11 Facts About John James Audubon

John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

You might be familiar with the name John James Audubon from the bird conservation-focused Audubon Society—which he had nothing to do with founding—or the famous illustrations in his groundbreaking natural history collection, The Birds of America. But there are a few surprising bits of history about this quintessential American naturalist ... like the fact that, originally, he was neither American nor named Audubon.

1. John James Audubon immigrated to America to avoid serving in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army.

John James Audubon was born Jean Rabin in April 1785 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). He was an illegitimate son of a French naval officer/plantation owner, Jean Audubon, and a chambermaid named Jeanne Rabin, who died soon after he was born. In 1791, after Jean Audubon had returned to live in France, he arranged for his son and another illegitimate child to be sent there so he could formally adopt them. Jean Rabin was renamed Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon.

In 1803, his father sent 18-year-old Jean-Jacques Audubon to Pennsylvania to avoid his conscription into Napoleon’s armies. There, he anglicized his name to John James Audubon.

2. America’s leading ornithologist had a beef with John James Audubon.

Eastern screech-owls from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

In 1810, before he became a full-time artist, Audubon and his business partner Ferdinand Rozier owned a shop in Louisville, Kentucky. One day, in strolled Alexander Wilson, an eminent ornithologist who was seeking subscriptions for his magnum opus in progress, American Ornithology. (At the time it was common for authors to seek subscriptions from members of the public that would pay for the completion of the work.) As Audubon looked at the engravings, Rozier said in French, “My dear Audubon, what induces you to subscribe to this work? Your drawings are certainly far better.” Audubon ended up taking Wilson on a few hunting trips, but did not subscribe. Wilson would later write about Louisville, “Science or literature has not one friend in this place.”

While Wilson died in 1813—leaving his book unfinished—Audubon was just getting started traveling the country and illustrating birds. When he arrived in Philadelphia, the country’s intellectual capital, he got a chilly reception from Wilson’s colleagues. “[Naturalist] George Ord was so afraid that Audubon would totally bury the great, respected Alexander Wilson,” Roberta Olson, curator of drawings at the New-York Historical Society, told Mental Floss in 2017, that he “arranged for Philadelphia to basically close down [to Audubon], so he could not publish there.” The snub forced Audubon to seek his own subscribers in the UK when he decided to publish The Birds of America.

3. Another Bonaparte tried to help John James Audubon’s artistic career.

In 1824, Audubon met Napoleon’s nephew Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a respected ornithologist. Bonaparte was, ironically, working to complete Wilson’s American Ornithology and was interested in Audubon’s art. Bonaparte even bought his drawing of a great crow-blackbird (now called the boat-tailed grackle) for use in his book. But according to legend, when Bonaparte took Audubon’s drawing to be engraved, the engraver sniffed, “I think your work extraordinary for one self-taught, but we in Philadelphia are used to seeing very correct drawing.” The engraving was made nonetheless, and Bonaparte proclaimed it “a faithful representation of both sexes … drawn by that zealous observer of nature and skilful artist Mr. John J. Audubon.”

4. At first, nobody thought The Birds of America would succeed.

Green herons from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

After Audubon’s lack of success in Philadelphia, he traveled to Europe to attempt to find subscribers and printers for the hundreds of bird paintings that would become the Birds of America in book form. Audubon had the idea to print his artwork life-size on double elephant paper, measuring around 39.5 inches by 26.5 inches. Initially, the reaction to Audubon’s plan was muted. A bookseller named Mr. Bohn explained that such a giant book would never sell, since it would take up so much space on a table that it would either shame all the other books or render the table useless.

But that was before he saw the drawings. Several days later Audubon met the bookseller again and showed him his work. “Mr. Bohn was at first simply surprised, then became enthusiastic, and finally said they must be published the full size of life,” Audubon wrote. The resulting book, featuring 435 engraved and hand-colored plates, is now one of the most expensive in the world. Rare copies sell at auction for around $10 million.

5. John James Audubon sparked a controversy about vultures …

Before Audubon, vultures had been lauded for their sense of smell. The 1579 text Euphues asks, “Doth not the eagle see clearer, the vulture smell better, the mole hear lightlier?” In the 1770s, Irish novelist Oliver Goldsmith called vultures “cruel, unclean, and indolent” but admitted that “their sense of smelling, however, is amazingly great.”

