John James Audubon, a name synonymous with birds and enshrined in the pantheon of American natural history and the cause of wildlife conservation, is being represented for the third time on a U.S. stamp.
The new stamp, a 22-cent denomination, is being put out on April 23 in New York City as the latest in the ongoing Great Americans Series of regular issues. The first-day ceremony will be held at 11 a.m. at the New York Historical Society, which is displaying for only the third time the original watercolors for Audubon's "Birds of America" it acquired in 1863.
The stamp and another exhibition at New York's American Museum of Natural History examining Audubon's scientific and artistic achievements are both part of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of his birth.
The new issue, which will be among the most widely used in the series because it meets the first-class rate, is appearing three days before his actual birth date in Les Cayes, Haiti, on April 26, 1785.
In the two preceding issues he appeared as an artist with a bird painting on a 1963 commemorative in a Fine Arts Series and as a naturalist among a grouping of five stamps for scientists in the 1940 Famous Americans Series that also included groupings of authors, poets, educators, composers, artists and inventors.
A number of countries have issued commemoratives, all featuring birds, for Audubon's bicentenary, and many more are expected to follow suit, which would make him the subject of the first big omnibus issue of the year.
The 22-cent stamp presents a likeness of him based on an oil portrait by his son that is now in the New York Historical Society. The designer was Christopher Calle, an artist from Stamford, Conn., who has done other issues in the series.
The stamp has been produced in blue by intaglio. Each post office pane of 100 contains a single-digit plate number and two other marginal inscriptions.
The naturalist's father was a French naval lieutenant, who served in the fleet supporting Washington at Yorktown and later was engaged in the West Indies trade in the 1780s, during which he fathered a boy and girl out of wedlock. The mother died a year after her son's birth. Lt. Audubon brought the boy, Jean Jacques Fougere Audubon, and his half-sister back to France. His wife gladly accepted the children, who were legally adopted.
The boy got a gentleman's upbringing but balked at a naval education. He took art lessons from Jacques Louis David, one of France's foremost painters, and at 15 had begun a collection of his drawings of French birds.
At 18, perhaps to avoid conscription into Napoleon's army, his father sent him to an estate he owned in Mill Grove, Pa., where he began his studies of American bird life. So much was new, including his name, Anglicized to John James, and the American birds. New, too, was fastening silver threads on the legs of a brood of young phoebes to see if they would return the next year. It was the first banding experiment in the history of ornithology. Today more than a million birds are banded each year.
He married Lucy Bakewell, daughter of a neighbor, in 1808, and they went westward, to Kentucky, to the Mississippi and eventually down river to Louisiana. His various business ventures were failures, and he devoted himself more and more to birds, with odd jobs doing portraits, teaching fencing and dancing and painting signs. For more than a dozen years, his wife supported her husband and two sons while he ranged the country for birds to paint.
His life acquired a definite aim when, sometime in the 1820s, the possibility of publishing his bird drawings occurred to him. Unable to find a publisher in America, but funded by his wife's savings, in 1826 he took his portfolios to England.
His overwhelming reception in Britain assured subscriptions for his immense undertaking, which took from 1826 to 1838. It was the five-volume, double elephant folio size of "The Birds of America," with 435 hand-colored aquatint engravings of Audubon's paintings, each page roughly 2 1/2 by 3 1/2 feet and each volume weighing tens of pounds.
The gigantic work, enhanced by Robert Havell of London, who became one of the greatest engravers in aquatint the world has ever known, enabled Audubon to picture most birds actual size.
In the 1840s he produced a smaller seven-volume octavo set of his opus for a larger public and was working on a book on North American creatures that bring forth live young rather than eggs that had to be completed by his sons. He died in his sleep in 1852, four months shy of his 67th birthday.
Audubon left a legacy of conveying vividly, for the first time, the beauty, movement and vitality of living birds and of making people aware, an awareness that led to clubs of birdwatchers and the Audubon Society for the conservation and study of birds.
First-day cover collectors have a deadline of May 23 -- orders must be postmarked by that date -- and two different ways of ordering.
Collectors affixing stamps: Collectors acquiring stamps should send the stamped covers, bearing return addresses, to Customer-Affixed Envelopes, John J. Audubon Stamp, Postmaster, New York, N.Y. 10001-9991.
Postal Service affixing stamps: Collectors preferring full processing by the USPS should send their addressed envelopes to John J. Audubon Stamp, Postmaster, New York, N.Y. 10001-9992. The cost is 22 cents per stamp affixed on a cover. Personal checks are welcomed, cash is unwelcome, postage stamps in payment are rejected.