John James Audubon's complex legacy

  • John James Audubon painted every known bird in America during the early 1800s, a feat that earned him international acclaim. This 1826 portrait by Scottish artist John Syme hangs in the White House.

    John James Audubon painted every known bird in America during the early 1800s, a feat that earned him international acclaim. This 1826 portrait by Scottish artist John Syme hangs in the White House. Courtesy of White House Collection/White House Historical Association

 
 
Posted8/5/2021 6:00 AM

Years ago, when working in Chicago, I would occasionally drift into an art gallery in the Wrigley Building that specialized in the works of John James Audubon. The big, beautiful paintings filled me with awe. My admiration for Audubon soared with each visit.

Recently, though, my feelings about the most famous American bird artist have changed. I am still fascinated by his life (1785-1851) and impressed by his "Birds of America" masterwork. But his legend blinded me from seeing the unsavory aspects of his character.

 

My eyes were opened by an essay in the spring issue of Audubon, published by the National Audubon Society. The author, J. Drew Lanham, a Black birder and ornithologist, examined the problematic legacy of John James Audubon, a slave owner and perpetuator of white supremacist culture.

A painting of a blue jay is among the 435 color plates in "The Birds of America," the masterwork of John James Audubon.
A painting of a blue jay is among the 435 color plates in "The Birds of America," the masterwork of John James Audubon. - Courtesy of John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove; Montgomery County Audubon Collection; and Zebra

"The stories of icons and heroes are critical, but what happens when truth rubs the shine off to reveal tarnished reality?" Lanham asks.

The truth about Audubon was always available. We mostly chose to ignore it. As a kid, Lanham says he idolized Audubon: "In every book, John James was woodsy and heroic, the kind of bird-watcher I wanted to be."

I read those books, too. Now, because of Lanham's essay, and the courage of National Audubon to print it, I'm seeing "JJA" in a darker light.

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There is a course offered by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago called "Love the Art, Hate the Artist." I wanted to ask the instructor, Eileen Favorite, if Audubon's name had ever surfaced in her class. She did not respond to my outreach, but the bird painter would be a strong candidate for discussion.

Audubon is not the only name in play. There is a push to change the common names of birds named after people because some of those people are tied to racism. In 2020, McCown's longspur was reclassified as thick-billed longspur. The species was discovered in 1851 by John P. McCown, who later would serve the Confederate Army in defense of slavery.

About 150 of North America's birds are named after people -- including two species named after Audubon himself. The American Ornithological Society has expressed a commitment to changing "exclusionary or harmful" bird names. More to come, and probably sooner than later. A campaign called Bird Names for Birds is gathering support.

A painting of an ivory-billed woodpecker is among the 435 color plates in "The Birds of America," the masterwork of John James Audubon.
A painting of an ivory-billed woodpecker is among the 435 color plates in "The Birds of America," the masterwork of John James Audubon. - Courtesy of John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove; Montgomery County Audubon Collection; and Zebra
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Meanwhile, as Lanham titled his essay, "What do we do about John James Audubon?" The name is everywhere. There is National Audubon and its affiliated local and regional chapters. There are also independent organizations that use the name, like Illinois Audubon Society, which has chapters of its own, such as Kane County Audubon.

"The name John James Audubon is complex," said Jim Herkert, executive director of Springfield-based Illinois Audubon. "For some, the name equates with birds, birding, and conservation, but for others, the name may be equated with racist beliefs and actions of the time in which he lived."

Perception is reality. The country band Lady Antebellum changed its name to Lady A in 2020. Done. Problem solved.

If only the Audubon issue were that simple. Hundreds of Audubon-branded conservation groups and bird clubs, some more than a century old, are affected.

Illinois Audubon, founded in 1897, will chart its own course of action and independently address the question of changing its name, Herkert told me. But more important, he said, is the need to engage a more diverse audience around the urgency of conservation, especially bird conservation. Part of that involves making nature (and birding) more accessible for all people.

"Actions are what matter," Herkert said. "Conservation needs to be more inclusive, equitable and just. If all that happens out of this is a few groups change their name, then we've missed the boat."

Illinois Audubon established a Diversity and Inclusion Committee last year to help chart its future. National Audubon, likewise, is taking steps to deepen its commitment to anti-racism while reassessing its own history and connection to its namesake.

A painting titled "cardinal grosbeak" -- a bird now called Northern cardinal -- is among the 435 color plates in "The Birds of America," the masterwork of John James Audubon.
A painting titled "cardinal grosbeak" -- a bird now called Northern cardinal -- is among the 435 color plates in "The Birds of America," the masterwork of John James Audubon. - Courtesy of John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove; Montgomery County Audubon Collection; and Zebra

For a different perspective, I contacted Brian "Fox" Ellis, an Illinois-based storyteller, book author and naturalist. He's been portraying JJA for nearly two decades, and last year published "Adventures with John James Audubon."

"I have always made an effort to present history unvarnished, warts and all, because it is the drama that makes history exciting and honest," Ellis said.

"Audubon owned slaves. He sold and traded human beings. This is unforgivable. Yet it does not erase his accomplishments in art and ornithology, his poetry."

JJA was the first person to paint every bird in North America, some 497 species known in his day. He did it well: a first edition of "The Birds of America" went for $9.65 million at auction in 2018. Audubon also contributed to science by writing detailed biographies for each bird, some of them previously unknown.

When re-enacting Audubon or any other historical figure -- he portrays about 30 -- Ellis said he trusts in the intelligence of his audience members, allowing them to filter through the facts and form their own opinions.

In the case of Audubon, he believes "we can honor his brilliance and creativity while acknowledging his sins."

But for the organizations that bear Audubon's name, the reckoning continues.

Is a massive (and costly) rebranding ahead, or will the Audubon label survive? Some big decisions lie ahead for the various national, state and local Audubon groups that conduct vital work for the benefit of birds and other wildlife.

For every one of them, the question "What's in a name?" has never been more relevant.

Jeff Reiter's column appears regularly in Neighbor. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.

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