But in 1826, Audubon presented an “Account of the Habits of the Turkey Buzzard … with the view of exploding the opinion generally entertained of its extraordinary power of Smelling” at the Wernerian Natural History Society in Edinburgh. Audubon described how he could sneak up very close behind a vulture and it wouldn’t fly away until he showed himself. He then ran experiments. In the first, he filled a deer skin with grass to approximate a recently deceased animal and observed a vulture attack the odorless prey. In the second, he hid a putrefying hog carcass in some grass, and no vulture found it, even though the stench prevented Audubon from getting within 30 yards of it.

Most of the Edinburgh crowd agreed with Audubon, but eccentric explorer and naturalist Charles Waterton demurred. Waterton had written of his own experiments in which turkey vultures would take away lizards and frogs “as soon as they began to stink.” But, according to zoologist Lucy Cooke, Waterton “was said to have a habit of hiding under the table at dinner parties to bite his guests’ legs like a dog, and delighted in elaborate, taxidermy-based practical jokes. A particularly inspired prank involved his fashioning an effigy of one of his (many) enemies out of a howler monkey’s buttocks.” So there’s that.

6. … and even Charles Darwin got involved.

Baltimore orioles from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

Scientists took sides in what the London Quarterly Review called “the vulture controversy.” Nosarians believed vultures used their sense of smell, and anti-nosarians believed they used sight. In South Carolina, some of Audubon’s supporters commissioned a painting of a dead sheep and placed offal 10 feet away from it outdoors. Vultures attacked the painting. Even Charles Darwin conducted experiments on whether vultures could smell.

Later research [PDF] suggested that Audubon likely mistook black vultures (Coragyps atratus), which primarily use sight, for turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), which actually use smell to locate carrion. Cooke notes that Audubon described animals that seem to occasionally hunt live animals, which indicates black vultures, not turkey vultures. Most New World vultures use sight, and only a few use smell. Back in the 19th century, Waterton had been increasingly shunned for his anti-nosarian views. “Which is a shame” Cooke writes, “because he was right.”

7. John James Audubon discovered birds that don’t exist.

Audubon is credited with discovering around 25 species and 12 subspecies, but some of his other birds were later identified as being either immature birds or sexually dimorphic specimens. Beyond these, there are five “mystery birds” that appear nowhere but in Audubon’s watercolors: the carbonated swamp warbler, Cuvier’s kinglet, Townsend’s finch (or Townsend’s bunting), small-headed flycatcher, and blue mountain warbler. The Audubon Society also includes the Bartram's vireo in the list. These unidentifiable birds were probably hybrids or known birds with aberrant colorations.

8. John James Audubon might have been the first bird bander.

Great egret from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

Soon after arriving in the U.S., Audubon attached tied some silver thread around the legs of Eastern phoebes (he called them pewee flycatchers). The birds left the area in October. When they returned the following spring, Audubon found two still sporting silver threads. His experiment is often called the first bird banding experiment in the western hemisphere.

A recent article in Archives of Natural History casts doubt on the story, though. Audubon claimed 40 percent of his tagged eastern phoebes returned home, but a larger scale study found only around 1.5 percent of banded birds returned. Audubon may have been in France at the time of the phoebes’ return, too.

9. John James Audubon illustrated a long-lost New Jersey bank note.

Generations of Audubon scholars have hunted for a mysterious bank note that Audubon allegedly illustrated in 1824. In his journals, Audubon wrote, “I drew … a small grouse to be put on a bank-note belonging to the state of New Jersey.” It’s believed that this was his first engraved bird illustration, but no one was able to find any evidence of its existence—until 2010, when historians Robert M. Peck and Eric P. Newman found the sample sheets the engraver had produced with stock images for the currency. Among the George Washingtons and bald eagles was a little heath hen. Peck told NPR, "A little scurrying grouse rushing into a bed of grass is not the kind of confident image that a bank president wants to convey,” so a bald eagle probably replaced it on the currency.

Similarly, heath hens went extinct in 1932, but some researchers have proposed bringing them back.

10. John James Audubon had nothing to do with the Audubon Society.

Jays from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

After Audubon published The Birds of America and established himself as America’s premier naturalist, he bought land and a mansion in rural upper Manhattan in New York City. Audubon died there in 1851, but his wife, Lucy, continued to live in the estate later known as Audubon Park. In 1857, businessman George Blake Grinnell and his family moved to Audubon Park, and Lucy became a teacher for his son, 7-year-old George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell later became a respected naturalist, editor-in-chief of outdoors magazine Forest and Stream, and an advocate for conservation.

