More than a century and a half after his death, John James Audubon remains the most famous bird artist in the world. That legacy has strong roots in Louisiana, where Audubon made more pictures for his mammoth “Birds of America” project than any other single place on earth.
Those paintings, 435 in all, became the basis for the legendary Audubon prints — and reproductions of those prints — that grace so many homes and offices throughout Louisiana. The paintings themselves are now owned by the New York Historical Society, which has been bringing them out in stages recently for a series of shows, allowing the public to see them up close. The third and final installment of this show has just opened at the society’s headquarters in Manhattan. It’s a vivid reminder of Audubon’s genius — and Louisiana’s role in cultivating that genius.
Audubon came to New Orleans in 1821, hoping to make enough money through portrait commissions from the city’s wealthy residents to support his bird art. He got a few jobs and saw some lovely birds around New Orleans, but his prickly personality didn’t help him keep satisfied customers and attract new ones. By spring 1821, his commissions had dried up, and he was almost penniless, a hardship that prompted him to strongly consider giving up his “Birds of America” project and go back to Kentucky.
That’s when Lucretia Pirrie, the mistress of Oakley Plantation, offered Audubon a job as a tutor to her 15-year-old daughter. He took the job reluctantly, but after arriving in St. Francisville, he quickly changed his mind. The abundance of bird life there renewed his sense of possibility, and his season at Oakley proved one of the most productive periods of his career.
For Audubon, Oakley also provided a window to birding wonders in other parts of Louisiana. Even after leaving Oakley at the end of his summer there, he continued his work in the state, spending about two years here. He started or finished 167 bird pictures in Louisiana and later remarked that of all the places he had visited, Louisiana was his favorite state in the nation.
Audubon’s art belongs to the world, but his special connection to Louisiana makes us proud that his work is getting renewed attention through the New York Historical Society’s latest exhibit, an attraction that will be seen by visitors from around the world.
We hope that some of those visitors decide to come to Louisiana, too, and see why John James Audubon was so impressed by what he saw.