John James Audubon
John James Audubon (1785 – 1851) was born in Les Cayes, Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). His father, Capt. Jean Audubon, was a French merchant captain and planter, his mother, Jeanne Rabine, a French domestic who died when he was an infant. At the age of four he was taken to France and adopted by his father’s legal wife, who raised John and his half-sister as if they were her own. In 1803, Capt. Audubon sent his eighteen year old son to Pennsylvania to manage the family’s estate there, and to escape Napoleon’s draft. There he met, and eventually married Lucy Bakewell.
Audubon spent more than a decade in business, eventually traveling down the Ohio River to western Kentucky – then the frontier – and setting up a dry-goods store in Henderson. He continued to draw birds as a hobby, amassing an impressive portfolio. While in Kentucky, Lucy gave birth to two sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse, as well as a daughter who died in infancy. Audubon was quite successful in business for a while, but hard times hit, and in 1819 he was briefly jailed for bankruptcy.
With no other prospects, Audubon set off on his epic quest to depict America’s avifauna, with nothing but his gun, artist’s materials, and a young assistant. Floating down the Mississippi, he lived a rugged hand-to-mouth existence in the South while Lucy earned money as a tutor to wealthy plantation families. In 1826 he sailed with his partly finished collection to England and began to attain his fame as an artist. His life-size, highly dramatic bird portraits, along with his embellished descriptions of wilderness life, hit just the right note at the height of the Continent’s Romantic era. Audubon found a printer for the Birds of America, first in Edinburgh, then London, and later collaborated with the Scottish ornithologist William MacGillivray on the Ornithological Biographies – life histories of each of the species in the work.
The last print was issued in 1838, by which time Audubon had achieved fame and a modest degree of comfort, traveled this country several more times in search of birds, and settled in New York City. He made one more trip out West in 1843, the basis for his final work of mammals, the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, which was largely completed by his sons and the text of which was written by his long-time friend, the Lutheran pastor John Bachman (whose daughters married Audubon’s sons). Audubon spent his last years in senility and died at age 65. He is buried in the Trinity Cemetery at 155th Street and Broadway in New York City.
Twenty-two of the original 435 Havell plates represent birds Audubon observed and painted in Florida in 1831 – 1832. In Key West, he had a letter of introduction to Dr. Benjamin Strobel, who had a house on the property now occupied by the Audubon House & Tropical Gardens and the Geiger Family Historic Home. At that time the property was owned by one of the island’s founders, Pardon Greene, and occupied the homes of Strobel, Greene, the Geigers (who eventually bought the property and erected the present house), and at least one other family. The center of the lot was a garden of native and imported tropical plants which Audubon used in his images of local birds.
An excerpt from an 1895 book entitled “The Story of Audubon The Naturalist” is provided here. It is a quaint, very romanticized, and often historically inaccurate, story of Audubon, in the moralistic tone of 1895, which provides an interesting glimpse into his life and times.