July 25th, 2007
John James Audubon
Drawn from Nature

John James Audubon is best known for The Birds of America, a book of 435 images, portraits of every bird then known in the United States – painted and reproduced in the size of life. Its creation cost Audubon eighteen years of monumental effort in finding the birds, making the book, and selling it to subscribers. Audubon also wrote thousands of pages about birds (Ornithological Biography); he’d completed half of a collection of paintings of mammals (The Viviparous Quadrapeds of North America) when his eyesight failed in 1846.

His story is a dramatic and surprising one. Audubon was not born in America, but saw more of the North American continent than virtually anyone alive, and even in his own time he came to exemplify America – the place of wilderness and wild things. The history of his life reveals his era and his nation: he lived in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina and New York – traveled everywhere from Labrador to the Dry Tortugas off Florida, from the Republic of Texas to the mouth of the Yellowstone – was a merchant, salesman, teacher, hunter, itinerant portraitist and woodsman, an artist and a scientist. He was, in a sense, a one-man compendium of American culture of his time. And his growing apprehension about the destruction of nature became a prophecy of his nation’s convictions in the century after his death.

So it is that Audubon has been called (by Lewis Mumford) “an archetypal American who astonishingly combined in equal measure the virtues of George Washington, Daniel Boone and Benjamin Franklin” and “the nearest thing American art has had to a founding father.”

Audubon’s life seems invented rather than lived; at times his own version of it surely was invented, but even the real life has a distinctly exaggerated, mythical feel. For it’s an archetypal story of the American dream – a Horatio Alger tale in the flesh. The story goes like this: born a literal bastard in Haiti, Audubon was raised like a little lord in France, emigrated to Pennsylvania to escape conscription in Napoleon’s army, failed utterly in frontier Kentucky, was thrown in jail there and driven from his town in penniless disgrace… but he believed in himself, left his family and took a flatboat down the Mississippi, struggled on alone in Louisiana, and finally became a brilliant success, and a legend, overnight… in England. That story then ends with the family reunited, now living on their huge wooded estate in New York City, occasionally pulling in a 300-lb. sturgeon from their Hudson River landing, with a pink sunset rippling over the Palisades. It’s a whacking good story – all of the above, and More! Much More!, with pictures to boot.

The man himself, too, seems much larger than life. John James Audubon was a mix of characteristics, almost always to extremes: he was not just a little anything. He was the kind of excessive person who might show up for a two-month ocean voyage bearing, say, three dogs, two tail-less cats, and 265 live birds – which is what he brought in 1836. He was of course excessively handsome: “a handsomer man I never saw,” one neighbor in Pennsylvania wrote, and another (in Kentucky) crooned that “his eyes were an eagle’s in brightness, his teeth were white and even, his hair a beautiful chestnut color, very glossy and curly.” And he was inordinately vain – with “muscles of steel,” he crowed, and a “handsome figure.” He especially loved that hair: “My locks flew freely from under my hat, and every lady that I met looked at them and then at me until – she could see no more.” When Audubon had his “luxuriant” (his word) hair cut, he wrote a little obituary to it in his journal, with a heavy black border framing the page.

But if he was as unselfconsciously vain as a child, he was equally as charming, magnetically so: almost everyone liked him immediately, and he returned the admiration. He loved children, adored his wife, was a wholehearted and affectionate friend and possessed a whole range of brilliant talents. Yet he was also full of neuroses – insecure about his talent and his worth, his education and his place in the world – craving affection, easily and deeply hurt.

