressive features, Audubon united very estimable mental qualities, and a deep sense of religion without a trace of bigotry. His conversation was animated and instructive, his manner unassuming, and he always spoke with gratitude to Heaven for the very happy life he had been permitted to enjoy. He died, after a short illness, in his own residence on the banks of the Hudson, at New York, on the 27th of January 1851.
See Life and Adventures of J. J. Audubon the Naturalist, edited, from materials supplied by his widow, by Bobert Buchanan, London, 1868.








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