John James Audubon


John James Audubon


French-American ornithologist, naturalist & painter


John James Audubon was an influential naturalist and artist of the 18th century. In particular, Audubon was responsible for transforming the field of ornithology, or the scientific study of birds. By changing the ways in which birds were artistically depicted in scientific texts, and by making it customary to include detailed descriptions of the lives and habits of these birds alongside their renderings, Audubon brought art and science together in novel ways. His contributions to nature documentation led later naturalists to found the Audubon Society of conservation in his name. 

Audubon was born in 1785 to a French captain and sugar plantation owner in Saint Domingue (modern day Haiti). However, as slave uprisings were becoming more common in Saint Domingue around this time, Audubon was sent as a young boy to live with his stepmother in Nantes, France. During his time in France, Audubon became accustomed to long walks to and from his school. It was these walks on which Audubon began to take a closer look at the nature around him, developing a passion for spontaneous birdwatching. He would later explain that: “none but the aerial companions suited my father...pointed out [their] elegant movements...the beauty and softness of their plumage...the departure and return of birds with the seasons...and, more wonderful than all their change of livery.” 

By his eighteen birthday, war had broken out between France and England. To avoid his son’s conscription into Napoleon’s army, Audubon's father sent him abroad to America. (Audubon 2021). It was here that Audubon would be put in charge of his father’s mining operation in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. Around the same time, Audubon came across a book of birds in his father’s library. Captivated by the book, Audubon quickly developed a strong desire to compile his own collection of birds. (Olson 2012, 443). After a series of business failures had occurred under his watch, and led him to be briefly jailed for bankruptcy, he decided to focus exclusively on this artwork project (Audubon 2021). In the 1820’s, Audubon began to compile his collection of America’s birds. It was this particular work that would catapult Audubon’s career as a critically-acclaimed contributor to the field of natural history and ornithology. 

With the book still in progress, Audubon sailed to Britain to find a printer to reproduce his work. It was here that he met fellow ornithologist William MacGillivray, who would help Audubon write ornithological biographies for his work (Audubon 2021).These ornithological biographies went into detail about the bird’s features, behaviors, and lives, and also included highlights of the adventures that Audubon went on to find the birds. (Biography 2021) This level of detail was unique in the field at this time. 

The publication of The Birds of America, is considered to mark a major historical transformation in the field of ornithology. Historians have stated that, with this collection of paintings, Audubon sought to transform natural history illustrations into genuine art pieces. He was able to create more artistic representations of birds by “adopting a different course of representation from the mere profile-like cut figures given usually in works of that kind.” He moved from the typically cookie-cutter-like profiles, to much more naturalistic and realistic portraits. Moreover, the British Natural History Museum has noted that Audubon’s depictions were unique in that they depicted birds among their natural environment. After the publication of The Birds of America, Audubon would go on to create other important works, including  Ornithological Biography, A Synopsis of the Birds of America, and The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Later important naturalists and biologists, such as Charles Darwin, would be greatly inspired by these works. 

John James Audubon, despite his contributions to art and naturalism, has a very complicated personal history that is difficult to ignore. Audubon was a racist individual, who was involved in the Atlantic slave trade, and who expressed critical feelings towards emancipation. Furthermore, he was posthumously accused of academic plagiarism and fraud. (Audubon 2021) Despite these troubling facts, his published works have contributed in important ways to the fields of art and natural history. His admiration of nature and birds was passed along to many in his generation, at a moment when our natural world was coming under increasingly harmful encroachment by humans and corporations. His works today remind us that we have a duty to protect the beauty of our natural environment for generations to come. 


Audubon, John James. American Scoter Duck. n.d.. Painting. Audubon. Audubon. Editors. “John James Audubon.” A&E Networks Television, March 29, 2021. 

Herrick, Francis H. "Audubon's Bibliography." The Auk 36, no. 3 (1919): 372-80. Accessed June 17, 2021. doi:10.2307/4073107. 

McEniery, E. (n.d.). The Birds of American Animals. Validation request. 

N/A. (2021, April 29). John James Audubon. Audubon. 

Olson, Roberta J. M. "The "Early Birds" of John James Audubon." Master Drawings 50, no. 4 (2012): 439-94. Accessed June 15, 2021.

Partridge, Linda Dugan. "By the Book: Audubon and the Tradition of Ornithological Illustration." Huntington Library Quarterly 59, no. 2/3 (1996): 269-301. Accessed June 18, 2021. doi:10.2307/3817669.


Further Reading:

SAVAGE, HENRY LYTTLETON. "John James Audubon: A Backwoodsman in the Salon." The Princeton University Library Chronicle 5, no. 4 (1944): 129-36. Accessed June 21, 2021. doi:10.2307/26400860. 

"John James Audubon, the Naturalist." The Illustrated Magazine of Art 3, no. 17 (1854): 305-07. Accessed June 21, 2021. 

Allen, Josephine L. "John James Audubon 1785-1851." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 36, no. 9 (1941): 178-79. Accessed June 21, 2021.

For further exploration please visit National Gallery of Art:


Gabriel Moran



Gabriel Moran, John James Audubon

Cite As

Gabriel Moran , “John James Audubon,” Virtual Museum of Public Service, accessed June 27, 2022,