American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon

May 16 – September 19
Member Preview May 15

Haitian-born and French-raised, John James Audubon had an affinity for birds from a young age. He reportedly would point out “the elegant movement of the birds, the beauty and softness of their plumage, their perfect forms and splendid attire”.

His father, a naval captain, encouraged his interest in nature but planned a career at sea for his son. At twelve, Audubon went to military school but his tendency to get seasick as well as a lack of talent for mathematics or navigation quickly ended his naval career.

In 1803, at the age of 18, he was sent from France to the family homestead near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, to protect him from service in the Napoleonic Wars. He had grown up to be a gregarious and accomplished man who played the flute and violin, rode, fenced, and danced. He wholeheartedly embraced the new world that he found waiting for him, roaming the nearby woods, often returning with birds’ eggs, nests, and other natural curiosities from which he made drawings.

Audubon continued his bird studies and eventually created his own nature museum, perhaps inspired by the great museum of natural history established by Charles Willson Peale in Philadelphia. He became skilled at specimen preparation and taxidermy and carefully observed bird behavior, determined to depict them more accurately than his contemporaries did.

This lifelong fascination with birds culminated in one of the most ambitious books of illustrations ever published, The Birds of America. Audubon traveled widely from Labrador to the Florida Keys collecting specimens for his series of 435 stunningly life-like watercolor and pastel illustrations. Engravers painstakingly converted those drawings into the printed images we recognize today. The project was funded by subscribers with a keen interest in North American flora and fauna, including French King Charles X and the Queen of England. 

An original Audubon print is a rare bird. Subtle features distinguish them from millions of reproductions. Authenticating Audubon’s own story is vastly more complex.

The MAC is pleased to present an exclusive collection of original prints, and a selection of drawings, paintings, manuscripts, and personal possessions that shed light on the man behind the masterpieces. Our exhibition tells the behind-the-scenes stories of the people, processes, and young nation that produced this American original. who overcame so many obstacles to attain international recognition through his creativity and initiative.

Supplemented with taxidermy from the MAC’s collection, the objects in the exhibition are on loan from the John James Audubon State Park Museum in Henderson, Kentucky, where Audubon and his family lived for many years. The museum is home to one of the largest collections of materials from the wildlife artist and naturalist and we are grateful for their willingness to let these items travel to the Inland Northwest, including some that have never before left Kentucky.

Support for this exhibition has been provided by

The Carl M Hansen Foundation


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