John James Audubon’s Birthday, 1785
The Life of John James Audubon
He was a remarkable artist, and one of the most influential ornithologists who ever lived. He may also have been the Lost Dauphin, Louis XVII of France.
He was born Jean Rabin, the son of a French naval officer named James Audubon and his Creole mistress, in the French Colony of Les Cayes in what is now Haiti. His mother died when he was very young, and he was then cared for by his father’s mulatto housekeeper, by whom he also had several illegitimate children. After a slave rebellion in 1788, James Audubon decided to return to France, and he took two of his children with him, Jean and an infant girl.
In France, Audubon and his wife formally adopted both children and the boy was renamed Jean-Jacques Fougere Audubon. He learned all the accomplishments that a young man of his station would be expected to know — music, dance, fencing, riding — but his real love was nature. His father hoped that he would become a naval officer and he was sent to military school. Jean-Jacques turned out to be prone to seasickness and not very good at mathematics or navigation. After failing to qualify for officers’ training, he was allowed to return home where he resumed exploring the fields and woods.
In 1803, when Audubon was 18, his parents secured a false passport for him and sent him to the United States in order to avoid his being drafted for Napoleon’s army. The plan was for him to join in partnership with the son of a friend of his father’s, developing a lead mine in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. The site was a 284-acre homestead, and Audubon soon found ample opportunity to explore the fields and woods, hiking, hunting, fishing, and drawing. He also made the acquaintance of Lucy Bakewell, whom he would later marry.
The lead mine enterprise turned out relatively unsuccessful, and Audubon next attempted to learn the import-export business. He made several attempts at running a general store with his partner from the lead mine project, Ferdinand Rozier. Audubon attempted many business enterprises during his life, but the only things he was really successful at were his nature and artistic projects. During lean times he was always able to eke out a living with his hunting and fishing skills, and he gave drawing lessons and did portraiture when necessary to raise cash. His wife was able to earn a stable income teaching.
Birds of America
Audubon’s drawings were based on birds which he had killed and then stuffed and mounted into realistic positions. (Most other taxidermists of the time posed their birds into rigid, unlifelike poses.) He worked primarily in watercolor, and based his work on his observations in nature. Many of Audubon’s earliest works have been lost, mainly because he repeatedly destroyed them in order to motivate himself to do better. He also lost a cache of 200 drawings in 1812, when rats got into his drawings while he was on a brief trip.
Audubon’s great work was his Birds of America. It was a collection of colored prints made from copper plates and published in England. The prints measured 39 by 26 inches, and the birds were depicted life-size. In the case of some of the larger birds, this required some rather strange positions in order to get the bird on the page. The prints were sold by subscription, and came in sets of five that were issued every month or so.
The printing cost of Birds of America was $115,640 — in today’s money the equivalent of more than two million dollars. In addition to the money raised by subscriptions, Audubon raised funds by exhibitions, and by selling oil paintings — both copies of the bird drawings and other works by commission — and animal skins which he had hunted. It is believed that only 200 complete copies of the work were ever printed.
A text to go with the birds, Ornithological Biography, or An account of the habits of the birds of the United States of America, was published separately. It was written jointly by Audubon and Scottish ornithologist William MacGillivray, and consisted of five volumes. Under British Law, the publisher of any text was required to furnish free copies to the public libraries of England. Audubon published the prints separately from the text in order to limit his expense — the prints were unbound and thus free copies were not required.
Altogether, the complete set of prints and the accompanying five volumes cost a subscriber about $1000. More affordable octavo editions (about nine by six inches) of the text and illustrations were published later in the United States. Various copies still exist: it is estimated that five of the ten highest prices ever paid for printed books were for copies of Birds of America. A complete copy of the original edition recently sold at auction for ₤7,321,250, or about $11.5 million.
So What about the Lost Dauphin?
The story that John James Audubon may have been the Lost Dauphin of France is a story that originated only after Audubon’s death. There had been several stories as to what had become of Louis XVII after his parents, Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI, had been guillotined. It is known that the little prince had been imprisoned with his family at the Temple, a fortress in Paris. He was later removed from the Temple and given into the care of a cobbler and his wife, Antoine and Jean Marie Simon. When Jean Marie fell ill, the child was returned and was certified to be in good health.
After this, the trail gets harder to follow, since many of the Temple records were destroyed during the Bourbon Restoration. It was claimed that the child was put into a darkened room and that food was passed in through the bars of his cage. It was also claimed that no one actually saw him for a period of six months.
At the end of those six months, he was visited by the Director leader Barras, who noted that he was suffering from neglect. His cell was cleaned and new caretakers were appointed. He was periodically inspected by members of the Civil Committee — usually different ones each time. He never spoke.
The child became seriously ill in 1795, when he was 10 years old. A doctor was sent for, but the child died. An autopsy stated that the child was about 10 years old, that the doctor had been informed that he was Louis Capet’s son, and that he had died of an infection from a long-standing case of scrofula (tuberculosis of the lymph nodes).
Immediately after his death, rumors of his escape arose, fueled by his relative anonymity in the last years of his life, and the lack of a positive identification after his death. The remnants of the royal family paid no tributes to his memory; even his sister declined to wear mourning.
In 1846, the mass grave where the dauphin was buried was exhumed. Only one body showed evidence of tuberculosis, and the body appeared to be that of a boy in his middle to late teens.
When the Bourbon monarchy was destroyed, at least a hundred claimants to the throne came forward, all claiming to be the Lost Dauphin. The claims persisted for decades, and some still believe them today. One of the most interesting claims concerns John James Audubon.
Audubon never claimed to be Louis XVII himself, but the rumor became prevalent after his death. He was the right age. He was adopted — and under somewhat mysterious circumstances. He appeared in France at about the time that Louis disappeared. And there was the evidence of a very strange letter that he had written to his wife from Paris in 1828, in which he described himself as “patient, silent, bashful, and yet powerful of physique and mind, dressed as a common man, I walk the streets! I bow! I ask permission to do this or that! I…who should command all!”
Sources: Chase’s Calendar of Events, 2011 Edition: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Special Days, Weeks and Months, Editors of Chase’s Calendar of Events; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/April_26th; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_James_Audubon; http://www.audubonhouse.org/audubon/jja.cfm; http://history1800s.about.com/od/artists/a/john-james-audubon-biography.htm; http://www.notablebiographies.com/An-Ba/Audubon-John-James.html; http://www.biography.com/articles/John-James-Audubon-9192248; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_XVII; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birds_of_America_(book); http://www.historywiz.com/louisxvii.htm.