Today we celebrate the life and work of John James Audubon, a a painter, draughtsman, and ornithologist whose magnum opus, "The Birds of America," is not only work of art but a ground breaking study in scientific methodology. There is a magnificent collection of his prints at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. The California Academy of Sciences displays pages from its four-volume set of Birds of America in the Academy Library, and selects pages which correlate to current exhibits in both the library and museum.
Jean-Jacques Audubon was born in 1785 in Les Cayes in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, the illegitimate (or natural) son of Lieutenant Jean Audubon, a French naval officer (and privateer) from the south of Brittany and his mistress Jeanne Rabine, a 27-year-old from Brittany (now in the modern region Pays de la Loire). In 1789, Jean Audubon returned to France to avoid the slave revolts in the West Indies, taking John and his mixed-race sister with him. Jean Audubon had a "legal" wife back in France and she raised the two children, who were later adopted to make them legitimate.
To avoid conscription in the Napoleonic army, the family immigrated to the United States in 1803. American was a revelatoin for the teenager. Audubon lived in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania, in an area that he considered a paradise. "Hunting, fishing, drawing, and music occupied my every moment; cares I knew not, and cared naught about them."
Audubon began to study art, the natural sciences, American birds and ways to make a living as an artists - something very difficult in America (then as now). From his earliest days, Audubon had an affinity for birds. "I felt an intimacy with them...bordering on frenzy [that] must accompany my steps through life." He began conducting the first known bird-banding on the continent: he tied yarn to the legs of Eastern Phoebes and determined that they returned to the same nesting spots year after year. About 1820, Audubon declared his intention to paint every bird in North America.
In his bird art, he did not use oils, the favored artistic medium of the day. Instead he used watercolors, pastel crayons and, occasionally, pencil, charcoal, chalk, gouache, and pen and ink. As early as 1807, he developed a method of using wires and threads to hold dead birds in lifelike poses while he drew them.
The original edition of "Birds of America: (sometimes called the Havell Edition after its printer, and sometimes called the "Double Elephant Folio", because of its size) was printed on handmade paper 39.5 inches tall by 28.5 inches wide. The principal printing technique was copperplate etching, but engraving and aquatint were also used. Watercolor was then added by hand.
Marriage (1808) was followed by the birth of his two sons was also followed by financial difficulties and ill health. Nevertheless, he persevered in his life's work, taking his "Birds of America" to England and raising money for further publications. His life followed a pattern of extreme effort followed by ill health and financial difficulties. He died in 1851 but his influence on ornithological works and the study of animals in their native habitats cannot be underestimated. Audubon discovered 25 new species and 12 new subspecies and "Birds of America: is still considered one of the greatest examples of book art.