John James Audubon

American Icons, People
on September 26, 2011

Born in Haiti in 1785 and raised in France, John James Audubon came to America in 1803. Armed with a naturalist's curiosity, an artist's eye for detail and an outdoorsman's adventuresome spirit, Audubon transformed the art and scientific world while leaving future generations a rare chronicle of early American life.

Today, Audubon's works are museum pieces, and a rare original edition of his landmark 1827 book, Birds of America, sold last year for more than $10 million. Alan Gehret, curator of the Audubon Museum in Henderson, Ky., Audubon's home from 1810 to 1819, talked to American Profile about the early American wildlife artist and naturalist.

American Profile: Who was John James Audubon?
Alan Gehret:
Audubon was a painter and naturalist best known for his paintings of birds, but he also painted mammals and other wildlife species. He became known for his paintings because of their realism and natural habitats. He also did a lot of the initial studies on American wildlife species. He began the whole popularization of wildlife as something more than a commodity to be used for food or clothing.

AP: So his paintings were unusual for their time?
Audubon was the first to paint wildlife in a realistic style. He literally changed the way the world viewed wildlife and painted it. Before Audubon, paintings of birds were simple stiff profiles of the creatures. That's what was considered scientifically accurate at the time.

Audubon wanted to show how birds lived and what they did-how they fed their young, built their nests and what their habitats looked like. He posed animals in lifelike settings and told stories in his paintings of what was taking place, whether it was a simple pastoral scene of birds looking after their young or something dramatic, such as a snake attacking a bird's nest.

AP: Why else is he important?
He left us a picture of what America was during those early days. In his painting of a snowy egret, for example, you can see a plantation house in the background, and you actually see him in that one, a hunter with his rifle, probably about to shoot the bird. If not a major plantation house or a cityscape in the background, then you see the vast forests or the prairies-maybe a lone log cabin somewhere in the image. It gives you an idea of the changes that were taking place in America.

AP: What inspired Audubon's love of nature and wildlife?
From his earliest days of growing up in France, his stepmother spoiled him and allowed him to pursue his interest. He had an innate interest in anything wild, birds especially, and nature of all sorts fascinated him. He was attracted to nature and fascinated with the beauty and diversity of the natural world.

AP: How was he perceived during his lifetime?
He became extremely well known in his lifetime. When he went to England in 1826 and exhibited his paintings he became, as author Richard Rhodes said, "the rock star" of that time. Everybody wanted to meet Audubon, see his paintings, dine with him and talk with him. He wrote home to wife Lucy, "I've become a great naturalist!" He'd received the recognition he wanted.

AP: What's surprising to know about him?
He was quite a practical joker. A fellow naturalist named Rafinesque from Hungary was exploring the United States and Audubon made a number of drawings of fictitious animals that he claimed to be real and gave them to Rafinesque as a joke. Unfortunately, the fellow took him seriously and published a couple of the images.

AP: Audubon's name is widespread today in towns and parks and through the Audubon Society founded more than 50 years after his death. What does this say about him?
It reflects how highly respected Audubon became in the United States for what he did and the works he produced. America's view of wildlife changed, and his works became the inspiration for the beginning of the conservation movement in this country and around the world.