Several Audubon experts have noted a multiplicity in the essential Audubon: there always seem to be competing halves. Biographer William Souder remarks an early division between the satin-breeched dandy in Pennsylvania who was the beau of every ball and the serious young student of nature who drew birds endlessly, turned his room into a natural-history museum, and was the first person ever to band birds. Writer Ella Foshay points out that he was equally comfortable sleeping on the forest ground as he was under the downy quilt of an European four-poster; that he played the violin and flute exquisitely, yet liked to swap tall tales and bawdy stories with frontier fur traders; that the same man who reveled in frozen weeks in the wilderness hunting bear and swan with Shawnees could also quote Shakespeare and Milton or cite Titian and Correggio. Sir Walter Scott thought that Audubon was “a Frenchman by birth, but less of a Frenchman than I have ever seen”; but a young assistant from Maine said that the painter was “a nice man, but as Frenchy as thunder.” There were always two Audubons.

The artist was a self-taught scientist, but an innovative one. As a young man, he studied the migrating phoebes near his home, tying colored yarn to their legs. This was, surprisingly, the first recorded instance of banding birds. Later, he devised an original set of experiments challenging the common belief that vultures find their food by smelling it. He put a painting of a dead sheep into an open field; sure enough, vultures landed and tugged at the canvas. He then put the painted decoy down close to a concealed pile of stinking vulture “food”; again, they pecked only at the painting – at the image rather than the scent of food. Finally he put small pieces of beef onto a cloth that covered a large amount of reeking offal. The vultures ate the beef, but did not detect the covered food. Audubon had proved his point.

Audubon probably regarded his election to membership in the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Linnaean Society, and the Royal Society of London as his greatest accomplishment as a scientist. To most people today his scientific success is best exemplified by the birds. Despite his missteps, he discovered twenty-five new species, twelve new subspecies. These are astounding numbers.

Hard science demands an abiding concern for truth, and virtually all Audubon scholars point to the way Audubon was “economical with the truth,” as Duff Hart-Davis nicely puts it. Indeed, Audubon lied to hide the secret of his illegitimate birth. He claimed his father (a captain) was an admiral, and at one point decided that his family had been imprisoned in the Bastille (they hadn’t). He copied several figures from the work of others, then said he hadn’t. He quietly erased the name of an assistant, who’d made backgrounds, from the bottom of numerous paintings. “A tenuous balance between fact and fiction runs through Audubon’s life and work,” Ella Foshay tells us.

Audubon’s writing has drawn the hottest fire. His Ornithological Biography was made up of essays about individual species interspersed with what he called “Episodes” – personal essays and remembrances. Sometimes he “remembered” hearsay, sometimes he invented stories, such as a night spent in a cabin with Daniel Boone. But as biographer Shirley Streshinsky points out, his “Episodes” were written “to edify, to entertain, and particularly to give a frontier flavor to the book.” If the American West was the place where one could find vast rivers virtually choked with sockeye salmon or trees as wide as small houses (in real life), it was also the home for mountainous men whose best pal might be an ox – a blue one, yet – or a daring woman who could ride a catfish the size of a whale. To a degree, Audubon was simply taking the reader to that place. He wasn’t so much lying as telling stretchers.

But even if Audubon was a very particular case – an unusual and complex character with an astounding life – an examination of that life and that man tells us a great deal about his times in general. John James Audubon: Drawn from Nature provides a large clear window onto life on the American frontier; it shows how Europe regarded the still-young United States, and how people (on both sides of the Atlantic) regarded nature. It creates a meaningful portrait of the state of both Art and Science in the first decades of the 19th century. It shows us a person, and a people: the life and times of John James Audubon.

–Ken Chowder

  • john james

    so i s he related

  • alexia

    this information did not h elp me with my project at all. i give a thumbs down.

  • steve

    I beg your pardon, Alexia. This presentation was well thought-out and presents some features of Audubon’s life and character that are not widely discussed. I give it a 4.

  • Paige

    That pic is SO wierd!

  • Hannah Ruth

    is he ralated to kentucky?

  • khadijah

    this picture is pretty

  • Barbara Taylor Art Studio

    Wonderful. The “Bird Illstration Gallery” is a wonderful reminder of Audubon Exhibition at the Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis,TN.

  • Nelson

    All this told me was that he was a crazy guy who went insane talking about birdies

  • Jill

    Geez, Alexa, why don’t you go to the box office and requesst a refund?
    It was well done and professional–what more would you want?

