1824 – Mill Grove, Pennsylvania: It was a catastrophe! Returning from a trip to Philadelphia, he opened the storage closet of his small art studio only to find that rats had eaten their way into the boxes where he kept his bird paintings. The rodents had shredded the paintings to build their nests and destroyed 200 pieces of his best work.
He was so despondent and depressed that he didn’t leave his bed for two weeks. After years of roaming through the forests on an ambitious mission to paint all the birds in North America, 40-year-old John James Audubon felt his dream was dead and his life was over.
Audubon was born in Haiti in April 1785, the son of a former French naval officer and sugar plantation owner who made his money in the Haiti slave trade. Jean Audubon, a Revolutionary War naval commander, assumed his young son would follow in his footsteps. However, young Audubon suffered from seasickness and ultimately failed the naval officer certification test. It was the woods and fields he loved.
In 1803, 18-year-old Audubon boarded a ship and immigrated to America to a 284-acre estate his father had purchased in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania, about 20 miles from Philadelphia. On the plantation, where he lived with a caretaker, he enjoyed hunting, fishing and developed a peculiar fascination for birds. He loved walking in the woods and making rough sketches of birds.
In 1805, Audubon married Lucy Bakewell, who lived on a nearby farm. The newlyweds moved to Hendersonville, Kentucky, where they opened a general store. When the store went bankrupt in 1819, the couple moved back to Pennsylvania and Audubon decided to dedicate himself to the most unusual hobby of trying to paint all the estimated 700 species of birds in North America.
For two weeks after the rats ate his dream, Audubon felt sorry for himself and whined incessantly to Lucy about quitting his ornithology project. Then undeterred, he took his gun, game-bag, portfolio and pencils, and headed back to the forests and fields to begin again.
His method was to shoot the birds with a light shotgun load, use taxidermy techniques to mount them in natural poses, and then painstakingly paint the birds either in the field or in a small studio on his Mill Grove farm. To support himself, Audubon painted people’s portraits, which he sold for $5 each while Lucy tutored the children of wealthy plantation families.
In his travels to scout for birds to paint, Audubon journeyed along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, from Florida to Nova Scotia, and many places in between. In 1824, he approached the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia about funding his project. They turned him down. Two years later, he took some of his collection and sailed to England where he found a printer willing to tackle the project. By 1827, he had finally raised enough money to publish Birds of America Volume I.
Between 1827 and 1838, Audubon published four volumes of Birds of America. During this time, he also worked with leading ornithologists to write biographies of all the birds that he had painted. Almost 190 years after the publication of the collection, the 435 life-size prints of the birds of North America remains the standard by which bird artist are measured.
In 1905, in honor of Audubon, the National Audubon Society was started to protect and restore bird ecosystems. In 2010, an original Birds of America book that almost wasn’t, was auctioned at the Sotheby Auction House in London for $11.5 million – the most expensive book in history.
“Never despair, but if you do, work on in despair.” Edmund Burke