John James Audubon, ornithologist, naturalist, and writer, was born in Haiti in 1785, the natural son of a French slave trader and a Creole woman. After Audubon's mother was killed in a slave insurrection in Haiti, John James was raised in France by his father's wife. As a young man of 18, Audubon fled from conscription into Napolean armies, smuggled himself out of France, and came to the United States.
He tried and failed at a series of money-making schemes before he turned to painting. Once he did, his dogged pursuit of featheres subjects led him on hunting parties with the Osage Indians, whose language he spoke; and even into the company of Daniel Boone.
Audubon's spare and stylized paintings - accomplished by first killing and stuffing the birds he so admired - served as a foil to his chaotic life. The subjects' highly mannered poses bespeak tha painter's romantic sensibility, and his pictures tell almost human stories of flirtation, pride, and anger.
"Wanderlegs" is how Audubon described the affliction that kept him adrift in the forests and swamps of nineteenth-century America. He once wrote to his anxious wife, in a letter written in New Orleans and dated May 3, 1821 : "Thou art not, it seems, as daring as I am about leaving one place to go to another, without the means . . . without one cent." Audubon did hold for a time in 1821 at a cottage at 505 Dauphine in the French Quarter, working on his Birds of America series in his studio at 706 Barracks Street. Audubon never lost his French accent, and even permitted rumors to spread that he was the lost Dauphin of France. But when he returned to France on a few occasions to visit, Audubon posed as the wild outdoorsman of the frontier - a noble French savage in buckskin and leggings.
New Orleans has since honored the painter in
its naming of Audubon Park and Audubon Zoo.