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No. 842:
John James Audubon

Today, birds redeem a troubled life. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

John James Audubon: 1785-1851The biography of James Audubon has only recently been coming clear. And what a picture! Audubon was born in Santo Domingo in 1785, the illegitimate son of a French seafarer and plantation owner. His mother was a French chambermaid.

Audubon himself spun contradictory yarns about his origins. Some thought he might be the Dauphin -- heir to the French throne. Biographer John Chancellor tells us flatly that Audubon was

only marginally literate ... indifferent to the truth ... vulgar, infatuated with himself as the exotic woodsman, the artist naturalist ...

But, he adds, if this harsh judgement is true, it is unimportant. He quotes Cuvier, who called Audubon's work "the most magnificent monument [ever] raised to ornithology." Like too many great geniuses, Audubon invented himself as he invented his art.

He was in Paris during the French Revolution -- a 7-year-old watching beheadings. At 14 his father enrolled him in the French Naval Academy. He had no talent for that. He wanted to draw.

Finally, if we can believe the story, he studied art with the revolutionary artist David. Early Audubon drawings show none of David's classic rigor. And they are all of birds.

He moved to America in 1803 to dodge being drafted into Napoleon's voracious army. From the age of 18 to 41 he sought his fortune. He married the remarkable Lucy Bakewell in 1808. She taught school and steadied his erratic life. He worked as a dancing master, itinerant portrait artist, storekeeper, and taxidermist. It was a life marred by debtor's prison and bankruptcy.

All the while Audubon painted birds. Lucy and his birds were constants in a life with no other visible center. Finally, with the help of Lucy's savings, he took his portfolio to England in 1826. He had, by then, created the most spectacular and complete set of bird pictures ever made.

To Liverpool he carried only his pictures. He left his reputation for exaggeration and combat back at the New York dock.

Those pictures! Beautiful birds, flying, feasting, fighting -- those birds nested in their American wilderness! Those birds took England's heart. Success had finally found James Audubon. Artistic and scientific societies alike embraced him.

Most important, he found an Edinburgh publisher to print his "Birds of America" in a great double elephant folio color book. That printing tour de force paved the way for his other books.

Audubon's name has, ever since, meant birds -- wheeling, turning, craning -- daring us with their fierce beauty and freedom. Among the birds, Audubon reached that perfect honesty -- that we all find so elusive in the human world.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Chancellor, J., Audubon. New York: The Viking Press, 1978.

Ford, A., John James Audubon: A Biography. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988.

Audubon, J.J., Audubon's America: The Narratives and Experiences of John James Audubon (D. C. Peattie, Ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1940.

Youmans, W.J., Pioneers of Science in America; Sketches of Their Lives and Scientific Work. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1896, pp. 152-166. (Youman's old book incorrectly puts Audubon's birth in New Orleans in 1880.)

More about Audubon.