Among the original 435 illustrations in “The Birds of America,” one of the most valuable original edition books in the world, is a beautiful picture of a Mountain Bluebird — the official state bird of both Idaho and Nevada.
The man who painted that bird was John James Audubon, born Jean Rabin in 1785 in Les Cayes, Saint-Domingue, a French colony now called Haiti. He was the illegitimate son of Jean Audubon, a sugar plantation owner — once a French naval officer and privateer — and his Creole chambermaid, Jeanne Rabin, who died shortly after giving birth.
The boy would become a naturalist, painter and one of the world’s greatest ornithologists — admired by President Andrew Jackson and King George IV.
Audubon escaped a revolution in Haiti and returned to Nantes, France — only to face the horrors of the French Revolution.
He sent for Jean and his sister, Muguet, who upon arriving in France were adopted by him and his legal wife, Anne, who raised the children as if they were her own.
Young Jean was renamed Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon — which he later Americanized to John James Audubon.
At an early age, the boy developed a keen interest in nature, birds, drawing and music — and also liked hunting.
In France, Jean-Jacques learned flute, violin, riding, fencing and dancing; and while roaming in the woods, he’d draw what he saw and collect nature’s treasures. A short-lived stint at a naval school when he was 12 ended when he discovered he was prone to seasickness.
His father sold part of the sugar plantation and invested in a 284-acre farm with lead and copper mines at Mill Grove, 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia near Valley Forge.
When Napoleon rampaged across Europe, he was 18 and to avoid being drafted into Bonaparte’s army, his father whisked him off to Mill Grove to run the estate.
One account asked the question: “Did Captain Audubon send him away to escape the ignominy of illegitimacy, or was it to escape conscription in Napoleon’s army?”
Upon arriving in New York City, the young Frenchman caught yellow fever and the ship’s captain took him in a boarding house run by Quaker women who nursed him back to health and taught him English.
While running Mill Grove, he continued his nature studies — especially birds — and became the first person to use leg-banding when he tied yarn on legs of Eastern Phoebes, and discovered that they returned each year to their original nesting areas.
And he met his future wife, Lucy Bakewell, a neighbor who also enjoyed nature.
In 1805, Audubon made a trip back to France to see his father and ask permission to marry Lucy. While he was there (risking being snared by the army) he met naturalist and physician Charles-Marie D’Orbigny, who tutored him in taxidermy and scientific research.
He also met Jean Ferdinand Rozier and the two started a business partnership by shipping goods to America from France and opening a store in Louisville.
Then John James and Lucy married and had four children — the two girls sadly dying while still young.
In 1808, President Jefferson imposed an embargo on British goods, hurting Audubon’s business, which from time to time forced him to hunt and fish to feed his family — dressing like a frontiersman, with “a ball pouch, a buffalo horn filled with gunpowder, a butcher knife, and a tomahawk on his belt.”
Three years later, he sold his interest in the business to Rozier and devoted his time to his main passion — birds.
Then the War of 1812 brought hard times on the entire country. The Audubon family moved to Henderson, Ky., and bought land and slaves and opened a flour mill.
When the Panic of 1819 hit, their business collapsed and he went bankrupt and spent a short stint in debtor’s prison. Then he and the family moved to Cincinnati for a while, where he worked at a museum as a taxidermist and naturalist.
Later, Audubon teamed up with artist Joseph Mason, who would help paint the plant backgrounds for his growing collection of bird illustrations. His goal was to picture all the bird species in North America and have his work published.
That would not be easy.
Much to his dismay, he would have to go to the United Kingdom to find the technical and financial support he needed. American publishers weren’t interested.
But before all that happened, he and his family moved to New Orleans. Financial times were still rough for them, so he painted portraits for a little as $5 and taught drawing, while Lucy worked as a governess and later opened a girls school.
Meanwhile he became a better artist, studying under the celebrated landscape and history painter Thomas Cole, who later founded the Hudson River School art movement.
The way Audubon plied his trade would raise a loud public outcry today. He shot and killed thousands of birds and animals over the years, stuffing many of them, and wiring the birds into poses for him to illustrate. He even hired hunters to help him collect the specimens.
His artwork was mostly in watercolor, but he also used crayon, chalk, pastels, gouache and oil paint.
He traveled the country from Florida to Labrador; and the East Coast to the Western Frontier searching for his birds and animals. Six species of the birds are now extinct.
