A Week to Remember: John James Audubon

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Portrait of John James Audubon and a collage of his bird illustrations

John James Audubon was born on April 26, 1785. Audubon was an ornithologist and painter who identified more than 20 new species of birds in North America, and who painted the more than 400 illustrations that make up The Birds of America (e-book | print), which is still a landmark work of ornithology.

He was born Jean Rabin in the French colony Saint-Domingue (now known as Haiti), the son of a French naval officer and his chambermaid mistress. He was raised in early childhood by his mother, but in 1791, his father arranged for him to be sent to join him in France. Jean was formally adopted by his father and his father's wife in 1794, and named Jean-Jacques Audubon.

Audubon was sent to military school at age twelve. His hopes for a naval career were ended by poor academic performance and chronic seasickness. He emigrated to the United States in 1803, having obtained a false passport under the Anglicized name John James Audubon, in order to avoid service in the Napoleonic Wars.

On arrival in America, he settled at Mill Grove, a Pennsylvania farm owned by his father, living in the farmhouse with the family of tenant farmers. He had been fascinated by birds since childhood, and began drawing pictures of the local birds. He also did the first known bird-banding on the American continent, tying yarn to the legs of birds and discovering that they returned to the same nesting grounds each year.

In 1808, Audubon moved to Kentucky, where he married and began to raise a family. He supported himself as a merchant and trader, operating a general store in Louisville. An embargo on trade with Britain hurt his business, and he eventually moved west to an area where his business would face less competition, leaving his family behind. For the next several years, Audubon moved throughout the western United States (what we would today call the midwest), continuing to develop his drawing skills. In order to force himself to improve, he occasionally burned older sketches that he felt were unsatisfactory.

Audubon became an American citizen in 1812. Shortly thereafter, he returned to his family in Kentucky, and found that rats had destroyed more than 200 drawings. He became more determined than ever, and set himself the goal of painting all of the birds of North America. To that end, he began traveling throughout the southern United States in 1820.

In 1826, Audubon took his work to England, where he hoped to obtain funding to continue his work. His drawings were a sensation among the English, who were fascinated by his illustrations of birds and landscapes they had never seen. He raised enough money to begin publishing The Birds of America, which was published on a subscription basis, in installments, between 1827 and 1838.

Audubon's artistic technique was quite different than most ornithological illustrators of the era. Instead of painting the birds in stiff, unmoving position, he posed the bodies of the birds he'd killed as if they were in motion – in flight, perhaps, or while feeding. It sometimes took several days to pose the larger birds, using wires to hold them in place. Audubon painted the birds, but did not always paint the landscapes himself; assistants did much of the background work. To produce the copies of The Birds of America, plates were painted by hand by more than fifty artists, working in an assembly line.

Audubon returned to the United States in 1829, and continued adding to his collection of illustrations. He visited Labrador and Newfoundland in 1833; Katherine Govier's novel Creation (e-book | print) tells the story of that trip. In the 1840s, he made some trips to the western part of the continent. By the late 1840s, his health was declining; he suffered from dementia, probably what we would now recognize as Alzheimer's disease. Audubon died on January 27, 1851.

There are several full-length biographies of John James Audubon, including Nancy Plain's This Strange Wilderness (e-book | print), William Souder's Under a Wild Sky (e-book), and Richard Rhodes' John James Audubon (print). He has also been a popular subject of biographies written for children, such as Robert Burleigh's Into the Woods (e-book | print) and Jacqueline Davies' The Boy Who Drew Birds (e-book | print). John James Audubon: Drawn from Nature (DVD) is an hour-long documentary from the American Masters series.

Also This Week

April 28, 1758

James Monroe was born. Monroe was the fifth president of the United States, and came to the job with a wide range of experience. He had served in the United States Senate and as governor of Virginia; he was ambassador to France and to the United Kingdom; and he had been Secretary of State and Secretary of War under President James Madison. His presidency is perhaps best remembered for the Monroe Doctrine, the statement that the United States would not accept European interference in the affairs of independent nations in the Americas. Harlow Giles Unger's The Last Founding Father (e-book | print) is a thorough biography.

April 26, 1938

Maurice Williams was born. Williams was an R&B singer of the late 1950s and early 1960s, best remembered as the leader of Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs. They only had one big hit, but it was a memorable one; 1960's "Stay" features Williams' smooth lead vocal and the contrasting shrill falsetto of Henry Gaston. It is the shortest record ever to reach the top of the Billboard charts, only a minute and thirty-six seconds long.

April 28, 1948

Terry Pratchett was born. Pratchett was an author of science fiction and fantasy, best known for the 41 novels that make up the Discworld series. The Discworld novels are comic fantasies that often satirize the most familiar tropes and cliches of the genre. The books stand on their own, but can also be read as several interlocking sub-series, each focused on a different principal character. The series begins with The Color of Magic (e-book | print), which Pratchett said was meant "to do for the classical fantasy universe what Blazing Saddles did for westerns."

April 26 is National Pretzel Day

We don't really know where or when the pretzel was created, though there are several popular legends. One says that an Italian monk created them as rewards for children who had finished their prayers, and that the shape is meant to represent the arms folded in prayer. The pretzel was introduced to America in the late 18th century by German and Swiss immigrants. In the 20th century, the soft pretzel became popular in many northeastern cities, particularly in Philadelphia, where it is as much a culinary icon as the cheesesteak sandwich. Andrea Slonecker's Pretzel Making at Home (e-book) offers 50 recipes for pretzels, and for things to make with pretzels.