John James Audubon
John James Audubon (1785–1851) was an ornithologist, naturalist, and painter. Audubon, who was born in modern-day Haiti and was raised in France, immigrated to the United States in 1803 to manage his father’s plantation in Pennsylvania. After losing his fortune in 1819, he searched for a new way forward in life. At this time, he developed the idea to create a complete illustrated text of all of the birds of North America, which would become one of the finest ornithological works ever completed: The Birds of America. Audubon left his home in Kentucky and traveled down the Mississippi River to New Orleans to begin his project. In the spring of 1821, he found part-time employment as a tutor at Oakley Plantation in St. Francisville. During his four-month stay on the property, he spent much of his free time in the woods observing and painting native birds.
Audubon traveled much of the United States and parts of Canada to complete his projects, but Louisiana was his favorite location, as evidenced by historical records indicating his fondness for the state. Of the 435 species created for his publication, 167 were created in the state, 32 in St. Francisville alone. Audubon is known to have told the fabricated story that he was born on a plantation near Mandeville; he once explained, “…the state of Louisiana has always been my favorite portion of the Union, although Kentucky and some other states have divided my affections.”
For five years, Audubon created images for his publication. He sailed to London in 1826 in search of an engraver willing to undertake the monumental printing of his masterpiece. He and the engraver, Robert Havell, decided that the prints should be released as a series, with five plates included in each set of prints and several sets released each year. In 1838, ten years after printing began and nearly twenty years after the idea was first conceived, The Birds of America was complete.
John James Audubon, White-headed Eagle (Plate 31) from the Havell elephant folio edition, No. 7, 1828. Hand-colored engraving, 25 x 37 1/2 inches, Engraver: Robert Havell Jr. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Haas. Louisiana Art & Science Museum Collection, 2002.012.001
Audubon was a handsome man who was particularly fond of his long, chestnut-colored hair. He once wrote in a diary entry, “My locks flew freely from under my hat, and every lady that I met looked at them and then at me until – she could see no more.”