Today in History

Today in History: January 27

John James Audubon

A pink bird with a green head and a spoon-like bill
The Birds of America [detail],
John James Audubon,
color lithographic plate 321, 1836
American Treasures of the Library of Congress

John James Audubon, naturalist and artist famous for his drawings and paintings of North American birds (external link), died on January 27, 1851, in New York City. He was sixty-five years old.

Blue and yellow bird perched on a branch
Blue Yellow Back Warbler [detail],
John James Audubon,
watercolor and gouache over graphite,
1812.
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon,
National Gallery of Art

Audubon was born in Les Cayes, Saint-Domingue, now Haiti. Audubon's mother died shortly after his birth and while still a young child, he and his half-sister went to live at their father's home in Le Port Launay de Couëron, France. Encouraged by his father's wife, Audubon pursued his interest in drawing birds native to the wetlands near his childhood home on the Loire River estuary.

At eighteen, Audubon immigrated to the United States to avoid military conscription and to manage a plantation near Philadelphia. For the next two decades, he made several unsuccessful business ventures. Encouraged by his wife, Lucy, he continued drawing birds. His fascination with birds eventually inspired him to journey as far south as the Florida Keys and as far north as Labrador, Canada. From 1810 to 1819, the family lived in Henderson, Kentucky, a town located along the Mississippi flyway, an important migratory route for birds.

Huge oak tree near a body of water
Washington Oak, Audubon Park,
New Orleans, Louisiana,
circa 1906.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

Audubon also spent part of his working life in New Orleans. Audubon Park was created there in 1886, on the site of the 1884 Cotton Centennial Exposition. The park, administered since 1989 by the Audubon Institute (external link), was named in Audubon's honor and is home to the Audubon Zoological Garden. For related sheet music, see the Cotton Centennial Exposition March in Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1851.

After 1820, Audubon and his wife supported themselves with a succession of jobs while he worked on his drawings. Audubon's masterwork, The Birds of America, consisting of 435 hand-colored plates in four volumes, was published by London engraver Robert Havell between 1827 and 1838. His reputation as an illustrator now secure, Audubon settled in the city of New York in 1839.

His last major work, a series of paintings of mammals native to North America, arose in part from a journey along the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. Audubon's illustrations for The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America were published in three volumes between 1845 and 1848.

In 1886, George Bird Grinnell, editor of Forest and Stream, founded the first Audubon Society, forerunner of the National Audubon Society. Grinnell named the organization for John James Audubon, dedicating it to the preservation of birds and their protection from the increasing threat of extinction. After 1900, the National Association of Audubon Societies supported the effort to end U.S. participation in the international trade in wild bird feathers. Extermination threatened many birds hunted for plumage essential to fashionable women's hats. An act of Congress in 1913 banned importation of such feathers except for scientific or educational purposes.

Woman in Plumed Hat
Louise Jackson in Plumed Hat,
between 1900 and 1915.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920