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An Audubon Portrait 

It wasn't until 1820, Audubon's 35th year, that the idea for his life-altering project came to him: birds of America.

In many ways, he was the most unlikely candidate for one of those rags-to-riches American success stories. An outdoorsman who taught plantation girls how to braid hair, a self-taught scientist who played the flute and the violin, a trigger-happy Johnny Appleseed who embellished his biography in a thick French accent ... John James Audubon.

He was born in 1785, on a plantation on the western end of what is now Haiti. He was Christened Jean-Jacques Audubon by his sea-captain father. His mother was Jeanne Robin, the captain's mistress who died when her baby was only 6 months old. When he was 6 years old, his father brought him back to France, where he was adopted by a doting and generous stepmother.

He was unhappy in school and happy tramping around in the woods, studying and sketching what he found there. He did pick up some of the skills of cultivation -- music and the dance -- and later claimed to have studied draftsmanship under the great classic painter Jaques-Louis David. The verb "claim" is to be noted, because some biographers dispute it and Audubon was not above a bit of personal myth-making.

Example: Rumors trimmed in legend abounded on the exoticism of Audubon's birth. One story claimed he was born in Louisiana; another asserted he was the "Lost Dauphin," a son of Louis XVI who escaped from a tower during the French Revolution. Audubon did little to discourage these rumors. Au contraire.

In 1803, threat of conscription into the Napoleonic army led Captain Audubon to send his 18-year-old son to manage a family farm near Valley Forge, Pa. The young man anglicized his name to "John James" and indulged his passion for the primitive heroes of James Fenimore Cooper. His self-portraits always depict him in buckskin, and he invented tales of how he had befriended Daniel Boone -- who'd taught him to "bark" a squirrel.

What no one could teach him was how to make money. He left the family farm and drifted to Louisville and Henderson, Ky., where he failed as the owner of a grist mill and saw mill. He even worked as a taxidermist in a Cincinnati museum, but none of his vocations could prevent a brief stay in a debtor's jail.

It wasn't until 1820, Audubon's 35th year, that the idea for his life-altering project came to him: birds of America. In December of that year, he and a 13-year-old apprentice boarded a keelboat for New Orleans. He had no money in his buckskins, and he was leaving behind a wife and two sons.

In New Orleans, he rented a cottage on Barracks Street near Royal. He was immediately taken by the number and variety of birdlife for sale at the French Market -- barred owls were a quarter each -- and the millions of migrating birds on the move up the Mississippi Flyway. He was soon in the marshes, brimming with energy. Up at 3, hunt most of the day, draw till dark and after supper write in his journals till late.

Still, there was the need for money. Audubon painted portraits whenever he could (including the famed cathedral abbé, Peré Antoine) and one of those was bravura New Orleans. In his journal, Audubon referred to her as "Fair Incognito," the veiled woman who invited him to her Marigny home on Rue de l'Amor and asked him to paint her nude. When he finished after five sittings, his subject presented him with a French-inscribed $125 shotgun. May it equal you in goodness.

Audubon, an excellent shot, needed a good gun. The man whose name is now synonymous with conservation was a killer of titanic statue. His first hunt with his new gun was a trip to the Bayou St. John, where he joined hundreds of hunters in shooting thousands of golden plovers.

Eventually, he moved to 55 (later 505) Dauphine, where he was joined by his long-suffering wife Lucy ("I have a rival in every bird") and his sons Victor and John Woodhouse. From 1821-26, he alternated between the marshlands of New Orleans and the plantation country of West Feliciana. Lucy worked as tutor and governess at various plantations and eventually saved up $1,700 for her husband's passage to the British Isles.

There, after previous failures in New York and Philadelphia, the flamboyant Frenchman found an audience for his art. He sold 200 subscriptions for his 435 plates, at $1,000 a set.

By the time he returned to New Orleans for a final visit in 1837, he was rich and famous and dined with ex-Gov. Roman. He had painted more than a quarter of his birds in Louisiana, more than any other locale.

"Louisiana," he once summarized, "is my favorite portion of this Union."

click to enlarge "I went on down to the Audubon Zoo ..." -- The Meters
  • "I went on down to the Audubon Zoo ..." -- The Meters
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