Becoming John James Audubon

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In 1810 John James Audubon brought his young family to a small hamlet on the banks of the Ohio River. Audubon had two gifts that continue to bless the world two centuries later. He was an exceptional artist, and he loved to learn about birds.

Born in Saint Dominique, which is now Haiti, in 1785, Audubon grew up in France under the loving care of his stepmother. Though his father sent him to school, Audubon had little interest in it. His stepmother encouraged his free spirit. She allowed him to skip his lessons so that he could explore God’s Creation. Audubon later said this about his stepmother: “She completely spoiled me, hid my faults, boasted to everyone of my youthful merits and, worst of all, said frequently in my presence that I was the handsomest boy in France.”

In 1803 Audubon’s father sent him to America to manage his estate in Pennsylvania. However, Audubon continued to enjoy his wandering in the woods much more than managing an estate. By the time he moved to the small hamlet of Henderson, Kentucky, in 1810, he had married Lucy Bakewell and they had an infant son.

By 1820 Audubon already had a large collection of paintings of birds. That year he decided to paint the birds of America. He would paint them from nature and in their natural size. By 1826 he had 250 paintings completed. He exhibited these in Great Britain at the Royal Institution in Liverpool and Manchester, England, and in Edinburgh, Scotland. While there he found an engraver to reproduce them in giant folios. Audubon continued to paint with the intention of painting every bird species in North America.

Wealthy people purchased the folios as a subscription. With a price of $1000 per collection, he only sold 250 copies. Purchasers received four volumes containing a total of 435 hand-colored prints. To accommodate these lifesize prints of the birds of North America, the prints measured 26 1/4 x 39 1/2 inches.

As Ray and I traveled to St. Louis on October 30 to fly to Idaho Falls the next day, I saw a sign for John James Audubon State Park in Henderson. Having read about the collection of Audubon artifacts there while I was writing the first edition of America the Beautiful a decade ago, I suggested that we stop for a visit.

I was expecting to find a small display with a few items. Our first hint that we were in for a real treat was the architecture of the state park. This beautiful replica of a Norman-French inn houses the park’s Audubon collection.

John James Audubon Museum

We continued to be impressed as we walked toward the museum.

Historic Marker
Audubon Museum

This is a view from the porch, looking back across the lawn.

Museum Porch

What we found beyond this door was a treasure far beyond our expectations.

Front Door

Inside were hundreds of artifacts in beautiful displays, including many original paintings and prints, family heirlooms, and a complete four-volume folio of Birds of America. Tomorrow I’d like to tell you the story about how this magnificent museum came to be, but today, let’s talk a bit about becoming John James Audubon.

His stepmother, like all of us, was a mixture of good traits and not-so-good traits. Before his success, Audubon failed at business again and again, causing hardship for his loving wife. Once he was jailed for debt.

Many mamas err on the side of pushing academics too much. A better balance of . . .

  • Discipline and
  • Encouragement of natural interests and gifts

. . . would have served Audubon well. That is one of the many challenges of a homeschooling mama. These two scriptures teach us to find the balance.

Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us,
and we respected them;
shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live?
For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them,
but He disciplines us for our good,
so that we may share His holiness.
All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful;
yet to those who have been trained by it,
afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
Hebrews 12:9-11

Therefore encourage one another and build up one another,
just as you also are doing.
1 Thessalonians 5:11





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