John J. Audubon


Squire of Mill Grove and Genius of Art and Science
by Stephen May


from Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine

In Pennsylvania, a beautiful state…, my father, in his desire to prove my friend through life, gave me what Americans call a beautiful "plantation," refreshed during the summer heat by the waters of the Schuylkill River, and traversed by a creek named Perkioming. Its fine woodlands, its extensive acres, its fields crowned with evergreens, offered many subjects to my pencil. It was there that I commenced my simple and agreeable studies, with as little concern about the future as if the world had been made for me. – John James Audubon

John James Audubon (1785-1851) is a legend, revered bird watchers and art enthusiasts alike as America's preeminent naturalist and bird artist his instantly recognizable prints adorn many homes and offices throughout the nation. Given his talent and popularity, it's difficult to appreciate the struggle he endured to bring his ornithological images to the public. An emigre with little money and training set adrift in a vast, uncharted new nation, and scorned by leading ornithologists of his day, he cultivated a distinctive persona and developed the extraordinary skills necessary to achieve his life's ambition. And his fabled career began in Pennsylvania, his first home in North America.

Audubon was born in the French colony of Santo Domingo (now Haiti), the son of Captain Jean Audubon, a French sailor and adventurer, and one of his mistresses, Jeanne Rabine, a French chambermaid, who died six months later. Beginning at the age of three he was raised by his father and an indulgent stepmother in Nantes, an industrial city on the Loire River in western France. Young Audubon acquired the graces of a country gentleman, received a bit of naval training, learned to love nature and wildlife, and began to draw.

To escape conscription into Napoleon's army, the eighteen-year-old Audubon was sent to America in 1803 to oversee his father's farm, Mill Grove, in Montgomery County, twenty-four miles northwest of Philadelphia. (The settlement near Mill Grove, once known as Shannonville, was christened Audubon in 1899 to honor its early-nineteenth century resident.) Captain Audubon had purchased two hundred and eighty-four acres in 1789 as an investment, perhaps in the hope-- albeit unfulfilled- that a lead mine on the property would prove lucrative. He never set foot on the land, but his son's stay, even though it lasted less than three years, was probably the happiest period of the young man's life and would prove pivotal to his career. The centerpiece of Mill Grove was-- and remains-- a substantial stone farm-house, built in 1762 by James Morgan, situated on a gentle slope above the wide Perkiomen Creek, a tributary of the Schuylkill River. Although basically a farm managed by a tenant farmer, the estate contained forest lands, a mill, and mineral deposits.

With few responsibilities at Mill Grove, Audubon's life was carefree. "Hunting, fishing, drawing, and music," he wrote, "occupied my every moment," as did swimming and the local social life. The young dandy's grace as a dancer and prowess in ice skating were the talk of local residents. "Not a ball, a skating match, a house or a riding party took place without me," he recalled. At the time, Audubon later boasted, he possessed "erect stature" and "muscles of steel." Audubon quickly fell in love with the eastern Pennsylvania countryside and its animals, often roaming the woods and fields incongruously wearing satin breeches and silk stockings. He became an enthusiastic and skilled hunter, both for sport and for his art. He collected all kinds of wildlife specimens, which he both preserved and sketched in attic rooms at Mill Grove.

In a little cave on the banks of the Perkiomen Creek, Audubon conducted the first bird banding in America. Tying silver threads to the legs of phoebes or pewees, he discovered that they returned during the spring migration-- just as they do to this very day. He also developed techniques for passing wires through freshly killed birds to fix them in characteristic poses on which he based his life-like sketches. He wrote that he had "shot the first Kingfisher I met," wired the body so that "there stood before me the real Kingfisher," and proceeded to execute "what I shall call my first drawing actually from nature." This innovative wiring process, on which he relied throughout his career, enabled Audubon to depict birds in animated and realistic postures, in contrast to the stiff and static images of his predecessors, who drew upon stuffed specimens.

