Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Born This Day in 1785, Naturalist John James Audubon Revered Nature

John James Audubon was a ridiculously handsome man, as seen in this portrait by John Syme, found
in the collection of the White House Historical Association. His artwork of wildlife, particularly of birds,
has contributed greatly to the study, conservation and appreciation of countless species over the years.
On April 26, 1785, John James Audubon was born under the name Jean Rabin, the illegitimate son of French plantation owner Captain Jean Audubon and his Creole servant Jeanne Rabin, in Les Cayes, in what is now called Haiti. He was raised in France in a style befitting the son of a wealthy merchant, affording him plenty of leisure time in which to explore the world around him while studying art, music and natural history. There he was also given a new name: Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon.
At a young age, his utter fascination with the natural world around him led to a particular interest in birds. Eventually, his fine artistic ability and his passion to portray every species of  bird that he could find would lead him into a career for which he turned out to have been uniquely talented.
When war broke out between France and England in 1803, Audubon was 18 years old. To keep his son from being conscripted into the army of Emperor Napoleon, his father sent Jean-Jacques to his estate in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. It was on this journey that the young man renamed himself, becoming John James Audubon. Living on his father's Pennsylvania estate, John conducted his first scientific studies, and would go on to become a sort of self-taught scientist.
Audubon painting of the Roseate Spoonbill
In the meantime he met and married Lucy Bakewell and the two moved to Kentucky and started a family. Audubon tried his hand at business as well. Failing in several ventures, he was briefly jailed for debts he owed.
Next, he headed south to study and draw birds, finally settling with his family in New Orleans, eking out a living on Lucy’s income as a governess and the little money Audubon himself made by painting portraits on the street and giving art lessons.
He continued building his credentials as an artist and a naturalist, and eventually he had completed more than 400 artworks, with the desire to publish them. His work was far and away the best of any artist portraying birds, with a much more natural appearance to his drawings and paintings than anyone else could manage. Yet, in two years traveling the country, he found no one willing to publish his work.
Audubon's Northern Hare (winter)
In the mid-1820s he set sail for the United Kingdom, where he hoped to find a publisher, or at least to find engravers skillful enough to properly reproduce his work, which he was able to exhibit to great acclaim both in Scotland and in England. While his artistic skills captivated the public, people were also fascinated by his stories of American frontier Life.
These very successful exhibitions finally lead to the first publication of his true masterpiece, Birds of America, which depicted every bird known in this country at the time. This four-volume tour de force, for which he became most well known, was followed by other related volumes, and eventually lead to works on other sorts of wildlife.
The Cape Cod National Seashore annually hosts roughly 370 species of migrating birds, with about 80 of those species nesting and raising their young here during the spring and summer months. Beech Forest and Hatches Harbor are good spots to observe many varieties of birds in their natural habitats, with our streets and neighborhoods providing plentiful sightings as well. Provincetown is a veritable birdwatcher’s paradise.
Even when a part of a spring day is rainy, the birds quickly pop out again between clouds blowing along overhead. Try to get out between the raindrops today and spot a few birds, and give a nod of thanks to John James Audubon, born on this day in 1785. His life’s work in depicting the natural world has immeasurably enriched us.

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