April 26, 2011

The bird man

Filed under: Uncategorized — jchatoff @ 12:07 am
Tags: , ,

Audubon used this John Syme portrait to advertise hisprint exhibits in England.

Born in Haiti 226 years ago today, John James Audubon was a man who definitely marched to a different drummer.  He tried, granted, to meet everyone’s expectations, but it never quite worked out. His father planned a great naval career for him and sent him to sea at the age of 18, whereupon it became clear to all concerned that young Jean (as he was then) suffered from severe, incurable seasickness.


His father then sent him to America to take over the Audubon lead mines in Mills Grove PA – the idea being that the mines would provide Jean with a steady income.

But Jean, who had already changed his name to John, later admitted that ‘”Hunting, fishing, drawing, and music occupied my every moment; cares I knew not, and cared naught about them.’

The lead mines were quickly forgotten and it wasn’t long before John had sold his interest to take off for Kentucky and start a business.  He wanted to prove to Lucy Bakewell’s father that he’d be a good provider and thus get permission to marry her.

They did eventually marry, though it’s doubtful her father was entirely convinced – and rightfully so, since it was pretty much feast or famine for the young Audubons.

Nowhere is there evidence of any classic art training for Audubon – no academy, no apprenticeship, no art teacher in his youth.  It would appear that he was completely self-taught until, in his late 30s, he was able to study with professional artists once or twice.

Blue heron

But the self-taught artist and self-taught ornithologist whose life for almost 40 years seemed at best feckless, succeeded in creating one of the great literary, scientific and artistic works of all time.

You can watch a fine retelling of his life story on American Masters on Netflix, read his biography by John Burroughs at Project Gutenberg, see lots of images at the National Audubon Society or take a gander at the original double elephant folio prints at the  National Gallery of Art.

Detail from Carolina partridges (bobwhites)

It turns out that Audubon was also the first bird bander. While in Kentucky, he tied a bit of yarn to the leg of an Eastern phoebe he’d caught and was delighted to find it return the next year.

I suppose it’s good news that only four of the species painted by Audubon are now extinct, but many are endangered.

Wild hen turkey, and chicks


  1. One of my favs thank you totally cool.


    Comment by avery — April 26, 2011 @ 7:48 am | Reply

  2. wow that flamingo is GAWJUS!! 😉


    Comment by nina c — April 26, 2011 @ 6:09 pm | Reply

  3. All Audubon birds are GAWJUS!! Thank you Nina.


    Comment by GALYA TARMU — April 26, 2011 @ 7:15 pm | Reply

  4. Great post


    Comment by sketchjay — April 26, 2011 @ 8:56 pm | Reply

  5. Wonderful day’s work you’ve done here. My kind of man.


    Comment by Carol — April 29, 2011 @ 11:10 am | Reply

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