At the age of twenty, Audubon sojourned for a year with his family in France, where he rendered birds in pastel. He also gained his father's approval to marry Lucy Bakewell, daughter of William Bakewell, an Englishman who owned Fatland Ford, an estate adjoining Mill Grove. After their marriage in 1808, Lucy Bakewell Audubon was a tower of strength, supporting her peripatetic husband in times of trouble and travail, remaining at home to raise their two sons, victor Gifford and John Woodhouse, and working intermittently as a teacher while he traveled about as portrait painter, music and fencing instructor and, eventually, painter of the birds of America.

"Immediately upon my landing" in the United States in 1806, he later wrote, "prompted by an innate desire to acquire a thorough knowledge of the birds of this happy country," Audubon resolved to devote his spare time to drawing each American bird in "its natural size and colouring." Meanwhile, discouraged by disputes with partners and the failure of the lead mine on the property, Audubon sold Mill Grove and moved to Kentucky to seek his fortune as a frontier merchant. He was joined by his wife not long afterward.

Audubon found the wonders of Kentucky so compelling that he often neglected his store. After several commercial ventures failed-- partly because he roamed the woods making sketches-- he faced bankruptcy in 1819. For a time he eked out a living as an itinerant portrait painter and worked briefly as a taxidermist in Cincinnati, Ohio. But at the age of thirty-five, John James Audubon decided to turn passion into profession, audaciously setting out to depict every bird in America, with an eye to publishing the results. It was a remarkable undertaking for a newcomer with no formal art training, untutored in science, struggling with an unfamiliar language, having few friends, being husband and father, and possessing little money. Only a man of prodigious energy, ambition, determination, and patience, augmented with a knowledge of nature and artistic genius, could have matched his achievements.

Audubon's house in Montgomery County, depicted by Thomas Birch's circa 1820 Mill Grove Farm, Perkiomen Creek, Pennsylvania. His bird portraits are prized for their realism.

In the United States, Audubon's monumental project was preceded by the work of several bird illustrators, notably Scotsman Alexander Wilson (1766-1813). Wilson settled in Kingsessing, on the outskirts of the City of Philadelphia, and enjoyed the encouragement of the city's influential scientific and intellectual community. A poet, self-trained artist, and naturalist, Wilson traveled widely, collecting specimens and making drawings but used stuffed birds as models. He and Audubon crossed paths twice: first at Audubon's store in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1810, a meeting which may have inspired Audubon to prepare his own books of bird images, and again in Philadelphia two years later.

Alexander Wilson's renderings appeared in nine handsome volumes, American Ornithology, published between 1808 and 1814, with clear plates and accurate, but rigid and static likenesses, accompanied by graceful text. It was a considerable accomplishment for a man with few resources other than his own ability and enterprise, but it was soon eclipsed by Audubon's work.

Launching his full-time pursuit of America's birds in 1820, Audubon wanted knowledge of his subjects in their habitats. For two decades, in all kinds of weather and in all seasons, he roamed mountains and valleys, everglades and uplands, and lakes and rivers, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. He traveled the lengths of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and up the Missouri to Yellowstone. He explored the Atlantic coast from the Dry Tortugas to Labrador, and the Gulf coast from Florida to Texas. Working extremely long hours under trying conditions, he labored tirelessly on his great project.

Because he was familiar with the activities of his subjects and used freshly killed birds wired in his unique manner, Audubon was able to capture the shapes, textures, plumage, colors, and typical positions of his birds more accurately than other artists. Many believe that, in spite of the advantages of photography and state-of-the-art technology, no modern bird painter has equaled his achievements. Skilled at depictions in pastel and pencil, Audubon gradually added to his repertoire a variety of techniques incorporating watercolor, gouache, and glazes. He often blended several media in one image to faithfully replicate the look of his subjects. Although collectively characterized as "watercolors," his mature works are much more. Background plants and landscapes for many of the bird portraits were painted by talented assistants who often accompanied him on his travels.

The evolution of Audubon's art is unwittingly documented by Northern Goshawk and Cooper's Hawk, part of which was completed in 1809, part in 1830. The cooper's hawk in the lower right and the adult northern goshawk in the upper left, drawn early in the artist's career, appear in stiff profile, consistent with the stylized manner of Wilson and others. The lively pose of the immature goshawk perched at the top, created after several decades of firsthand observation, reflects Audubon's mature style. This bird was probably sketched in 1829 in Pennsylvania's Great Pine Swamp (now Penn Forest in Carbon County). Together, these likenesses show how, over the years, Audubon transformed his images from portraits of dead, stuffed specimens to vignettes of dynamic, animated birds.

