Audubon was born in Santo Domingo in 1785. He was
the son of a French sea captain and entrepreneur who made his fortune in
sugar, land and slaves. Little is known of Johns mother, a young woman of
Creole extraction, who died shortly after his birth. When he was four, his
father took him to France, just before the slave revolution, which wiped
out the fortune in Santo Domingo.
When Audubon was eighteen, his father sent him to a plantation in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania, hoping that his son would develop a sense of responsibility (his earlier school days in France were spent evading education, favoring rambles in the countryside where he collected and studied birds nests, eggs, plants and pebbles). However, Pennsylvania only provided John with a chance to explore, hunt, fish, observe and romp about. Rather than developing the more conventional sense of business responsibility his father had sought, this new life style only reinforced the excitement and independence of his schoolboy explorations.
Audubons earliest surviving drawings date from 1805. He married his Pennsylvania neighbor in 1808, settled in Kentucky and had two sons, Victor and John Woodhouse.
As a business man he was a dismal failure. His general store, then his trapping business and later a lumber and wheat mill venture ended in bankruptcy and a stint in debtors prison. At the age of thirty-four John committed the remaining half of his life to his first love and greatest interest - the study of birds; their behavior and their habitats. His dream and new vocation was to produce a magnificent new work; a complete and true record of all species of birds in North America.
Between 1820 and 1839, Audubon had many assistants, notably his sons John, (who helped complete many compositions) and Victor, (who worked closely with Robert Havell, the engraver). Other assistants drew the plants, flowers and wonderful landscapes found in his works, but the most important of all was the Englishman Robert Havell Jr., the master engraver and colorist of the 435 plates. As the years went by, Audubon relied on Havells skills in finishing his compositions, sometimes combining many drawings and sketches on a single plate, or adding details, and even landscapes to build the works out of bits of earlier studies. The resulting richness of Audubons mature compositions conveys a vitality of the events and subjects he observed. We can imagine the panicky scattering of the Bobwhites while escaping from the Red Shouldered Hawk; remember the shimmering iridescent plumage of the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and feel the peace and solitude of the Whistling Swan. The degree to which life is captured in such elegance and refinement, is a true measure of the resounding success and a testament to John James Audubons, Birds of America.