John James Audubon is known for his remarkable studies of American birds depicted in their natural habitats. His The Birds of North America (1827-1839), in which he identified 25 new species and a number of new sub-species, is considered to be one of the finest ornithological works ever completed. However, his studies of mammals are less well-known.
Twelve folio engravings by this great ornithologist, naturalist and painter are on display within the Museum until 28 October.
John James Audubon’s exotic and often romanticised life has been widely chronicled; searching ‘Audubon’ on the internet produces over ten million hits. Born Jean-Jacques in Haiti in 1785, he was the illegitimate son of Captain Jean Audubon and his French-Creole mistress. He was raised in France, received some naval training, learned to love nature and wildlife, and began to draw. To escape conscription into Napoleon’s army the eighteen year old Audubon was sent to America to manage his father’s new estate, Mill Grove, near Philadelphia. Although Audubon returned to France he finally settled in America in 1806.
His earliest studies of birds date back to 1804 but work for his epic The Birds of America demanded a more peripatetic way of life and in 1820 Audubon began his travels, supporting himself as a portrait painter and drawing master. His aim was to represent the authentic colours and details characteristics of each species life-size. He collected his own specimens, usually by shooting them, in order to record the colours before the faded. Wiring the birds in life-like positions, he transcribed their outlines as accurate pencil drawings.
John James Audubon changed forever the way in which nature is illustrated. His painstakingly executed, life-size images underscore his genius and confirm his place as one of the great American artists of the 19th century.