Happy birthday, John James Audubon (1785-1851)! In celebration of the great French-born wildlife artist, naturalist, and ornithologist, Smithsonian presents a fascinating excerpt from Richard Rhodes' 2004 biography John James Audubon: The Making of an American. From Smithsonian:
Though drawing birds had been something of an obsession, it was only a hobby until Audubon's mill and general stores went under in the Panic of 1819, a failure his critics and many of his biographers have ascribed to a lack of ability or irresponsible distraction by his art. But nearly every business in the trans-Appalachian West failed that year, because the Western state banks and the businesses they serviced were built on paper…
Audubon took up portrait drawing at $5 a head. His friends helped him find work painting exhibit backgrounds and doing taxidermy for a new museum in Cincinnati modeled on painter Charles Wilson Peale's famous museum in Philadelphia, which Audubon knew from his Mill Grove days. Peale's PhiladelphiaMuseum displayed stuffed and mounted birds as if alive against natural backgrounds, and preparing such displays in Cincinnati probably pointed Audubon to his technical and aesthetic breakthrough of portraying American birds in realistic, lifelike settings. Members of a government expedition passing through Cincinnati in the spring of 1820, including the young artist Titian Ramsey Peale, son of the Philadelphia museum keeper, alerted Audubon to the possibility of exploring beyond the Mississippi, the limit of frontier settlement at that time. Daniel Drake, the prominent Cincinnati physician who had founded the new museum, praised Audubon's work in a public lecture and encouraged him to think of adding the birds of the Mississippi flyway to his collection, extending the range of American natural history; the few ornithologists who had preceded Audubon had limited their studies to Eastern species.
By spring 1820, Drake's museum owed Audubon $1,200, most of which it never paid. The artist scraped together such funds as he could raise from drawing and teaching art to support Lucy and their two boys, then 11 and 8, who moved in with relatives again while he left to claim his future. He recruited his best student, 18-year-old Joseph Mason, to draw backgrounds, bartered his hunting skills for boat passage on a commercial flatboat headed for New Orleans, and in October floated off down the Ohio and the Mississippi.
For the next five years Audubon labored to assemble a definitive collection of drawings of American birds while struggling to support himself and his family. He had decided to produce a great work of art and ornithology (a decision that Lucy's relatives condemned as derelict): The Birds of America would comprise 400 two- by three-foot engraved, hand-colored plates of American birds "at the size of life" to be sold in sets of five, and collected into four huge, leather-bound volumes of 100 plates each, with five leather-bound accompanying volumes of bird biographies worked up from his field notes.
He had found a paradise of birds in the deciduous forests and bluegrass prairies of Kentucky; he found another paradise of birds in the pine forests and cypress swamps of Louisiana around St. Francisville in West Feliciana Parish, north of Baton Rouge, inland from the river port of Bayou Sarah, where prosperous cotton planters hired him to teach their sons to fence and their daughters to draw and to dance the cotillion.