Stepping off the boat in New Orleans around 8 am on Jan. 7, 1821, the young artist was in an understandably foul mood.
He had been traveling for some time, “Confined to the Smoky inside of a Dark flat bottomed boat,” he wrote in his journal. Until he could find more permanent accommodations, he was staying aboard that same keelboat, moored near the French Market, which he described as “the Dirtiest place in all the Cities of the United States.”
On just his second day in the city, his pocket was picked at a celebration of the sixth anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans.
That night, one of his traveling companions fell overboard and almost drowned.
He complained about the weather. He complained about the women. He even complained about the parties, which were so loud and mirthful they “really sickened me.”
He was homesick, he was uncomfortable and good-paying work was hard to find, even for an artist of his caliber.
“I rose early tormented by many disagreeable thoughts, nearly again without a cent, in a Bustling City where no one cares a fig for a Man in my situation,” he wrote in his journal on Jan. 12.
It was, to put it mildly, a difficult time for John James Audubon.
He had recently decided to devote himself full-time to his art. While he worked on his soon-to-be-famous illustrations of birds, he came to New Orleans to support his family through portrait work and teaching art.
That work was slow to come. On the plus side, there were birds, and lots of them.
The first observation logged in his journal upon arriving in New Orleans, in fact, concerned the hundreds of fish crows that filled the riverfront with their cacophony of calls.
He later noted seeing doves, ducks, Canada geese, herons, finches, thrushes, purple martins and numerous other species, all of which naturally caught the naturalist’s eye. He hadn’t yet published “Birds of America,” the 1827 illustrated masterpiece that would immortalize him, but that would come soon enough.
First, he needed to get off that boat and locate a suitable roost on terra firma.
Renting on Barracks
He would find it in the unassuming, one-story, red brick Creole cottage at 706-708 Barracks St., in which he would rent a room that would become his first Louisiana studio.
A neighborhood mockingbird charmed him, but, given his financial strain, he still found things to grouse about.
“Our present situation is quite a curious one to Me,” he wrote. “The room we are in and for which we pay $10 per month is situated in Barraks Street near the Corner of that & Royal Street — between the Two Shops of Grocers and divided from them and our Yellow Landlady by Mere Board Partitions, receiving at once all the new Matter that Issues from the thundering Mouths of all these groupes.”
For five months, Audubon and assistant Joseph R. Mason lived in the Barracks Street house, toiling away over his ornithological artworks and sending money back to his family in Kentucky.
A change of venue
Then, in June, an opportunity arose: an offer of room, board and $60 a month to tutor a 15-year-old budding artist.
The catch: He would have to leave New Orleans and travel to Oakley Plantation, near St. Francisville in West Feliciana Parish. But when he wasn’t teaching his young charge, he would be free to scour the countryside for new winged specimens to paint.
He jumped at the offer, trading city life for country life. The change of scenery was good for him.
“The Rich magnolia covered with its Odoriferous Blossoms, the Hol(l)y, the Beech, the Tall Yellow Poplar, the Hilly ground, even the Red Clay I looked at with amazement,” he wrote in his journal. “Such entire change in so short a time often appears supernatural, and surrounded once More by thousands of Warblers & Thrushes, I enjoyed nature.”
He would remain there just a few months, returning to New Orleans to continue his work at, among other places, 505 Dauphine St., now part of a hotel known as Audubon Cottages. (For the curious, his was Cottage No. 1, according to the hotel website.) He also reportedly did work in a no-longer-extant structure on the site of today’s Dauphine Orleans Hotel.
Learning to love
Meanwhile, his attitude toward the Bayou State would soften. “The state of Louisiana has always been my favorite portion of the Union,” he would write, “although Kentucky and some other states have divided my affections.”
He would remain in Louisiana on and off for years, through 1837. In that time, his “Birds of America” — consisting of 435 exquisite hand-colored prints made from engraved plates, produced during his time in New Orleans — was published as an 87-part subscription series.
Almost instantly, it catapulted him to a fame that endures today. Just 120 complete sets are known to exist; in recent years, they have fetched prices of $8 million to $11 million, making “Birds of America” one of the most sought-after books in the world — and making John James Audubon one of the most well-known artists to boast Louisiana links .
Loving him back
Back on Barracks Street, a small plaque affixed to the front of 706 Barracks notes Audubon’s residency there. Oakley Plantation has become a state historic site dedicated to his legacy.
Some 201 years after his arrival in town, he is celebrated locally with streets, a park, a riverboat and a zoo — just to name a few — carrying the Audubon name.
So, on one count at least, Audubon was wrong. New Orleans is still a bustling place, but there remain plenty of people who “care a fig” for him.
Thanks to reader Jack Belsom for suggesting today’s topic. Know of a New Orleans building worth profiling in this column, or just curious about one? Contact Mike Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources: The Times-Picayune archives; “Journal of John James Audubon: made during his trip to New Orleans in 1820-1821”; Historic New Orleans Collection; Library of Congress; AudubonCottages.com
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