  • Birdfan

    Very well put together. The entire series is wonderful, and sheds light on some unheard aspects of some brilliant Americans’ lives. Thumbs up!

  • Brandy

    I think this is a cute picture but I like it when they paint pic’s of animals more…

  • Billy Sims

    It was kind of weird but it was cool oh and i like pie i wondered if he did

  • khgkghkjhgaj

    i think that it is very intersting and that i think his pictures are cool and i do like the picture but i like it when they paint pic of cute animls not like birds but the birds are nice

  • ruby fuentes

    wow! i luv dat info…..
    dat info helped me alot on my project!!!!

  • glenda hernandez

    this is great it heih me alot!!!!!
    love it peace out!

  • Walter Audubon

    I don’t know if the film here is the same 2-part film from Canada seen years ago on PBS. The latter was well- done, though it gave little bio information about the extensive Audubon family:-)

  • steve

    I thought this was of great interest put together nicely, great job thumbs up I give it a 5 i own one of his prints on the back it says drawn from nature & published by John J.Audubon.F.R.S.F. M.W.S. (Carolina Parrot)anyone know what the letters stand for? (F.R.S.F. M.W.S.)I would like to know thanks.

  • Nick

    I am related to him! Lucy audubon’s sister married a Gordon, one of our ancestors! we have several of his paintings and The Birds of America and the Vivaparous Quadrupeds of America, but one is ruined because someone put a bottle of weed killer on it.

  • rebekah

    there was absolutely nothing about his 1820 voyage down the mississippi and the ohio

    though it did help me little with his later career

    i would recommend the timeline to anyone using this site for a project

  • Desiree

    This is very helpful and interesting! I’m glad I found this so that it can help me our for my report! :D
    I think John James Audubon inspires me. I even drew a crane that he illustrated; it came out pretty good! :)

  • ROBOT Melanie Jean Mayfield

    I just saw the video ‘American Masters, John James Audubon, Drawn From Nature’ on KEET 13 EUREKA earlier today. I swear to God, my husband [John Bond] is the reincarnation of John Audubon [both brilliant, but INsane], and I must be the reincarnation of his wife [long-suffering]. No kidding. The emotional parallels are uncanny! [Can you say 'Asperger's Syndrome'? It's even WORSE than 'BiPolar'.] I must get a copy of this video and watch it with my husband. It might save our marriage. [I can't deal with his nasty psychological abuse, so, we're separated. He SAYS he wants to reconcile, but, he doesn't ACT like it. Two Audubons, two Bonds- both full of self-contradictions.]

  • Willi

    Goodmorning starshine! the earth says hello.

  • Nuyorker

    Steve asked “anyone know what the letters stand for? (F.R.S.F. M.W.S.)I would like to know thanks.”

    Audubon was uncomfortable knowing he was illegitimate and his reputattion was enhanced by his membership in various presigeous societies. You can learn more about this at

    F.R.S. = Fellow of the Royal Society (This is a big deal and if it was his only recognition, it would be impressive)
    F.M.W.S. probably means Fellow and Member of the Wernerian Natural History Society of Edinburgh (I’m unfamiliar with this society)
    Note that Audubon’s recognition was mostly in Europe because he was “black balled” in America, largely by George Ord who didn’t like Audubon’s reputation eclipsing that of his friend and naturalist Alexander Wilson.

    Do a search on this person also: George Bird Grinnell. He was tutored by Audubon’s wife, Lucy Bakewell Audubon. Grinnell was mentioned predominantly in episode 1 of the Ken Burns series about our National Parks (first aired in 2010).

    Finally, all of you should plan a visit, if posssible, to the New-York Historical Society in 2012 to see a major exhibit on Audubon. The Society owns all 435 original watercolors of the “Birds of America.”

