1821: John James Audubon draws inspiration from Louisiana
John James Audubon, probably the best-known artist with ties to New Orleans, arrived in the city on Jan. 7, 1821. It wasn’t a happy occasion: Audubon was struggling to make ends meet, and, according to his journal, his pocket was picked while he was visiting a local market. However, he soon received commissions to do portraits, providing him money on which to live while he started work in the French Quarter on his masterpiece, “The Birds of America,” which has become known for its astonishingly detailed images of birds in their natural habitats. Audubon lived in New Orleans, off and on, for nine years.
Audubon is revered for his skill as an artist and an ornithologist. A copy of “The Birds of America” containing 435 hand-colored illustrations was sold for $10.27 million at a 2010 auction, making it the world’s most expensive published book. According to Devon Eastland of Skinner Inc., an auction and appraisal firm, five of the 10 most expensive books ever sold are copies of “The Birds of America.”
- Audubon bought some of the birds he studied at the French Market.
- He lived at 706 Barracks St., where he had his first studio, and 505 Dauphine St., according to the “New Orleans City Guide.” He also lived on St. Ann Street.
- He was not one for partying. In his journal, Audubon complained about “French Gayety that really sicked me.” (Grammar and spelling were not his strong suits.)
- A bronze statue of Audubon stands in the Uptown zoo bearing his name. The woman chiefly responsible for erecting this tribute was Mrs. James L, Bradford, the granddaughter of a man in East Feliciana Parish who owned a house where Audubon did much of his work. She raised $10,000 (nearly $261,000 in today’s dollars) for the statue, which was unveiled in 1910.
- One hundred twenty complete sets of “The Birds of America” are known to exist.
- Although he is most known for his paintings of birds, Audubon didn’t focus on them exclusively. Paintings of his also exist that show raccoons, bears and deer, among other wildlife, as well as a panoramic landscape depicting Natchez, Miss.
- For four months in 1821, Audubon was hired to work as a tutor at Oakley Plantation in St. Francisville. There, he is believed to have started or completed 32 paintings.
- In 1993, Michael Moskaluk was found guilty of possessing 100 prized art objects from the Louisiana State Museum, including 60 Audubon prints. (The prosecution didn’t have evidence that Moskaluk actually stole the treasures from the Presbytere and the Old U.S. Mint.) He was sentenced to serve 15 ½ years in prison, but he died of AIDS complications in May 1995, while he was appealing his conviction.
There is no shortage of tributes to Audubon in New Orleans. Schools, streets and a park are named for him, as are a zoo, an aquarium and an insectarium. All those associations keep alive the legacy of a man who, Eastland said, was important because he created a genre that hadn’t existed before, depicting birds and other animals in their natural habitats.