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Arts & Culture

American Masters: John James Audubon: Drawn From Nature

Portrait of John James Audubon with dog, creator of "The Birds of America."
American Museum of Natural History Library
Portrait of John James Audubon with dog, creator of "The Birds of America."

Airs Monday, March 22, 2010 at 10:30 p.m. on KPBS TV

John James Audubon is best known for "The Birds of America," a book of 435 images, portraits of every bird then known in the United States – painted and reproduced in the size of life. Its creation cost Audubon eighteen years of monumental effort in finding the birds, making the book, and selling it to subscribers. Audubon also wrote thousands of pages about birds ("Ornithological Biography"); he’d completed half of a collection of paintings of mammals ("The Viviparous Quadrapeds of North America") when his eyesight failed in 1846.

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 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 onto life on the American frontier; it shows how Europe regarded the still-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. It shows us a person, and a people: the life and times of John James Audubon. - Ken Chowder

View timeline of John James Audubon's career and read the filmmaker interview with Lawrence Hott.

Preview: American Masters: John James Audubon