On this day in 1785, Jean Rabin Audubon was born on the French colony of Saint-Domingue—now called Haiti. His father was a French naval officer who owned a sugar plantation there; his mother was the man’s mistress. The senior Audubon was an “active man”; the young Audubon grew-up amongst a number of half siblings of various hues.
At the age of six, Audubon and his father moved back to France and his name was changed to Jean-Jacques (or, later, John James, in English). The boy developed a great love of nature and birds in particular. His father encouraged his son’s scientific curiosity and Jean-Jacques would spend hours walking through nature, collecting things that caught his eye.
At twelve, Jean-Jacques was sent off to military school; his father was planning his career as a seaman. But Jean-Jacques did not like the sea and was often seasick. Back home, Jean-Jacques continued to walk, explore, and collect. He also learned taxidermy and drawing.
In 1803, with the Napoleonic Wars beginning, Jean-Jacques was sent to America under a false passport—in order to avoid conscription in France. His father set-up a business partnership for his son, possibly mining lead (for ammunition) on some property the father had bought in Pennsylvania. Eventually the partnership evolved into operating a rural general store. Audubon married and began a family—often supplementing the store’s meager earnings by hunting and fishing. He also traded fur, gave drawing lessons, and dabbled in many other business pursuits.
But exploring nature was Audubon’s true calling—and birds were his first love. In time, his business partner bought-out Audubon’s share of the company, freeing the Frenchman to pursue his great love full-time. Leaving his wife and children alone for months at a time, Audubon would travel through the American wilderness. His goal: to paint every bird in America—one page a day. On his treks, he would befriend Native American tribes and learned much from them about tracking animals. He developed a great respect for the American Indians and wrote glowingly of them.
Despite many, many set-backs, Audubon finally completed his magnum opus, Birds of America. He took his portfolio to London where the public was fascinated by “the American woodsman” painting beautiful images of exotic American bird species. He found a publisher and began producing the plates as a subscription series. To finance publication, Audubon sold subscriptions, exhibited the originals, took portrait commissions, and sold animal skins which he had hunted. At promotional events, Audubon would don a “Daniel Boone” style costume, further burnishing his “frontiersman” image.
When the book was finished, it comprised 435 copper-plate prints, depicting over 700 bird species, hand-colored by a team of 50 painters, on sheets of paper measuring 26″ x 39″. It was at the time—and still may be—considered the greatest picture book ever published. 120 original copies are known to exist. Three of the 10 highest-priced books sold at auction have been Birds of America. The most-expensive copy was sold at auction in 2010 for $11.5 million.
Audubon, suffering dementia and poor health from many years in the wilderness, died in his Manhattan home on 27 January 1851. He is buried in the Trinity Church Cemetery at 155th Street and Broadway.