JOHN JAMES AUDUBON: The legend and the real person By: www.marks4antiques.com
John James Audubon has left this nation a rich and strangely mixed legacy. His name has been a household word for generations. For Boy Scouts it evokes visions of the resourceful backwoodsman who roamed the wilderness with the freedom and cunning of the wild creatures he discovered there. For earnest nature lovers and all manner of environmentalists it has served as a rallying cry for their different causes. To professional ornithologists it recalls work in the field, which in its day had no precedent and which gave impetus to new and important developments in the study of natural history. And art lovers and collectors, many with apparently no other interest in birds, look for the magic name in galleries or at auction, and are often ready to pay tall prices when a print, painting or drawing comes up for sale with the proper credentials. As just one measure of this last point, a copy of Audubon's monumental The Birds of America was sold for a figure well over a third of a million dollars. Audubon has indeed become an all but legendary figure. As is often true in cases of this sort, the lineaments of the man himself are not always sharply one or another of their languages. At least he could yell like an Indian, and he could John James Audubon as imitate the calls of wild birds, both of which he was depicted on an oil on canvas called upon to do for the entertainment of his hosts painting by John Syme in 1826 in polite parlors. (from Wikipedia Commons) He also spoke the language of the rough river men of the western waterways, eloquently. His command of profanity was the envy of sailors he shipped with. On the other hand, Audubon was titillated by the presence of pretty and proper ladies. He once observed that "without female society I am like a herring on a griddle." He was not unduly hampered by modesty. When he was in Scotland preparing to publish and sell his great work, he wrote his wife, "My hairs are now so beautifully long and curly as ever, and I assure thee do as much for me as my Talent for Painting." However, some kinds of "ladies" made him apprehensive. One night in Liverpool, England, this dauntless frontiersman begged the company of a watchman to see him safely home through the ranks of whores who crowded the pavements. There is some irony in the fact that if during his lifetime anything like Audubon Societies had existed, organized groups dedicated to preserving the nation's wildlife, we might never have heard of the man. In the course of compiling his mammoth inventory of The Birds of America, which once and for all established his fame, Audubon killed a formidable number of specimens. He once boasted that it was a poor day's hunting when he shot fewer than 100 birds. It has to be realized
that he needed all sorts of variants to complete his studies, and he dissected innumerable specimens to determine their sex and, by examining their crops and gizzards, to learn what they had been feeding on so that he could depict them in their wonted habitats. He also needed extra skins to send to the other naturalists on two continents with whom he corresponded. This was a source of needed income as well as a matter of scientific collaboration. When he was unable to take to the field himself, he often hired "guns" to do the killing for him. Beyond that, he shot birds to eat sometimes simply to satisfy a normal, healthy appetite, at other times out of serious curiosity to know what the flesh Audubon & Cassin's Birds of America tasted like. Flickers, for instance, he Audubon, John James 'The Birds of learned had a disagreeable taste from the America' (8 vols. N.Y. & Phila. 1840-1844) ants they fed on; tell-tale godwits were very "fatty" and "fishy;" starlings and hermit thrushes were "delicate eating"; and so on. Once off the coast of Florida, Audubon joined his bored shipmates on two "frolics" in the course of which they killed five bald eagles in one day. This, he wrote his wife with pride in his marksmanship, was "more than most Sportsmen can boast of." On another, earlier occasion, while traveling with a party of Shawnee Indians, he caught a lakeful of swans in a pitiless crossfire. He reported that the surface of the water was soon "covered with birds floating with their backs downwards, and their heads sunk in the water, and their legs kicking in the air." It was the 25th of December, and that night Audubon lay down before the campfire "very well satisfied with [his] Christmas sport."
