John James Audubon: A Famous Artist and a Quite a Character

This month we are focusing on artist, John James Audubon and a group of his Imperial Folio Edition of hand colored stone lithographs have arrived at Valley Fine Art, and are extraordinary.

He is best known for The Birds of America, and his story is a dramatic and surprising one. Audubon was not born in America, but saw more of the North American continent than virtually anyone alive, and even in his own time he came to exemplify America – the place of wilderness and wild things. The history of his life reveals his era and his nation: he lived in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina and New York – traveled everywhere from Labrador to the Dry Tortugas off Florida, from the Republic of Texas to the mouth of the Yellowstone – was a merchant, salesman, teacher, hunter, itinerant portraitist and woodsman, an artist and a scientist. He was, in a sense, a one-man compendium of American culture of his time. And his growing apprehension about the destruction of nature became a prophecy of his nation’s convictions in the century after his death.

So it is that Audubon has been called (by Lewis Mumford) “an archetypal American who astonishingly combined in equal measure the virtues of George Washington, Daniel Boone and Benjamin Franklin” and “the nearest thing American art has had to a founding father.”

But…Audubon was quite a character, born poor in Haiti, raised like a ‘lord’ in France. He moved to Pennsylvania to escape Napoleon’s army. Failed miserably as a frontiers man in Kentucky, was thrown in jail there and driven from his town in penniless disgrace…

But…he believed in himself. So he left his family and took a flatboat down the Mississippi, struggled on alone in Louisiana, and finally became a brilliant success, and a legend, overnight… in England. It was his return to art that made him the success that he is, he had a passion for painting wildlife in watercolor, especially birds.

Audubon was also bit of a ‘dandy’ the beau of every ball and not only a self-taught artist but a self-taught scientist. He was also, a bit of an extremist, sleeping on the floor of the forest one week and showing up to sail on an ocean voyage with two dogs, three tail-less cats and 265 birds.

Sound a little hard to believe? Some of our greatest artists have similar stories. But even if Audubon was a very particular case – an unusual and complex character with an astounding life – an examination of that life and that man tells us a great deal about his times in general. John James Audubon – drawn from nature provides a large clear window into life of the American frontier; it shows how Europe regarded the young United States, and how people (on both sides of the Atlantic) regarded nature. It creates a meaningful portrait of the state of both Art and Science in the first decades of the 19th century. John James Audubon’s, “The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America” is considered the finest 19th century work in the field of American Mammalogy.

Honestly, he could have lived in Aspen and would have been perceived as normal! Which is why we are excited to have been so fortunate to acquire a number of pieces recently! Visit our website or come by and see our vintage Imperial mammals look at his colored stone lithographs and let us know you read a little bit about him on our blog!

Happy Holidays and we are looking forward to talking a little more about one him with you!

Mia, Jordan and Emily ~ Valley Fine Art