The first artist to portray birds consistently in life size, Audubon employed different formats for small songbirds than for larger hawks, owls, and shorebirds. He varied his approaches-- nearly a decade apart-- to portray the great American white pelican. His first version emphasized the bird's ungainly appearance on land with its short, thick legs, large feet, flattened body, and small head supporting a huge, broad bill. (The V-formation of pelicans soaring in the distance suggested their grace in flight.) Attracted to the species by its "gravity and stateliness," Audubon apparently concluded that this image was too undignified and never printed it. Instead, he executed a second version, a majestic profile, which accurately recorded the subtly different shades and textures of the pelican's plumage and anatomical structure. This image debuted in The Birds of America. Audubon chose distinctive backgrounds for depictions of the owl, a bird often sighted in Pennsylvania. He portrayed the great gray owl, head turned in characteristic pose, against a blank background, heightening the definition of the subject's monochromatic, brownish plumage. On the other hand, the brown, black, and white feathers of Audubon's snowy owls were juxtaposed dramatically against a dark, stormy twilight sky. Examining both in their original versions, executed in watercolor, graphite and pencil, a viewer can almost feel the texture of their plumage.

Believing he had made sufficient progress on his project, Audubon in 1824 took his portfolio to Philadelphia, then the nation's intellectual, scientific, and publishing center, to seek not only financial support, but an engraver to copy his drawings and a publisher. Posturing as the penultimate "American Woodsman," Audubon dressed in buckskins and slicked his shoulder-length hair with bear grease and vigorously set out to promote his bird book.

Some of Philadelphia's intelligentsia were put off by Audubon's unusual appearance and lack of academic credentials, but James Mease, a friend of his wife's family and curator of the American Philosophical Society, admired his ambition and introduced him to influential individuals. Genial Thomas Sully (1783-1872), the prominent portrait painter, applauded the newcomer's work and, perhaps because he doubted Audubon's oft-repeated (and untrue) claim that he had studied under French master artist Jacques-Louis David, gave him free lessons in oil painting. "I have never seen in Europe drawings of birds by the first masters," Sully wrote in a letter of recommendation, "but I do not hesitate to declare that those of Mr. Audubon, for strength, expression and exquisite resemblance far exceeds them all. No eulogy of mine, could, however, express their merits."

Mease introduced Audubon to Napoleon's twenty-one-year-old nephew, Prince Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a fellow emigre, prominent member of Philadelphia's social and scientific circles, and a recently elected member of the prestigious Academy of Natural Sciences. A knowledgeable ornithologist and artist himself, Bonaparte recognized the value of Audubon's bird portraits and took him, on April 5, 1824, to show his work to members of the Academy, the country's most important natural history institution.

Even though Alexander Wilson had died more than a decade before, members of the Academy of Natural Sciences revered his memory and considered his American Ornithology definitive. Several members even retained a pecuniary interest in the sale of his books. With characteristic audacity and tactlessness, Audubon immediately offended the august group by disparaging Wilson's lifeless images and touting the virtues of his own work. Academy members who admired Wilson's classic poses resisted the animated images of Audubon, whom they considered arrogant and brash.

Dyspeptic George Ord, Wilson's editor, biographer and executor, was busy preparing a new edition of Wilson's works, and he had a vested interest in protecting the naturalist's reputation. Ord mounted a spirited defense of Wilson's oeuvre and challenged Audubon's integrity and scientific credentials. Audubon responded in kind and the meeting broke up amidst bitter animosity Although some Academy members recognized the quality of Audubon's portfolio, the ugly confrontation led most to support Ord in successfully blacklisting the outsider among local engravers and publishers. The zealous Ord conspired for years afterwards to discredit Audubon, both in this country and in Europe. Audubon branded Ord and his allies "the Philadelphia Sharks." Audubon's critics, believes Robert McCracken Peck, a fellow of the Academy of Natural Sciences and an Audubon authority "considered the emotional content of his paintings incompatible with objective scientific analysis." Some (who were often proved wrong) contested the accuracy of Audubon's compositions, underscoring personal animosities and petty jealousy among those who had tried to undermine him.

