John James Audubon was an American ornithologist, naturalist and artist known for his studies and detailed illustrations of North American birds and was born on April 26, 1785, in Les Cayes, Saint Domingue, Hispaniola (a former French colony; now Haiti). After trying and failing in several different types of business ventures, in about 1820, Audubon set out to paint every bird species in America. He travelled the country observing, capturing and killing specimens. His signature approach was to take the corpses and arrange them in elaborate, lifelike poses, wings held aloft by wires, necks twisted in dramatic fashion. Critics argued that Audubon’s poses were unnatural fabrications, sexed up with anthropomorphised expression and unscientific emotional drama.
By 1824, Audubon really wanted to find a publisher for his work but was unable to generate any serious interest in the United States. Two years later, he set sail for the United Kingdom, where he hoped to at least be able to find engravers skilled enough to properly reproduce his work. The decision immediately proved a good one and he was able to exhibit his work in both Scotland and England to great acclaim, fascinating the public with his impressive drawing skills as well as some tales he relayed about life on the American frontier. Despite depicting some birds that in fact did not even exist and his methods to create his art, the success of his exhibitions would finally lead to the first publication of the book for which he is now best known: Birds of America. Featuring more than 400 plates of his drawings, the four-volume work was printed in London by Havell & Son in 1827 and serialized until 1838. Accompanying it was Ornithological Biography, which featured text about the lives and behaviours of his subjects as well as highlights about Audubon’s adventures. He followed these seminal works with 1839’s A Synopsis of the Birds of North America.
Throughout this period, Audubon travelled back and forth between the United States and Europe, overseeing the publication of his works and also selling them in popular serialized subscriptions to admirers who included King George IV and United States President Andrew Jackson. His fame and fortune firmly established, in 1841 Audubon moved his family to a large rural estate on the Hudson in upper Manhattan, where he began work on a more compact edition of Birds of America.
Contradictory as ever, Audubon managed to simultaneously fret over the future of his birds whilst killing them in vast numbers for the sake of his work. But he was genuine in his proto-conservation and his best scientific endeavours have indeed had a lasting legacy. He was probably the first person to ring birds in America and more than 20 species identified by him are still recognised today.
In 2021, around 200 years later, his work is seen as fashionable wall art with many having no idea of the fact it is historic. And that is the beauty of timeless art.
Across the States, numerous conservation groups are named after him. But the foremost of them, the Audubon Naturalist Society, recently announced it would be dropping his name. With reputations now as fugitive as these prints’ light-sensitive inks, is time up for Audubon?