In 1826, he set sail for the U.K. armed with 250 original illustrations. The following year in London, Havell & Son printed “The Birds of America” in unbound sets of life-sized 39.5 by 28.5-inch images on hand-made paper.
He fascinated British audiences with his impressive drawing skills, knowledge of nature in North America and tall tales about Indians and life on the American frontier.
With the king of England, the president of the United States, scientists and the public praising his work, his legacy was set — as well as his financial circumstances.
In 1841, Audubon and his family moved to a large rural estate on the Hudson River in upper Manhattan, where he began work on a compact edition of Birds of America. Two years later he began another book, “The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.”
There are 120 known complete sets of Audubon’s Birds of America. The last one sold was in 2010 for $11.5 million — $12.6 in today’s money.
In Volume 2 is an illustration of Idaho’s Mountain Bluebird (Sialia currucoides).
In the early 1930s, Idaho was looking into selecting an appropriate state bird. The Bald Eagle was quickly ruled out because it was the national bird. Other species were also removed from consideration because other states had already claimed them.
Idaho’s short list included the Meadowlark, Mountain Bluebird, Robin — and the Western Tanager mentioned by Meriwether Lewis in great detail in his journal on June 6, 1806.
The American Nature Association suggested the Mountain Bluebird, noting that no other state had chosen it, and that “it is friendly, nests in bird houses, and is your best choice.”
Idaho’s school children were given a vote in the matter and tipped the scales to the Mountain Bluebird.
On Feb. 28, 1931, the Mountain Bluebird became the official Idaho state bird, along with the state flower — the Syringa blossom.
In 1967, Nevada also adopted the Mountain Bluebird.
In 1843, Audubon went to the Missouri River to do research for a comprehensive book on North American mammals.
With the help of his son, John W. Audubon, and Philadelphia printmaker J.T. Bowen, he produced a set of stunning hand-colored and detailed lithographs for Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.
While completing the work, his eyesight started to fail and he needed others to help him. In 1848, he suffered a stroke and his great mind and talent deteriorated into the darkness of dementia.
The great ornithologist and naturalist died in New York City in 1851 at age 65, leaving a legacy that remains the standard of excellence in the study of birds.
An A&E Television biography of the great John James Audubon says, “He is remembered as one of the most important naturalists of his era, and his respect and concern for the natural world clearly marks him as one of the forefathers of the modern conservationism and environmentalism movements.”
Born French, he died an American icon.
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Syd Albright is a writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at email@example.com.
Audubon said it…
“A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.”
— John James Audubon
Identifying Mountain Bluebirds…
The adult Mountain Bluebirds have thin bills, with the males colored bright blue and lighter blue underneath. The wings and tail of the females are duller blue, and are grey colored on the breast, crown, throat and back.
John James Audubon’s legacy goes far beyond his great artwork. In 1886, the first bird-preservation society—the National Audubon Society—was named in his honor, along with countless wildlife sanctuaries, parks, streets and towns named in his honor.
On the trail…
Along the Ohio River, John James Audubon met the Shawnee and Osage Indians, hunted with them, learned from them, made drawings of what he saw and parted “like brethren.” He also wrote about meeting Daniel Boone.
He saved their memory…
Among Audubon’s bird illustrations are images of six now-extinct birds: Carolina Parakeet, Passenger Pigeon, Labrador Duck, Great Auk, Eskimo Curlew and Pinnated Grouse.
Text added later…
Audubon’s first set of bird images did not have text because British law at that time required books to be given free to public libraries — adding to his publication expenses. Later however, between 1831 and 1839 a five-volume text called the “Ornithological Biography, or, An account of the habits of the birds of the United States of America” was written by Audubon and the Scottish naturalist and ornithologist William MacGillivray and published. Originals are in Trinity College’s Watkinson Library, Conn.
Audubon the writer…
Describing 4th of July festivities:
“In a short time the grove was alive with merriment. A great wooden cannon, bound with iron hoops, was crammed with homemade powder; fire was conveyed to it by means of a (powder) train, and as the explosion burst forth, thousands of hearty huzzas mingled with its echoes.
“From the most learned a good oration fell in proud and gladdening words on every ear, and although it probably did not equal the eloquence of a Clay, an Everett, a Webster or a Preston, it served to remind every Kentuckian present of the glorious name, the patriotism, the courage and the virtue of our immortal Washington.”
— John James Audubon
Ben Franklin and the Turkey…
“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
“With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country…
“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
— Benjamin Franklin, excerpts from letter to his daughter