Famed naturalist John James Audubon, for whom Audubon House is named, was born in 1785 in Les Cayes, Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). He was the illegitimate son of Captain Jean Audubon, a French merchant captain and plantation owner, and his mistress, a maid who died when he was an infant. At the age of four, Audubon was taken to France and adopted by his father’s legal wife, who raised him and his half-sister as if they were her own. From a young age, Audubon demonstrated an interest in nature and drawing.
In 1803, his father sent 18-year-old Audubon to manage the family’s estate in Pennsylvania to avoid being drafted into Napoleon’s army. There, he hunted, studied and drew birds. He also met and married his wife, Lucy Bakewell.
After working in business for several years, Audubon travelled down the Ohio River to the western Kentucky frontier to set up a dry-goods store in Henderson. He continued drawing birds as a hobby and amassed a large portfolio. While in Kentucky, Lucy gave birth to two sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse, and a daughter who died in infancy. Although his business initially was successful, Audubon was jailed briefly for bankruptcy in 1819 when hard times hit.
In 1820, with no other prospects, Audubon embarked on an ambitious quest to find and paint the birds of North America while Lucy stayed behind to earn money working as a tutor to wealthy plantation families. Audubon set off down the Mississippi River with nothing but his gun, artist’s materials, and a young assistant, living a rugged, hand-to-mouth existence in the South.
In 1826, Audubon took his partly finished collection to England. His life-size, dramatic bird portraits, along with his embellished descriptions of wilderness life, hit just the right note at the height of the European Romantic era, and he began to attain fame as an artist. Audubon found a printer for The Birds of America, and later collaborated with Scottish ornithologist William MacGillivray on the Ornithological Biographies, life histories of each of the bird species in the work.
Audubon’s portfolio of drawings was published as 435 hand-colored, life-size prints that sold to subscribers for a price of $870. Most subscribers had The Birds of America folio of prints bound in four volumes, and fewer than 200 copies of the first edition, known as the Havell edition, were made.
Twenty-two of the original 435 Havell plates represent birds Audubon observed and painted in Florida during the period 1832. In Key West, Audubon had a letter of introduction to Dr. Benjamin Strobel, who had a house on the property now occupied by the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens. At the time, the property was owned by Pardon Greene, one of Key West’s founding fathers. Captain John Geiger, who eventually bought the property, rented a house there. At the center of the property was a garden of native and imported tropical plants that Audubon may have used in his images of local birds.
The last print for The Birds of America was issued in 1838. By this time, Audubon had achieved fame and a modest degree of comfort, traveled the country several more times in search of birds, and settled in New York City.
Audubon made a final trip west in 1843, which was the basis for his final work, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. This work of mammals was largely completed by his sons and the text written by his long-time friend, Lutheran pastor John Bachman (whose daughters married Audubon’s sons). Audubon spent his last years in senility and died at age 65 in 1851. He is buried in the Trinity Cemetery in New York City.