In 1886, he founded the Audubon Society and the next year The Audubon Magazine, inspired by his childhood classes with Lucy, whom he remembered as a “beautiful, white-haired old lady with extraordinary poise and dignity; most kindly and patient and affectionate, but a strict disciplinarian of whom all the children stood in awe.” He also cofounded the conservation-minded Boone and Crockett Club with Theodore Roosevelt. But by 1889, the pressures of running multiple journals and societies proved too much, and the Audubon Society folded.

11. Two women, inspired by fashionable hats, revived the Audubon Society.

In 1896, Boston socialites Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and her cousin Minna B. Hall were horrified after reading an account of the plume-hunting industry—a trade that killed millions of wild birds to supply feathers for millinery. They resolved to stop their fellow fashionistas from wearing wild feathers. The two founded the Massachusetts Audubon Society and sent a letter to Forest and Stream to ask people to take a pledge “not to purchase or encourage the use of feathers of wild birds for ornamentation.” More regional Audubon Societies sprang up around the country, and in 1940 they combined to form the National Audubon Society. Today the organization focuses on science-based conservation and education to protect birds, continuing John James Audubon’s legacy into the 21st century.

This Delightfully Ugly Christmas Sweater Features a Light-Up Bob Ross Head

Spencer's
Spencer's

The only thing better than bringing the benevolent ghost of Bob Ross to your Christmas party—which, by all means, you should definitely do if you somehow know him—is sporting a sweater emblazoned with his bushy-haired head.

The blue cotton sweater from Spencer’s is trimmed in red and patterned with snowflakes and some appropriately happy little evergreen trees. But most of the sweater's front is taken up by a delightfully large replica of Bob Ross’s face, complete with his characteristically kind eyes and fuzzy facial hair.

bob ross ugly christmas sweater
Spencer's

Those details are enough to make the garment your one-way ticket to a first-place ribbon in the Christmas sweater competition, but there’s one last unforgettable feature that will surely warm the heart of every Grinch, Scrooge, and Hans Gruber in a six-mile radius: Bob Ross is draped with a strand of charming Christmas lights that actually light up.

bob ross ugly christmas sweater
Spencer's

The crew neck sweater is unisex, so you should order a size down if you’re looking for a more fitted look. It’ll definitely feel like a warm hug regardless of what size you order, and you can easily layer it over a thick thermal shirt if you’re venturing around the block for a carol or two. And whether you’re braving cold weather or just eating Christmas cookies on your own couch, the sweater pairs perfectly with these Bob Ross slipper socks.

Get your very own happy little sweater for $42 from Spencer’s.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

Meet Isabelle de Borchgrave, the Belgian Artist Who Recreates Historical Fashion Using Paper

From "Papiers à la Mode," Isabelle de Borchgrave's first series of paper sculptures.
From "Papiers à la Mode," Isabelle de Borchgrave's first series of paper sculptures.
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

When you walk into the exhibition space at SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film right now, you’re met with a breathtaking homage to the history of fashion. Mannequins are dressed in everything from the court gowns of Queen Elizabeth I to the crinoline tutus of the Ballets Russes, and the overall impression is one of almost otherworldly beauty.

From across the room, you can see silk pooling at the feet of some figures, while light glances off the beaded bodices of others. But if you get within about a foot of the mannequins, you might notice that it isn’t silk at all—and those aren’t beads, either.

Actually, it’s paper.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

The all-paper ensembles in the “Fashioning Art From Paper” exhibition were created by Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave, who decided at age 14 that she would very much like to leave traditional school behind and study drawing instead. Her parents agreed, and de Borchgrave spent the next three years sketching nude models at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Brussels. Though she tells Mental Floss that the repetition no doubt taught her how to draw, the rest of her arts education was left mostly up to her.

So she visited museums, letting the art inform and inspire her own work, and she soon developed an interest in fashion that she’s been cultivating ever since. To de Borchgrave, her lack of formal training in fashion is a creative asset.

“I never studied fashion—that means I stay really free,” she tells Mental Floss. She began making vibrant hand-painted dresses and other outfits, which she’d either sell or wear herself.

Then, in 1994, a fateful visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art sparked an idea that would alter the course of her career. After seeing a retrospective for French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, de Borchgrave—who, at that point, had been drawing on paper and painting on fabrics for years—began to wonder how she’d recreate certain designs using only paper and paint.

