Friday, March 18, 2022

John James Audubon, Ornithological Artist


There was a time, before photography, when scientific illustration rose to the level of fine art. For example, before she became the "mother" of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter did scientific drawings, especially of mushrooms.

But few made as big a splash in the borderlands between art and science as did the Haitian-born American ornithologist John James Audubon (1785-1851).

His major work, The Birds of America (1827–1839), depicted his subjects in their natural habitats, and is considered one of the finest ornithological works ever completed. Audubon is also known for identifying 25 new species.

His father was a French landowner in what is now the country of Haiti; his mother was a servant in his father's house, and died when the baby was only a few months old. He returned to France around age four, where he was raised by his father's legal wife.

As he grew, he learned to ride and fence, and loved to walk in the fields, returning home to sketch the birds' eggs and nests he had collected. His father encouraged these artistic leanings. At age 18, the lad who had been known as Jean-Jacques Anglicized his name to John James and set off for the United States.

He became a U.S. citizen and attempted to establish himself in business, but his true passion was studying and painting birds. He wrote later: "I felt an intimacy with them...bordering on frenzy..." At some point he conceived a project which was to consume the rest of his life, and become his legacy: he planned to find and paint every bird in North America, a monumental undertaking which resulted in his gargantuan The Birds of America.

The book was printed over a period of 12 years, consisting of 435 engraved and hand-painted plates measuring 39 by 26 inches--that's a book over a yard tall! It was originally issued as separate plates, and different subscribers bound it in different ways. The book includes illustrations of six species which are extinct today. It is estimated that not more than 200 complete sets were ever compiled; only 120 copies are known to still exist, and they fetch record prices when sold: Sotheby's sold one for approximately $11.5 million in 2010, a record auction price for a printed book.

The National Audubon Society was started and named for John James Audubon a half-century after his death. It is the oldest conservation organization in the world, educating the public through its 500 chapters.



Vocabulary: Match the words to their meaning. Correct answers are in the first comment below.

1. Anglicized
2. extinct
3. fetch
4. frenzy
5. gargantuan
6. intimacy
7. leanings
8. legacy
9. ornithologist
10. splash

A. tendencies; inclinations
B. huge; gigantic
C. bring
D. familiarity; closeness
E. a person who studies birds
F. craziness
G. an impression
H. changed to English
I. something that someone leaves behind for future generations
J. no longer in existence; not found alive anymore


Answer the following questions in your own words. Suggested answers are in the first comment below.

  1. Where was Audubon born? Where did he grow up?
  2. What distinction did Audubon have as a scientist?
  3. How large is The Birds of America?
  4. How rare is The Birds of America?
  5. What distinction does The Birds of America hold in the art market?


These questions do not have "right" or "wrong" answers. They only ask your opinion.

  1. Do you think it's possible for a scientific illustration to be both beautiful and accurate?
  2. Do think it's important for a person to have a passion for his work, as Audubon describes?
  3. Based on hints in the text, why do you think there are so few copies of Audubon's book in the world?

1 comment:

    Practice: 1. H; 2. J; 3. C; 4. F; 5. B; 6. D; 7. A; 8. I; 9. E; 10. G

    Questions to Answer:

    1. Audubon was born in Haiti and grew up in France.
    2. Audubon identified 25 new species of birds.
    3. The Birds of America has 435 plates, each one measuring 39 by 26 inches.
    4. Only 120 copies of The Birds of America are known to exist.
    5. In 2010, a copy of The Birds of America fetched a record auction price for a printed book ($11.5 million).

    Questions to Think About do not have any single correct answer. However, any answers you give should be supported by what you read or by things you know ("I think... because...").