12 Things You Might Not Know About John James Audubon

The strange, fascinating life of "the founding father of American artists." He was born 231 years ago today.

John James Audubon, the world’s most celebrated avian artist, made his first American home — and met his long-suffering wife — in what’s now called (duh) Audubon in Montgomery County. He was born 231 years ago today. To celebrate, here are just a few facts about his life and art:

  1. His real name was Jean-Jacques Audubon; he was born to one of the mistresses of his French father on a sugarcane plantation in Haiti. Jean-Jacques’s family life was, um, complicated: His mother died when he was only a few months old, and Audubon père eventually returned to his wife back in France, who raised Jean-Jacques and a half-sister and adopted them. In his youth, Jean-Jacques was so proud of his luxuriant brown ringlets (“My locks flew freely from under my hat,” he wrote, “and every lady that I met looked at them and then at me until — she could see no more”) that when he finally cut them, he wrote an obituary for them on black-edged paper.
  2. Jean-Jacques went to military school in France, and was going to join the Navy until he discovered that he got seasick and didn’t much care for either math or navigation. He changed his name to John James at age 18 when his father finagled him a false passport so he could emigrate to the U.S. to avoid conscription into Napoleon’s army.
  3. Audubon came down with yellow fever when he first arrived in New York City. His ship’s captain took pity on him and brought him to a boarding house run by Quaker women. They nursed him back to health and taught him English, using the then-archaic Quaker “thee” and “thou.” A Quaker lawyer then accompanied him to Mill Grove, a 284-acre farm on the Perkiomen Creek near Valley Forge that Audubon’s father had bought as an investment.
  4. The land contained a successful lead mine, but Audubon preferred its natural beauty to business. He had always loved birds, once writing, “I felt an intimacy with them … bordering on frenzy [that] must accompany my steps through life.” The house he lived in there still stands and is a museum displaying his major paintings and prints.
  5. Audubon practiced the first bird-banding in North America at Mill Grove in 1804, knotting yarn around the legs of Eastern phoebes to see if they returned to the same nests annually. (They did.) He had begun drawing and painting birds and keeping journals of their behavior. While tracking birds, he fell into a creek and caught a bad fever. He was nursed back to health at Fatland, home of a neighboring English farmer named William Bakewell. Audubon soon fell in love with Bakewell’s daughter Lucy; Bakewell worried when they went out nature-seeking together. But they were married in 1808. For most of their married life, she was the breadwinner, working as a teacher and tutor while he traveled and drew.
  6. Perhaps inspired by Charles Willson Peale’s natural museum at 5500 North 20th Street in Philadelphia, Audubon created his own museum at Mill Grove, filling it with birds’ nests and eggs as well as specimens of raccoons, snakes, fish, opossums and birds that he stuffed, having taught himself taxidermy.
  7. In 1812, with America again at war with Great Britain, Audubon traveled to Philadelphia from Kentucky, where he, Lucy and their two sons were then living, to renounce his British citizenship and become an American citizen. When he returned to Kentucky, he discovered that rats had eaten hundreds of his drawings and paintings. He suffered through a bout of depression, then took up his work again, traveling to Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, drawing and painting birds along the way.
  8. Audubon developed his own method of painting birds; he killed them with small shot (eek!), then arranged them with wire into natural-looking tableaux that might include nests, stumps and branches as well as predators like snakes. He preferred to mount them in motion, in groups that included male, female and juvenile examples, and always drew them life-size (which is why the larger birds sometimes appear contorted on the page). He determined to compile his works into a masterpiece, to be called Birds of America, but could not find a publisher in Philadelphia when he visited again in 1824. (He was involved in a tiff with some leading members of the Academy of Natural Sciences.) He did fortuitously meet fellow ornithologist Charles Bonaparte, Napoleon‘s nephew, who was then living here. Bonaparte liked Audubon’s work and suggested he take it to Europe to have his book produced. With Lucy’s blessing, Audubon set sail for Liverpool with a portfolio of 300 watercolors in 1826, at age 41.
  9. The British adored the work of the man they called “the American woodsman,” and Audubon was able to raise enough money to begin publishing Birds of America. The total cost of printing the final 435 hand-colored, life-size pages was $115,640, equivalent to some $2 million today. The pages were printed from engraved copper plates. (Years later, Lucy, desperate for money, sold all but 80 of the plates for scrap.) Fans included King George IV of England and Charles X of France, both of whom bought advance subscriptions. Audubon toured Europe, giving lectures and presentations, and returned to America in 1829.
  10. Audubon continued to explore America and seek out new species, journeying from Key West to Labrador as well as west to Texas and Wyoming. In the 1830s, he bought an estate, now known as Audubon Park, in northern Manhattan, and lived there happily with Lucy. But his health began to suffer, and he showed signs of what may have been Alzheimer’s disease. His last work, on mammals, was unfinished when he died at the Manhattan estate on January 27, 1851, age 65. He had in his lifetime discovered 25 new species and 12 new subspecies.
  11. In 2010, a copy of Birds of America sold at auction at Sotheby’s for $11.5 million — the second highest price ever paid for a single printed book. Philly’s Academy of Natural Sciences was one of the original subscribers to Birds of America, paying $1,000 for its set of 435 illustrations. It’s one of an estimated 120 complete sets still intact today. Every weekday at 3:15, a page of the Academy’s bound volume of the prints is turned over to reveal a new bird.
  12. The Audubon Society got its start in 1896 when two Massachusetts women became alarmed at the number of waterfowl being killed for feathers for hats. Named in John James’s honor, it has worked for more than a century to preserve birds and their habitats.

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