On April 26, 1785, a young woman named Jeanne Rabin gave birth to a baby boy on his father’s sugar plantation in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (today Haiti). This boy would have been considered a misbegotten child by the standards of Western society in the 18th century. His parents, a French chambermaid and a French sea captain, had conceived him outside the boundaries of marriage. In the eyes of many people, the couple had passed the sin of illegitimacy on to the baby, and their child — named Jean Rabin after his mother — was marked from birth as contemptible and likely to live a wretched existence.
Two hundred and thirty-five years later, we continue to remember the dramatic life of John James Audubon (formerly Jean Rabin) and his gorgeous illustrations of birds and other animals. Though Audubon did experience periods of sadness, poverty, and discouragement, he also knew the love of family, long-lasting friendships, and artistic success. He overcame many obstacles to the production of his masterwork, The Birds of America, through passion and perseverance. He also repeatedly attempted to conceal the stigmatizing circumstances of his birth, concerned that it would derail his efforts. Audubon’s story is complicated and captivating.
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This post was written by Heidi Taylor-Caudill, curator of the John James Audubon State Park Museum.