John James Audubon spent approximately three years in Mississippi in the early 1820s, visiting, teaching, drawing, and painting, and he did some of his finest work in the state. Many of the most famous images from his great 1838 work Birds of America came from his time in Mississippi. Audubon was born on 26 April 1785 in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) to Jean Audubon, a French naval officer who owned a sugar plantation and refinery there, and Jeanne Rabin, a French maidservant who died shortly after the boy’s birth. In 1803 Jean sent his son to the young United States to manage one of his investments, Mill Grove Plantation near Philadelphia, and to protect him from the military draft.
In 1820, after several years working at various pursuits, Audubon decided to travel down the Mississippi River, collecting and drawing as many bird species as possible to be published in a book.
Audubon’s fascination with birds began when he was a toddler, when he imagined birds as playmates, preferring them to every other wild or domesticated creature. Sensitive to his son’s interests and imagination, Jean Audubon guided the boy toward a more pragmatic path, taking him on walks to observe birds and teaching him about their silhouettes in flight, seasonal migrations, nests, foods, and habitat. Jean also encouraged his son to study illustrated books about birds and caught birds for the boy to draw. By the time of Audubon’s trip to the Lower Mississippi area, he had been diligently collecting, drawing, and recording birds in his journal in his adopted country for nearly a decade and a half. Audubon simultaneously taught himself ornithology. Many early bird painters did likewise, and in America he befriended the best—Charles Willson Peale, probably William Bartram, and Scotsman Alexander Wilson, whose nine-volume American Ornithology (1808–14) became the standard resource until the publication of Audubon’s masterpiece.
Through 1823 Audubon studied bird life along the banks of the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. In his journal he wrote that he was stunned by the Yazoo—“a beautiful stream of transparent water covered with thousands of geese and ducks and filled with fish.” Audubon and an associate followed and chased swift black cormorants, one of which was killed and which Audubon drew. On Christmas Day 1820, the owner of the flatboat they used shot a great-footed hawk (peregrine falcon), possibly near Petit Gulf. Audubon finished his drawing of the bird the next day while held up on the river. Years earlier, Audubon had developed a method of pinning a shot bird in an accurate lifelike pose to a wooden board for drawing with his handmade version of a physiognotrace (an instrument designed to draw a creature’s physical features).
When he was not pursuing, studying, drawing, and painting birds, Audubon worked in Natchez and New Orleans drawing portraits, giving drawing lessons, and occasionally teaching additional subjects, such as cotillion dancing and French. Casting about for more portrait work in Natchez, he befriended Benjamin Wailes, a young self-taught naturalist who brought Audubon the nest of an orchard oriole from the Wailes Plantation on the Natchez Trace. Benjamin and his brother, Edmund, soon were hunting with Audubon, and the friendship translated into black chalk portraits of the brothers as well as their parents, Levin and Eleanor. Levin Wailes was subsequently responsible for Audubon’s appointment as a drawing instructor at the Elizabeth Female Academy in nearby Washington, Mississippi, but Audubon contracted yellow fever, recovered, and secured another teaching position, this time at a new academy in Natchez.
From mid-March through May 1822 Audubon completed fourteen bird drawings, including his discovery and painting of the willow flycatcher, his dramatic composition of two chuck-will’s-widows hissing at a coral snake coiled around a branch between them, and the delicate watercolor of two tiny Carolina chickadees camouflaged amid a rattan vine (supplejack) dated 3 May 1822. Audubon’s compilation of bird images from the Lower Mississippi River area was probably the most crucial to his entire collection and book project, even though he spent much of the next fifteen years adding drawings of other birds obtained from the Florida Keys to Labrador. Furthermore, an important marker of Audubon’s southern Mississippi–Louisiana trip came during the winter of 1826 when visiting his wife at Beech Woods. Audubon went on a hunting trip into a Mississippi cane thicket, shot a male wild turkey weighing at least twenty-two pounds, and spent days drawing it. This watercolor joined the three-hundred-plus others that Audubon took to England in May of that year, forming the basis of his mammoth book project. The Birds of America consisted of four enormous double-elephant folio volumes, printed on paper measuring 39¼ × 26⅓ inches and weighing 80 pounds each. Each volume required two men to lift it. The 435 pages of engraved, hand-colored etchings with aquatint bird species contained a total of 1,065 bird images, life-size at eye level and in natural positions and habitat. The first image of Audubon’s landmark publication is the American Wild Turkey, with cane stalks behind it, made to seem even larger than its page by slightly cropping the tail feathers. This image became Audubon’s most famous, and it may well have been collected in Mississippi. Audubon’s obsession, The Birds of America, became the standard by which all later efforts have been measured.
- Patti Carr Black, Art in Mississippi 1720–1980 (1998)
- Duff Hart-Davis, Audubon’s Elephant: The Story of John James Audubon’s Epic Struggle to Publish “The Birds of America” (2003)
- Douglas Lewis, Southern Quarterly 29 (1990–91)
- Linda Dungan Partridge, “From Nature: John James Audubon’s Drawings and Watercolors, 1805–1826” (PhD dissertation, University of Delaware, 1992)
- Jessie Poesch, The Art of the Old South (1983); Richard Rhodes, John James Audubon: The Making of an American (2004)