John James Audubon (1785-1851)

Object Number: 
Pre 1839
Plaster, shellac
Overall: 8 1/2 x 5 7/8 x 3 1/2 in. ( 21.6 x 14.9 x 8.9 cm )
Life mask.
Gallery Label: 
The American icon John James Audubon was born in 1785 in Les Cayes (in the French colony of Santo Domingue, today's Haiti). He was the son of Jean Audubon and his French mistress, who died shortly thereafter. In 1788 the youth was sent to France and grew up in Nantes and nearby Couëron and in 1793 was adopted by his father and wealthy stepmother, Anne Moynet. Educated as a country gentleman, he served an unsuccessful stint in the navy with his father. In 1803 he came to the United States to escape conscription into Napoleon's army and ostensibly to supervise his father's property at Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. Already enamored of his adopted country, he preferred studying its wildlife, especially birds, a passion he had developed in France where he began drawing birds and studying them scientifically. After returning to Nantes (1805-06) to obtain permission to marry his neighbor, Lucy Bakewell, he settled in America, searching for a profession and a way to make his mark. The Audubons looked to the promise of the frontier, and he first tried to operate a series of general stores in the Kentucky and elsewhere, but the last proved to be a failure due to the economic panic of 1819. After making a living as a bread-and-butter portrait artist, he obtained a position at the Western Museum in Cincinnati as a naturalist-artist, and soon dedicated himself to his magnum opus, The Birds of America. Engraved by the master printmaker Robert Havell Jr., its 435 double-elephant folios, were published in London in 87 fascicles of five hand-colored engravings with aquatint (1827-38). The Society owns all 435 of Audubon's original watercolors for this spectacular series, as well as one of the less than two hundred original copies printed of The Birds of America bound in five volumes. After spending much of his time in Great Britain (1826-39), Audubon returned to America, and three years later made his home in New York City-in the vicinity of West 157th Street and the Hudson River. He died there at his estate (Minnie's Land) in 1851, and was buried in nearby Trinity Cemetery, where his grave is marked by a Celtic-Runic cross. This impression of Audubon's life mask was taken in 1907 by the donor and his brother, Dr. George Luke Havell, from the original which Robert Havell, Jr. had made in London in 1830 when Audubon was there in connection with the publication of Birds of America. Robert Havell engraved approximately four hundred plates for Birds of America, working on them in England between 1827 and 1838. In 1839 he came to America where he became a landscape artist in the Hudson River Valley. The Society owns several of his landscape sketches. The original life mask, now in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, is illustrated in Herrick, Audubon the Naturalist, 2, 1917, opp. p. 178.
Credit Line: 
Gift of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
Creative: Tronvig Group