“I was so touched by the beauty, by the elegance, by the fabrics, and I wanted to have everything for me,” she says. It seemed like the perfect way to remain in the realm of fashion, while liberating herself from the demands of consumers. And, in theory, her paper reconstructions of garments really are just for her.

“When I finish a dress, I put it in a room. I don’t show it to anybody,” she says. “But I feel better, because I have done something I can be proud of.”

Over the last few decades, however, word has gotten out about the extraordinary paper gowns, and they’ve now been displayed in museums all over the world. At the SCAD FASH exhibition, the ensembles are divided into categories that each reflect a different era and inspiration, spanning about 500 years of fashion history.

Several ensembles from de Borchgrave's first sculpture series, “Papiers à la Mode,” are included in the exhibition. To create "à la Mode,” she collaborated with theatre costume designer Rita Brown to determine how best to manipulate paper, paint, and glue to mimic fabrics and patterns from the late 16th century all the way up through the 1920s. Though the more delicate fabrics might require specialty paper—for some lace trimmings and veils, for example, she orders a thin, gauzy paper from England—she primarily works with an inexpensive paper usually used for wrapping chocolate in Belgium.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

Recreating ruffled collars, gold embroidery, and intricate designs with paper and paint seems difficult enough even if you could inspect the original garments with a magnifying glass and your own two hands—but de Borchgrave doesn’t often have that luxury. While some of her sculptures in "Papiers à la Mode" are modeled after actual clothing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute and other costume collections around the world, many are based on paintings alone.

Queen Elizabeth I’s court dress, for example, framed with lace and decorated with various flowers and animals, was inspired by Nicholas Hilliard’s portrait of the queen from 1599.

elizabeth i portrait with isabelle de borchgrave's paper replica
Ellen Gutoskey (left), Workshop of Nicholas Hilliard (right), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

And after seeing François Boucher’s 1756 painting of Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV and something of a French fashion icon herself, de Borchgrave constructed her own version of the resplendent ribbon- and rose-adorned gown.

portrait of madame de pompadour with isabelle de borchgrave's paper replica
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film (left), François Boucher (right), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As illustrated above, de Borchgrave’s garments aren’t always exact reproductions of the originals, and they’re not meant to be; instead, she aims to capture the spirit of each style, giving herself the freedom to alter patterns or add embellishments wherever she sees fit.

Having said that, it’s nearly impossible to wander the exhibition without being awestruck by how closely she’s managed to replicate some of the outfits. This is especially true of the “Splendor of the Medici” series, which celebrates the lavish finery worn throughout the Renaissance by Florence’s (and later Tuscany’s) most famous ruling family.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

Sometime between 1593 and 1595, Marie de’ Medici, daughter of Francesco I de’ Medici, posed for a portrait by Pietro Facchetti while wearing a gown with rich gold pattern down the front and a magnificent lace collar. If you didn’t know any better while looking at de Borchgrave’s rendering, you might think that very dress—right down to the “pearl” embellishments—had survived these last four centuries.

portrait of marie de medici next to isabelle de borchgrave's paper replica
Ellen Gutoskey (left), Pietro Facchetti (right), Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

And then there’s “Les Ballets Russes,” a whimsical, vibrant series that reimagines the unconventional costumes worn by the Ballets Russes, a ballet company established in 1909 that featured some of the most famous dancers and choreographers of all time, including Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, and George Balanchine. Much like how de Borchgrave’s garments aren’t created by a career fashion designer, the costumes and sets of the Ballets Russes weren’t designed by actual costume and set designers. Instead, founder Serge Diaghilev commissioned artists like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso to come up with them.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

Working off photos and the artists’ sketches, de Borchgrave gives the bold, eclectic performance attire another life in the limelight. And here, in particular, you can see the manifestation of all her early days spent drawing human models. Though these mannequins are made only of wire, de Borchgrave has set the costumes on them in such a way that the figures actually seem like they’re dancing.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
Based on a costume by Léon Bakst for Vaslav Nijinsky in La Péri, 1912
Ellen Gutoskey

Even if you can’t picture yourself headed to your office wrapped in yards of tulle and taffeta, there are likely elements from de Borchgrave’s work that you do see in stores these days, from bright floral patterns to large, front-facing bows. After all, as de Borchgrave says herself, styles simply never stop coming back.

The SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film, located on Savannah College of Art and Design’s Atlanta campus, is exhibiting “Fashioning Art From Paper” from now through January 12, 2020, and you can purchase tickets for $10 each here.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

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