Audubon | John James | 1785-1851 | American ornithologist

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

John James Audubon (1785-1851) - real name Jean Jacques Fougère Audubon - the French-American artist and ornithologist, was a figure whose life was shrouded in mystery. Born in Haiti, the son of a French father who was having an extra-marital affair with a Creole woman, Audubon was brought up in rural France by his father's wife while his father was a leading revolutionary in Paris. He had a very limited education and no specific artistic or ornithological training. He was sent to the United States when a young man to become a businessman, but he led a bohemian lifestyle, moving from town to town, running unsuccessful businesses and hunting. He spent a period of time in jail for bankruptcy, but was eventually freed with only his gun and the clothes he was standing in.

Over a period of several years, he travelled through the Southern and Mid-Western United States to shoot and paint birds, paying his expenses by painting people's portraits. He was an exceptionally talented artist, and, despite their occasional inaccuracies, his were the best illustrations of American birds to date. Audubon travelled to Britain to find a publisher, and his "The Birds of America", (1827-1838) was published in episodes over a period of 11 years.

Inconsistency was the only continuous factor in his life. When young, Audubon had carried out a number of ingenious experiments on birds, but carelessness and lack of method discredited his results. The notes he took while travelling are disorganised, undetailed and only semi-literate, leaving many of his discoveries to his memory, which cannot have enhanced the accuracy of his books. His recklessness can also be seen in the episode when he gave pictures of imaginary animals to a gullible naturalist as a joke - pictures which went on to be published, causing great confusion. However, he was also the first to attach markers to birds to see if they returned to the same nesting place each year, fifty years before the introduction of bird banding.

Scientifically, his books are of very limited interest - the text merely gives the birds' names along with very general descriptions and a few anecdotes about each. Their true worth is in the illustrations they contain and in the way they popularised ornithology, and made the fauna of the United States known in Europe.

The image of him left behind is romanticised and exaggerated, and bears little resemblance to the man he was.



Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

The Birds of America, (1827-1838)

Ornithological Biography, (1831-1839)

A Synopsis of the Birds of America, ( 1839)

Viviparous Quadripeds of North America, ( 1845-1846)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1830: Elected Fellow of the American Academy


List of sources for the biographical information:

Johnson, AllenDictionary of American Biography, vol I( London,Humphrey Milford for the Oxford University Press,1928)

Gillispie, Charles CDictionary of Scientific Biography, vol I(New York,Scribner's,1970)

Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol 2, (Chicago, William Benton, 1964)