After AUDUBON JOHN JAMES - PETERSON ROGER TORY et al., Audubon's 'Birds of America' (New York, Abbeville 1981, Audubon Society, Limited to 2,500 copies)
In those days, to be sure, Americans were more earnestly bent on conquering the wilderness than on preserving it. One early traveler to the New World observed that the Americans had developed "an unconquerable aversion" to the trees that hemmed them in at every turn. To travel
days on end through a thick gloom among trees 100 feet high was oppressive beyond the imagination of those who had not experienced it. The pioneer cut away all before him without mercy, even without need. Making a clearing out of the solid woods for a log house and a corn patch was only the necessary beginning of life in the wilderness. In any event, the forests of America and all the game they sheltered then seemed inexhaustible. When passenger pigeons swarmed in such astronomical numbers that they literally blackened the sky in their flight for day after day, filling the air with the deafening thunder of their wings, and when, stopping to perch, they broke the limbs of stout trees by the sheer weight of their numbers, how could anyone possibly think of them as an endangered species? However, they were slaughtered by the millions, year in, year out, until the day, which was not long in coming, when they were utterly extinct. Audubon described such indiscriminate slaughter without misgivings as simply another phenomenal part of life along the frontier. Just who was this exceptional man, and on what solid ground does his popular image stand? For many years it was fondly believed by some of his biographers that he was in fact the lost Dauphin, A Hand-Colored Lithograph by John son of Louis XVI of France, who had somehow James Audubon from The Birds of been mysteriously spirited out of captivity into America (N. Y. & Phila., 1840-1844) the custody of the Audubon ménage in Nantes; and, as reported, some of Audubon's own cryptic remarks could be construed to mean that he may have shared this fantasy. He was in fact the bastard son of an adventuring French sea captain and one of his Creole mistresses, who died a year after giving birth to the child. He was born in San Domingo in 1785, and a few years later, just when France was bursting out in the flames of revolution, his father took him home to his lawful (and understanding) wife. There, in good season, the child was legally adopted by the Audubons and christened with the name Jean Jacques Fougere Audubon. He anglicized that name after he came to the United States as a teenager, apparently sent there by his parents to avoid possible conscription in Napoleon's swarming armies. With this move young Audubon followed in a long line of prominent émigrés who sought sanctuary in the United States while France was in turmoil - among them Louis Philippe, the future "citizen king" of France, and his two brothers Talleyrand
and Brillat-Savarin, and others of rank and consequence. Unlike those older political exiles, however, the unknown youth did not return when the air cleared overseas, but stayed on to make his fortune in the New World, which in the end he did by his most extraordinary enterprise. In some important ways his was a unique success story. He was a handsome and spirited youth (with a "Bourbon" profile), a good dancer and fencer, a fine skater and a musician of sorts. Even as a child he had been an avid bird-watcher, and the practice grew on him with the passing years. It was shortly after his arrival in America that he conducted his pioneering bird-banding experiments. But he also had an eye for other things, and he soon married his attractive English-born neighbor Lucy Bakewell. The young couple had the wide world before them, and to make the most of it they headed for Kentucky, joining a large tide of humanity that was moving westward in search of new and large opportunities in life. In that locale Audubon soon made enough money in trade to speculate in land and slaves, and to provide his bride with a comfortable home, a piano and a decent complement of silver, china and other household furnishings, and with slaves to relieve her of drudgery in and about the house. Ironically, had he continued to prosper in this fashion, his name would probably have been lost among the countless immigrants who succeeded in the American frontier.
An official National Audubon Society 1994 porcelain figurine issue of 'Northern Oriole with Dogwood' made by Boehm
But things didn't work out that way. In the panic year of 1819 Audubon went bankrupt and was jailed for a short time. It was a providential failure. It may have been partly occasioned by the fact that he had been spending as much time watching, studying and drawing birds as he had behind the counter and with his accounts. On his release from prison, to make ends meet, he turned to his pencil, drawing rather primitive portraits of his neighbors for a few dollars apiece (one of them was of a dead child whose parents had disinterred the little body so that Audubon could capture a fair likeness). When the local market for such exercises was exhausted, he and Lucy moved to Cincinnati with their two growing sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse Audubon. And it was there, in 1820, that Audubon became "possessed" with the idea of compiling an inventory of all the birds of America in their primeval haunts.