Alexander Lawson, a Wilson disciple and Philadelphia's best printmaker, had engraved plates for Wilson's books and took great personal interest in their promulgation. He advised Audubon that the likenesses in his portfolio were "extraordinary for one self-taught," but added, rather patronizingly, "we in Philadelphia are used to seeing very correct drawing." When Bonaparte announced he intended to buy Audubon's watercolors, Lawson responded, "You may buy them, but I will not engrave them. . . Ornithology requires truth and correct lines-here are neither!"

Dismayed but not daunted by the rejection of the leaders of Philadelphia-- which he called "this icy city"-- Audubon paid a brief, nostalgic visit to Mill Grove and then tried his luck in New York. Unflattering rumors spread by Ord and Lawson preceded him, and he could find no financiers.

While traveling the East Coast, he stopped for a few days in Meadville ("its appearance was rather dull," he opined) and Pittsburgh, supporting himself through portrait commissions and art lessons. He met George Lehman, a Swiss immigrant and skilled landscape artist from Lancaster County, who later joined him on field trips and supplied lush backgrounds typical of many plates of Audubon's bird images. Convinced he could find no support in America, Audubon in 1826 bade farewell to his wife and sons and sailed for Great Britain. He and his works of art were enthusiastically received at meetings and exhibitions in England and Scotland. His odd "American Woodsman" look, which had proved disastrous in Philadelphia. fascinated Britons familiar with the legend of pioneer Daniel Boone (1734-1820) and the frontier tales of novelist James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851).

Encouraged, Audubon engaged the services of gifted London engraver Robert Havell Jr., and embarked on the decades-long process of transforming his brilliant watercolors into salable prints. While the artist tightly supervised Havell's work, the pair cooperated in changing some compositions and backgrounds to enhance the appearance of the final versions.

The Birds of America, containing four hundred and thirty-five hand-colored plates of 1,065 individual birds faithfully etched, aquatinted, and engraved by Havell from the original works, was issued in four volumes between 1827 and 1838. The life-size depictions appeared on double-elephant folio sheets measuring more than two by three feet, accompanied by a synopsis and index. A companion five-volume Ornithological Biography, containing detailed essays on the birds, is still regarded as one of the best texts in the field. With tireless determination, Audubon sold serial engravings of The Birds of America through individual subscriptions, a tedious, time-consuming task to which he brought romantic good looks, flamboyant salesmanship, steely resolve, and endless patience. His astute marketing and indefatigable travels ultimately led to orders for more than two hundred complete sets of the costly prints. (Originally priced at the enormous sum of one thousand dollars, first editions of The Birds of America have sold in recent years for as much as four million dollars. In October 1993, a four-volume set in fine condition crossed the auction block at Christie's in New York for more than three million dollars.)

After three years abroad, Audubon returned to the United States in 1829. He spent time in Camden and Great Egg Harbor, New Jersey, and passed through Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe, Carbon County seat), on his way to a six weeks stay in a cabin in Pennsylvania's Great Pine Swamp, which he preferred to call Great Pine Forest. While exploring the area he produced numerous bird portraits. Noting that a third of the forest had disappeared by the time he arrived, Audubon regretfully reported that timbering continued every day, and during "calm nights, the greedy mills told the sad tale that in century the noble forest around should exist no more."

"I am at work and have done much," he wrote in early October 1829, after leaving the Great Pine Forest, "but I wish I had eight pairs of hands, and another body to shoot the specimens, still I am delighted at what I have accumulated in drawings this season. Forty-two drawings in four months, eleven large, eleven middle size, and twenty-two small, comprising ninety-five birds, from Eagles downwards, with plants, nests, flowers, and sixty different kinds of eggs. I live alone, see scarcely any one, besides those belonging to the house where I lodge. I rise long before day and work till nightfall, when I take a walk and go to bed."

