“Lost” Portrait by John James Audubon

In the spring of 1938, to mark the 100th anniversary of the publication of his landmark book The Birds of America, the Academy of Natural Sciences organized and hosted the first national exhibition on the life and art of John James Audubon.

We exhibited many items from our own extensive collection of Auduboniana, but also borrowed original paintings and artifacts from public and private collections across the country — 140 things in all. The accompanying catalog chronicles Audubon’s eventful — if sometimes controversial — life, including his election as a corresponding member of the Academy in 1831.

It also documents what visitors were able to see when they came to admire the extraordinary physical record of the artist’s career. In the 82 years since then, a number of the things that were exhibited at the Academy have been “lost,” which is to say their current location is unknown.

One that I would especially like to find is a portrait of a distinguished, elderly gentleman that was painted by Audubon around 1820. As far as we know, it is the only time this portrait has ever been on public view. Fortunately, it was photographed, and that picture is shown above.

Although he is much better known for his beautiful paintings of birds and mammals, Audubon was also a talented painter of human portraits, most of which he made with graphite and black chalk. Had the subject interested him more, he could have made a lucrative career painting portraits.  As it was, he agreed to take on human subjects only when he needed the money to support himself, his wife Lucy, and their young sons Victor and John.

Audubon’s Roseate Spoonbill plate from The Birds of America. Credit: Library and Archives, Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University

According to his surviving letters and journal entries, in the years between 1819 and 1826, when his family’s finances were at their lowest ebb, Audubon made more than 100 individual portraits.  He was generally paid between $5 and $25 per picture, although he made some in exchange for the goods and services he needed.

A few were of friends and family, but most were of strangers who were willing to pay him what he asked. Because the majority of his portraits have remained in private hands, we know the current whereabouts of only about a third of them.

When the now-missing portrait was exhibited at the Academy in 1938, its owner, Erskine Hewitt of New York, thought it might have been of Audubon’s fellow-Frenchman, the Marquis de Lafayette, so that’s the way it was labeled. This is almost certainly not correct, as Audubon never met Lafayette, and the face of the man in the portrait does not resemble any other likenesses of the Revolutionary war hero.

Still, it is a very good painting, and I would love to be able to borrow it back once again to exhibit at the Academy and complement our strong holdings of Audubon’s other, natural history-focused work. 

Anyone interested in Audubon as a portrait painter, the least-known aspect of his artistic career, can find more about it in my article “John James Audubon Portraitist” in the Autumn issue of Antiques and Fine Art magazine.  If anyone knows of the current whereabouts of the missing “Lafayette portrait” or the location of any other portraits by Audubon, please let us know.

By Robert M. Peck, Curator of Art and Artifacts and Senior Fellow


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