Florida Museum of Natural History

John James Audubon


john james audubon

In 1831, John James Audubon (1785-1851) arrived in Florida to collect water birds for the third volume of his great illustrated book, Birds of America. After disembarking at St. Augustine on November 20, he traveled on foot and by pony over log roads and
trails. Audubon explored the east coast of Florida and the Florida Keys for the next six months. He followed the waterways by canoe, skiff, cutter, and schooner, and the mosquitoes followed him. "Reader," he wrote, "if you have not been in such a place, you cannot easily conceive the torments we endured."

Audubon on the Frontier

Audubon was born on April 26, 1785, at Les Cayes, Santo Domingo. His father was an affluent French sea captain and planter; his mother was a Creole. His father's French wife raised young Audubon in France, but despite later claims, he received little formal education. From 1803 to 1805, the youth lived on his father's estate outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After a brief sojourn in France, Audubon returned to the United States and operated a lead mine near Philadelphia.

In 1808, Audubon married Lucy Bakewell. The couple moved to Kentucky, where Audubon operated stores in the frontier towns of Louisville and Henderson. An unsuccessful merchant, he began drawing birds. In 1819, his ill-advised grist mill and lumber operation failed. From 1819 to 1826, Audubon made ends meet as an itinerant portrait painter throughout the Mississippi river valley, a taxidermist in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a drawing teacher in New Orleans and St. Francisville, Louisiana. An accomplished fiddler and lady's man, he also gave dancing lessons. While he traveled, wife Lucy worked as a governess to support their two sons, Victor and John.

A chance meeting with the pioneering American ornithologist Alexander Wilson in Kentucky gave Audubon confidence in his abilities to draw birds, and, in 1820, he decided to undertake a massive publishing project, life-size illustrations of the birds of America. He spent the next six years seeking support, but meeting little encouragement. took his project to Great Britain. After 1826, he procured publishers, first in Scotland and then in England capable of printing large enough plates. While the monumental Birds of America was in production, Audubon traveled as a celebrity throughout Europe and sold $1,000 subscriptions to his book. He also made several trips to the United States.

Audubon explored the Middle Atlantic states in 1829; two years later, he explored the Southeast to the Florida Keys. After he left Florida in 1832, Audubon continued north to Labrador and west to Texas to search for new birds for his last volumes. Birds of America was literally the biggest bird book the world had ever seen. Audubon portrayed 1065 birds, representing 489 species. The 435 magnificent engravings made from his watercolor drawings show birds life-size in natural habitats. Edge to edge, the grand elephant folio plates would paper one quarter of a mile.

The large and elaborate illustrations required the talents of more than one artist. Audubon first drew his specimens in watercolor. Joseph Mason, a gifted young painter whom Audubon met in 1820, provided the floral details which give many of the plates their grace. In Florida, George Lehman, a professional Swiss landscape artist accompanied Audubon. Lehman also composed one of the finest Florida plates, plate 321, which shows the "beautiful and singular" roseate spoonbill. Other details for later plates were the work of Maria Martin, the sister-in-law of Audubon's later collaborator, the Reverend John Bachman, whose two daughters married Audubon's sons.

Audubon's hand-colored illustrations are beautiful, but are they "Drawn from Nature" as claimed on the bottom of each plate? In fact, Audubon and other nineteenth-century bird artists did not draw living birds. They sketched mounted birdskins. Audubon preferred to wire recently shot birds in life-like positions and to draw them immediately. To create the illusion of flight, he hung birds upside down so that the wings opened. He did not keep these specimens.

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