Although he sailed to England several more times, Audubon devoted much of the next decade to a renewed search for birds to illustrate, creating some of his most powerful and accomplished likenesses, such as the gyrfalcon, the largest of all falcons and one of the world's great predators. Although this bird is occasionally seen in the mid-Atlantic states in winter, Audubon based his 1837 version on a white-phase female he spotted in Great Britain. He meticulously rendered the gyrfalcon's muscular legs, hooked beak, and sharp talons, ideal for taking birds and small animals. His masterful blend of pastel, watercolor, gouache, delicate washes and pencil is considered by many to be Audubon's most beautiful work.

Even though Audubon strove for accuracy, he did occasionally take liberties with nature. A gathering of ten woodpeckers, such as he portrayed, is contrary to the solo or family group manner in which this species feeds. This group composition enabled him to illustrate the subjects' purposeful nature and often conspicuous courtship between male and female flickers.

John James Audubon (1838), painted by G.PA. Healy when the naturalist was fifty- three years old. Common American Swan (Male) is one of more than four hundred plates in The Birds of America.

Audubon composed one scene no one will ever again witness: a group of brightly-hued raucous Carolina parakeets. Once common in this country, these animated birds-- the only parrot native to the United States-- became pests to farmers, who slaughtered them in great numbers, as did hunters seeking feathers for women's hats. They were extinct by 1920. The artist's depiction of this lost species, in a brilliant pattern of greens, vermillions. and yellows, constitutes a complex, decorative, challenging-- and ultimately successful-- group portrait exemplifying Audubon's finest work.

After publication of The Birds of America, Audubon issued a highly successful, smaller, seven-volume octavo edition priced atone hundred dollars (Two first octavo editions recently sold at Christie's for more than twenty-five thousand dollars each.) He also compiled an important work documenting mammals, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, comprising one hundred and fifty hand-colored lithographs in three volumes. In his later years he was assisted by his sons, both talented artists in their own right, who were trained from childhood to help him in all aspects of his far-reaching endeavors.

Audubon's reputation was sufficiently secure by 1831 and Charles Bonaparte and fellow supporters in Philadelphia were able to overcome George Ord's objections and elect him a "correspondent," or honorary member, of the Academy of Natural Sciences. It was an honor he proudly acknowledged in his subsequent publications. Both the Academy of Natural Sciences and American Philosophical Society subscribed to The Birds of America, as did John Wetherill, a member of the family which owned Mill Grove. Audubon apparently attended only two meetings of the Academy, in 1839 and 1845. His sons were also elected corresponding members.

Audubon's years of prodigious effort, assisted by his devoted wife and sons, eventually produced enough income for him to settle comfortably on Minnie's Land, a small estate on the Hudson River in New York. Senile toward the end, Audubon died at Minnie's Land at the age of sixty-six on January 27, 1851.

John James Audubon's place in history was assured by his changing forever the way in which birds are illustrated. While replicating physical features with uncanny veracity, he incorporated narrative elements and aesthetic touches which made birds come alive in their natural environments and lifted the images to the status of fine art. "In many ways, the vision and masterful artistry ..... Audubon images transcends the subjects they depict," says Peck. "Like great paintings, great writing, or great music from any age, Audubon's birds, abundant or extinct, will live forever as the masterworks of one of America's most gifted artists."

A recent touring exhibition organized by the New York Historical Society, showcasing about ninety watercolors for the artist's culminating masterpiece, The Birds of America, offered a once-in-a-lifetime experience for both art and bird lovers. The remarkable freshness and vitality of these painstakingly conserved, life-size images underscored Audubon's genius not only as a meticulously accurate ornithological recorder, but as an artist of exceptional talent. That this was the first traveling show of these treasured watercolors since they were acquired from the artist's widow by the historical society in 1863 helps explain why he has been given such short shrift over the years by scholars of American art and culture. But no more. John James Audubon's bird portraits are refreshingly diverse, deft in composition, brilliant in color, startlingly realistic, and dynamic in depicting each subject in characteristic action. Their existence confirms Audubon's place in the front ranks of nineteenth-century American artists.

Uniting entrepreneurship with the technical demands of scientific illustration and the innovative and aesthetic qualities of high art, John James Audubon created a rich and timeless legacy. In setting the standard against which all wildlife art is measured, he bequeathed an authoritative gallery of American birds in images of palpable vitality, striking originality, and profound beauty. Considering the struggles required to produce them, these images are truly Audubon's-- and America's-- winged victories.

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