You may have seen them around — beautiful illustrations of birds in every imaginable pose, giving prime examples of American wildlife. They were created by John James Audubon, a man who lived in the 19th century and redefined the quality of nature illustrations. But how did Audubon reach this point of success?
John James Audubon was born in what is now Haiti. He grew to have many interests and hobbies as he got older, which included playing the flute and violin, riding, fencing, and dancing. But most of all, he loved walking in the woods and drawing pictures of nature’s curiosities.
His father wanted him to be a seaman, but John soon found that the sea made him seasick and the technicalities of navigation did not do well for him.
In 1803 his father gave him a fake passport and shipped him to America to avoid his enlistment in the Napoleonic War.
When Audubon got to New York City he caught yellow fever and was placed in a boarding house run by Quaker women. There he learned English and found himself in his own personal paradise: “Hunting, fishing, drawing and music occupied my every moment; cares I knew not, and cared naught about them.”
His time in this natural paradise jump-started his interest in studying American birds, and eventually he molded this fascination into a business. He built up many bird drawings over the years. To produce the illustrations, he first killed the birds then arranged them in natural poses (unlike other ornithologists who put them in stiff, formal poses).
When he was 41, with his wife’s support, Audubon brought his bird illustrations to England. The illustrations received high praise. As he toured around England and Scotland he got the nickname “the American woodsman” thanks to his fascinating images of nature in America.
Audubon’s prime goal in coming to Europe was to find an engraver, and after some trial and error he found a London engraver named Robert Havell Jr., who copied Audubon’s watercolors onto copper plates. The engravings formed the book called Birds of America, which became critically acclaimed with a wide following, including from royalty.
The book contains illustrations of over 700 North American bird species and is widely considered to be the best picture book out there.
Audubon had spread his love of birds to the public and reached a level of success that he had not dared to imagine.