John James Audubon was a French immigrant who adopted nineteenth-century America as his home. Early on, he resolved to roam the country hunting and drawing birds. “Audubon” has become synonymous with birds and conservation, but few today appreciate his indefatigable genius.

Handsome, charismatic, and multi-talented, Audubon always preferred to be out in the woods hunting. A crack shot, he learned taxidermy and taught himself to draw and paint while living a life of leisure on his father’s plantation in Pennsylvania.

Audubon married young and took his bride down the Ohio River to open up a trading post in Kentucky, following his passion of shooting and painting birds. It was never easy. As he roamed the wilderness seeking new birds to shoot and paint, portfolios of finished drawings he left behind were destroyed by fire and ruined by rodents. Even after the store he owned went bankrupt, Audubon left his wife and children behind and traveled on his own by riverboat down the Mississippi. By day he earned his passage by hunting game to feed the crew and passengers. At night, by candlelight in the boat’s cabin, he drew the birds he had shot that day. His art improved and he persevered undaunted.

Audubon sent his family any extra money he earned making portraits of wealthy patrons while tutoring their children in music, art, and dancing. His devoted wife and sons often spent months fending for themselves while he persevered, and his bird paintings improved.

Spreading His Wings

After years of collecting rare and new birds to draw, Audubon finally presented his work to the scientific community in Philadelphia. But they dismissed it as too sensational and unconventional. Convention in bird illustration meant working from a dried museum specimen. Birds were always drawn in profile, standing or on a bare perch. Audubon’s birds spread their wings. His waterfowl swam and dived. Prehensile toes grasped leafy boughs bearing fruit or blossoms. He depicted birds capturing prey, defending their nest, feeding young, or fleeing a predator.

Audubon wanted his art reproduced as fine engravings he would sell by subscription. No American printer would touch the job. Undaunted, Audubon got financial backing from wealthy sponsors and took his paintings to Europe, where people were crazy about anything American. Capitalizing on his role of American Outdoorsman, he exhibited his art in royal venues, found a fine printer, and achieved rock-star fame.

Then after returning to America, Audubon achieved even greater fame as a bird artist and naturalist. The work he left behind is incomparable.

— On Sunday, March 10, from 9-11am, I will conduct a workshop at Cool Spring Nature Preserve (1469 Lloyd Rd., Charles Town), in the upstairs classroom of the headquarters of the Potomac Valley Audubon Society. I’ll demonstrate the method Audubon developed for drawing his birds. But instead of using a real bird, I’ve created a movable facsimile of a life-sized bird to be pinned to a grid and arranged in life-like poses.

Workshop participants will have a chance to try Audubon’s technique for themselves, drawing the posed artificial bird on their own grid in a lifelike pose. No artistic skill is required, the point being to experience first-hand the challenges Audubon faced while accurately portraying North American birds.

For more information and to register for the workshop, visit the above links.


— Doug is an artist, writer, and naturalist living near Shepherdstown. He also submitted the art for this piece.

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