    Audubon was honored with membership in the following organizations…
    Fellow of the Wernerian Natural History Society of Edinburgh
    Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
    Fellow of the Royal Society of London
    Member of the Royal Scotish Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture
    Member of the Ornithological Society in London
    Member of the Lyceum of Natural History of New York
    Member of the Natural History Society of Paris
    Member of the American Philosophical Society
    Member of the Academy of Natural Sciences at Philadelphia
    Member of the Natural History Society of Boston
    Member of the Natural History Society of Charleston, South Carolina
    Member of the Quebec Literary and Historical Society
    Member of the Societe Francaise de Statistique Universelle de Paris
    Fellow of the Linnean and Zoological Societies of London
    Honorary Member of the Society of Natural History of Manchester

  • Le Romonster

    Is this video available for purchase? Or somewhere online to view?

  • Fah

    @ Le Romonster

    You can buy a DVD version of the film for about $25 from Bullfrog Films, http://www.bullfrogfilms.com. They’re mostly an educational distributor and the prices you’ll see online reflect that, but if you call or email them it is available on Home Video DVD for individuals who won’t be screening it to groups or classes..

  • kayla

    Wow , I never knew about John James Audubon. He makes me want to draw more. This was very interesting for me.

  • pam

    I have 2 copys of birds drawn by John J Audobon I think. The pictures are about 15×25 and in color. They have yellowed a bit but on the bottom of the page it says drawn from nature and published by John J. Audobon,FRSFLS. Also in the center bottom under the bird picture -Indigo Bird-fringilla CyanE.A.wils,Male Adult1,M,first year2. 2nd.3.Female,4.Wild Larsaparilla Lchisandra coccinea. The picture is of 4 birds . I have had these for 10 years and don’t know how to find out if they are authentic, which I think they are. There are numbers by each bird also.

  • clark

    I have tried several times with different search keys to find and order the James Audibon American Masters episode…you need to improve your internal search engine….I saw this on air and want to buy a DVD as a gift…I am frustrated

  • amms jaguar

    This actually was very helpful to me becasue I needed to know some simple things about Mr.audubon and for one of my science teachers reports I needed five facts about Mr.Audubon for EXTRA CREDIT,and for all u people who think this wasnt helpfull why dont u write a report on this man of history and see how long you can write. :D

  • amintern

    You can purchase the Audubon American Masters episode through our 800# by calling 1-800-531-4727. Thank you for your interest. We hope you continue to visit the website for many more new exciting profiles and upcoming premiere information.

  • Daniel

    This is too complex for me to understand

  • Michele

    I found this to be a really interesting story of a fascinating historical figure who was great not only for his artistic contribution but for the lasting impact his work has had on conservation efforts in this country. Personally I found the story of his perseverance in the face of hardship and failure in several different countries to be very inspiring.

    As one who is struggling in pursuing a life goal that I want more than anything but not having a lot of success, his story gives me hope.

  • Michele

    Does anyone know where I can buy this video? I looked on Amazon and there was only one for $220.

  • Mistee

    So for all of you who did not beive this essay to be useful, have you tried to research Audubon? It is the biggest pain ever. Alice Ford does a good job with his biographies, but even those are biased. I mean, Open “Audubon By Hinmself” and you will find that he was proud and arrogant. Personally, i dont understand how a man so in love with birds could kill so many. Anyways, this is the ONLY essay that gave insight to how the artist was viewed in society, and therefore may be a key factor in one’s opinion of Audubon. Maybe his welcoming personality is the reason he was so widely accepted?

  • Jim

    One might want to check out a book called AUDUBON’S MASTERPIECES. It is an introduction by DAVID REINHARDT that is very informative on his life as well as his work of art. This may help others to gather more facts on this wonderful man. Loving nature and fine art is like sipping great wine, you can’t get enough of it.

  • Peter Griffin

    What a lovely story

  • Taiga

    This wasn’t what I was looking for but was very interesting! Audubon is a great inspiration and I love everything he creates. Walton Ford takes Audubon to a darker level ;)


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