John James Audubon is best known for The Birds of America, a book of 435 images, portraits of every bird then known in the United States – painted and reproduced in the size of life. Its creation cost Audubon eighteen years of monumental effort in finding the birds, making the book, and selling it to subscribers. Audubon also wrote thousands of pages about birds (Ornithological Biography); he’d completed half of a collection of paintings of mammals (The Viviparous Quadrapeds of North America) when his eyesight failed in 1846.
His story is a dramatic and surprising one. Audubon was not born in America, but saw more of the North American continent than virtually anyone alive, and even in his own time he came to exemplify America – the place of wilderness and wild things. The history of his life reveals his era and his nation: he lived in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina and New York – traveled everywhere from Labrador to the Dry Tortugas off Florida, from the Republic of Texas to the mouth of the Yellowstone – was a merchant, salesman, teacher, hunter, itinerant portraitist and woodsman, an artist and a scientist. He was, in a sense, a one-man compendium of American culture of his time. And his growing apprehension about the destruction of nature became a prophecy of his nation’s convictions in the century after his death.
So it is that Audubon has been called (by Lewis Mumford) “an archetypal American who astonishingly combined in equal measure the virtues of George Washington, Daniel Boone and Benjamin Franklin” and “the nearest thing American art has had to a founding father.”
Audubon’s life seems invented rather than lived; at times his own version of it surely was invented, but even the real life has a distinctly exaggerated, mythical feel. For it’s an archetypal story of the American dream – a Horatio Alger tale in the flesh. The story goes like this: born a literal bastard in Haiti, Audubon was raised like a little lord in France, emigrated to Pennsylvania to escape conscription in Napoleon’s army, failed utterly in frontier Kentucky, was thrown in jail there and driven from his town in penniless disgrace… but he believed in himself, left his family and took a flatboat down the Mississippi, struggled on alone in Louisiana, and finally became a brilliant success, and a legend, overnight… in England. That story then ends with the family reunited, now living on their huge wooded estate in New York City, occasionally pulling in a 300-lb. sturgeon from their Hudson River landing, with a pink sunset rippling over the Palisades. It’s a whacking good story – all of the above, and More! Much More!, with pictures to boot.
The man himself, too, seems much larger than life. John James Audubon was a mix of characteristics, almost always to extremes: he was not just a little anything. He was the kind of excessive person who might show up for a two-month ocean voyage bearing, say, three dogs, two tail-less cats, and 265 live birds – which is what he brought in 1836. He was of course excessively handsome: “a handsomer man I never saw,” one neighbor in Pennsylvania wrote, and another (in Kentucky) crooned that “his eyes were an eagle’s in brightness, his teeth were white and even, his hair a beautiful chestnut color, very glossy and curly.” And he was inordinately vain – with “muscles of steel,” he crowed, and a “handsome figure.” He especially loved that hair: “My locks flew freely from under my hat, and every lady that I met looked at them and then at me until – she could see no more.” When Audubon had his “luxuriant” (his word) hair cut, he wrote a little obituary to it in his journal, with a heavy black border framing the page.
But if he was as unselfconsciously vain as a child, he was equally as charming, magnetically so: almost everyone liked him immediately, and he returned the admiration. He loved children, adored his wife, was a wholehearted and affectionate friend and possessed a whole range of brilliant talents. Yet he was also full of neuroses – insecure about his talent and his worth, his education and his place in the world – craving affection, easily and deeply hurt.
Several Audubon experts have noted a multiplicity in the essential Audubon: there always seem to be competing halves. Biographer William Souder remarks an early division between the satin-breeched dandy in Pennsylvania who was the beau of every ball and the serious young student of nature who drew birds endlessly, turned his room into a natural-history museum, and was the first person ever to band birds. Writer Ella Foshay points out that he was equally comfortable sleeping on the forest ground as he was under the downy quilt of an European four-poster; that he played the violin and flute exquisitely, yet liked to swap tall tales and bawdy stories with frontier fur traders; that the same man who reveled in frozen weeks in the wilderness hunting bear and swan with Shawnees could also quote Shakespeare and Milton or cite Titian and Correggio. Sir Walter Scott thought that Audubon was “a Frenchman by birth, but less of a Frenchman than I have ever seen”; but a young assistant from Maine said that the painter was “a nice man, but as Frenchy as thunder.” There were always two Audubons.
The artist was a self-taught scientist, but an innovative one. As a young man, he studied the migrating phoebes near his home, tying colored yarn to their legs. This was, surprisingly, the first recorded instance of banding birds. Later, he devised an original set of experiments challenging the common belief that vultures find their food by smelling it. He put a painting of a dead sheep into an open field; sure enough, vultures landed and tugged at the canvas. He then put the painted decoy down close to a concealed pile of stinking vulture “food”; again, they pecked only at the painting – at the image rather than the scent of food. Finally he put small pieces of beef onto a cloth that covered a large amount of reeking offal. The vultures ate the beef, but did not detect the covered food. Audubon had proved his point.
Audubon probably regarded his election to membership in the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Linnaean Society, and the Royal Society of London as his greatest accomplishment as a scientist. To most people today his scientific success is best exemplified by the birds. Despite his missteps, he discovered twenty-five new species, twelve new subspecies. These are astounding numbers.
Hard science demands an abiding concern for truth, and virtually all Audubon scholars point to the way Audubon was “economical with the truth,” as Duff Hart-Davis nicely puts it. Indeed, Audubon lied to hide the secret of his illegitimate birth. He claimed his father (a captain) was an admiral, and at one point decided that his family had been imprisoned in the Bastille (they hadn’t). He copied several figures from the work of others, then said he hadn’t. He quietly erased the name of an assistant, who’d made backgrounds, from the bottom of numerous paintings. “A tenuous balance between fact and fiction runs through Audubon’s life and work,” Ella Foshay tells us.
Audubon’s writing has drawn the hottest fire. His Ornithological Biography was made up of essays about individual species interspersed with what he called “Episodes” – personal essays and remembrances. Sometimes he “remembered” hearsay, sometimes he invented stories, such as a night spent in a cabin with Daniel Boone. But as biographer Shirley Streshinsky points out, his “Episodes” were written “to edify, to entertain, and particularly to give a frontier flavor to the book.” If the American West was the place where one could find vast rivers virtually choked with sockeye salmon or trees as wide as small houses (in real life), it was also the home for mountainous men whose best pal might be an ox – a blue one, yet – or a daring woman who could ride a catfish the size of a whale. To a degree, Audubon was simply taking the reader to that place. He wasn’t so much lying as telling stretchers.
But even if Audubon was a very particular case – an unusual and complex character with an astounding life – an examination of that life and that man tells us a great deal about his times in general. John James Audubon: Drawn from Nature provides a large clear window onto life on the American frontier; it shows how Europe regarded the still-young United States, and how people (on both sides of the Atlantic) regarded nature. It creates a meaningful portrait of the state of both Art and Science in the first decades of the 19th century. It shows us a person, and a people: the life and times of John James Audubon.