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Oil, 1841 by Victor and John W. Audubon John James Audubon's Sons

John James Audubon 1785 – 1851, was an American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter. He is known for his extensive studies documenting all types of American birds as well as his detailed illustrations that depicted the birds in their natural habitats. His major work, a color-plate book entitled The Birds of America (1827–1839), is considered one of the finest ornithological works ever completed. Audubon identified 25 new species.

John James Audubon, was born as Jean-Jacques Audobon in the French Colony of Saint-Dominigue (now Haiti).  Audubon had an immediate interest in nature and birds and drawing in his childhood. Audubon became one of the most distinguished illustrators of the 19th century. Audubon had a diverse and exciting life. Born in Haiti he moved to France at the age of four.  He loved the woods and exploring and spent many hours observing nature. When he was 18 years old, he moved to the United States.  Originally named Jean Jacques, he changed his name to John James to sound more American. He lived in Mill Grove Pennsylvania on his family farm. While in Mill Grove Audubon explored and enjoyed spending time in  nature and he studied American birds and he came up with the technique of bird banding, which helped him to study the same birds, longevity, migration and other patterns of life. 

Great White Heron from  Audubon's Birds of America

During a visit to France he studied taxidermy with naturalist and physician Charles-Marie D'Orbigny.  After his return to the United States, Audubon resumed his bird studies and started a nature museum in Pennsylvania featuring his own taxidermy and specimens. Audubon had several failed business ventures and often hunted and fished to feed his family. During his hunting expeditions, he observed and drew specimens and learned techniques of hunting.

Bay Owl Detail from Audubon's Birds of America

John was determined to find and paint all the birds of North America. He vowed to create a better study of The Birds of North American that the one created by the poet and naturalist Alexander Wilson.  In late 1820, Audubon set out to explore the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to study the birds. He travelled with the Swiss Landscape artist George Lehman in search of ornithological specimens. He supported himself by painting portraits of people and by teaching painting to a few students. 

 In 1824 Audubon began to look for a publisher for his drawings. He was unable to reach an agreement with American publishers and traveled to Europe with hopes of obtaining a publisher. In 1826, at the age of 41, Audubon arrived Europe He was favorably received, being referred to as the “American Woodsman”. He Traveled around England and Scotland to raise money to publish his work. His work on “Birds of America” consisted of images of around 700 species of North American birds. While in London, he signed up subscribers for his volumes and a deal with a publisher in London. By 1827, the first volume of “Birds of America” were published. It took 11 years for all the volumes to be published.


Atlantic Puffins from Audubon's Birds of America

 In 1829, Audubon returned to America and added more drawings to his collection. Audubon also hunted animals and sent the skins back to his British friends. The success of “Birds of America” brought him some fame. In 1930 he was elected to be a fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Audubon had earned enough from publishing of his books, he bought an estate on the Hudson River.


The Audubons named their home Minniesland.  The Audubon Estate on the Banks of the Hudson. Foot of 156th Street at Carmansville.  Lith. of Major and Knapp, 444 Broadway, N.Y.  For D. T. Valentine's Manual, 1865.

 While on his excursions to the West to observe Western species, Audubon’s health began to deteriorate. He became quite senile by 1848 and suffered a stroke that year. He died in 1851. 

John James Audubon, portrait by John Woodhouse Audubon 1843


Audubon's Achievments

  • Audubon's influence on ornithology and natural history was far reaching. Nearly all later ornithological works were inspired by his artistry and high standards. Charles Darwin quoted Audubon three times in On the Origin of Species and also in later works.[83] Despite some errors in field observations, he made a significant contribution to the understanding of bird anatomy and behavior through his field notes. Birds of America is still considered one of the greatest examples of book art. Audubon discovered 25 new species and 12 new subspecies
  • He was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Linnaean Society, and the Royal Society in recognition of his contributions.
  • The homestead Mill Grove in Audubon, Pennsylvania, is open to the public and contains a museum presenting all his major works, including Birds of America.
  • The Audubon Museum at John James Audubon State Park in Henderson, Kentucky, houses many of Audubon's original watercolors, oils, engravings and personal memorabilia.
  • In 1905, the National Audubon Society was incorporated and named in his honor. Its mission "is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds..."
  • He was honored by the United States Postal Service with a 22¢ Great Americans series postage stamp.
  • On December 6, 2010, a copy of Birds of America was sold at a Sotheby's auction for $11.5 million, the second highest price for a single printed book.

Audubon's Legacy

Audubon developed his own methods for drawing birds. First, he killed the birds using fine shot. He then used wires to prop them into a natural position, unlike the common method of many ornithologists, who prepared and stuffed the specimens into a rigid pose. When working on a major specimen like an eagle, he would spend up to four 15-hour days, preparing, studying, and drawing it. His paintings of birds are set true-to-life in their natural habitat. He often portrayed them as if caught in motion, especially feeding or hunting. This was in stark contrast to the stiff representations of birds by his contemporaries, such as Alexander Wilson. Audubon based his paintings on his extensive field observations.  Audubon worked primarily with watercolor early on. He added colored chalk or pastel to add softness to feathers, especially those of owls and herons. He employed multiple layers of watercolor paints. All species were drawn life size which accounts for the contorted poses of the larger birds as Audubon strove to fit them within the page size. Smaller species were usually placed on branches with berries, fruit, and flowers. He used several birds in a drawing to present all views of anatomy and wings. Larger birds were often placed in their ground habitat or perching on stumps. At times, as with woodpeckers, he combined several species on one page to offer contrasting features. He frequently depicted the birds' nests and eggs, and occasionally natural predators, such as snakes. He usually illustrated male and female variations, and sometimes juveniles. In later drawings, Audubon used assistants to render the habitat for him. In addition to faithful renderings of anatomy, Audubon also employed carefully constructed composition, drama, and slightly exaggerated poses to achieve artistic as well as scientific effects.