Whatever compelled him to undertake such a stupendous venture, such an "impossible" task? He was midway in life and virtually penniless; his understanding of ornithology was no more than rudimentary. He was ignorant of most of the literature on the subject and had access to only a fraction of it. In terms of what he aspired to accomplish, his artistic talent was limited. Yet, although he could not clearly foresee what was to come, he was committing himself to twenty years of hard labor and to an enterprise that would cost a small fortune to bring to a conclusion. Except in the farthest reaches of his own vision, no such miracle could be expected. People are continuing to collect modern first editions and modern private-press books, though some say that there are too many of Hand-Colored Lithograph by J.W. Audubon depicting an 'Esquimaux Dog' (Philadelphia J. T. Bowen, 1847 [plate 113, Audubon, J. J. Bachman, J. , The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, New York, 1845-1851]
each and that some are too expensive. Signing sessions at readings and at book stores have made author-autographed books
common, so collectors now seek presentation copies. Think of it as the project finally evolved. All the birds of this vast land that he could identify and document were to be represented in their actual size and in all their natural colors, and shown in their accustomed habitats rendered in meticulous detail - trees, plants, flowers, grubs, insects and all. Even the peripatetic Parson Weems, the most active and imaginative American bookseller of his day, could not have marketed the gigantic tomes Audubon had in mind. What publisher today, for that matter, with all the industry's elaborate apparatus for financing, promotion and distribution, would dream of underwriting a four-volume set of 435 illustrations including more than one thousand individual subjects by a relatively unknown artist, each volume measuring about forty by thirty inches and weighing as much as a strong man could not comfortably carry about, the whole - along with six stout volumes of text - to sell for roughly $1,000 a set, 9 sum that in today's money would be many, many times larger. It would seem utter folly to contemplate such
an idea. Here are some links to view some examples of Audubonâ€™s prints sold at auction from our Antiques & Collectibles Appraisal Guides. Audubon was fully aware of the unique importance of his undertaking. He hoped to share his vision and its realization with the rest of mankind; to reach a much wider audience than might ever be able to see his original paintings. It was with this in mind that, in 1826, he went to England and commissioned printed copies to be made, all but a very few by the English engraver Robert Havell, Jr., an artist in his own right. Twelve years passed before the project was completed, and during that period Audubon learned to depend more and more upon the fidelity and artistic integrity of Havell. Over the years since they were first printed, it is the engraved copies rather than the artist's own paintings that have become celebrated as "Audubon originals." They are on the whole superb engravings that have become rarities, coveted by those who can afford to buy them, and it is these that have by and large established Audubon's reputation as a bird artist. Against all the heavy odds, Audubon did everything that he set out to do, and somewhat more. From the beginning he had relied on others for help when his own resources of time and talents were insufficient. But also from the beginning it was his grandiose concept that commanded the whole project, and it was his risk; the bulk of the work, and the best of it, was finished by his personal attention to the most exacting detail. The An early 20thC framed color lithograph after J.W. prominent English critic Sacheverell Audubon, titled BROWN PELICAN, printed by R. Havel Sitwell once termed it a "heroic" undertaking. "That one man should have endured the hardships of so many long and lonely journeys," Sitwell wrote, "painted the pictures, written the text and contrived the publication on so gigantic a scale puts his name among the immortals."
With such a statement no one could disagree. While he was completing his series of paintings and the accompanying texts for publication, he was constantly supervising the engraving of black-and-white plates and the hand coloring. He was also acting as his own publisher, promotion agency and sales director as well as treasurer, bill collector and salesman. "Good God, if this is not Labour, I Know not what Labour is," he wrote Lucy one evening after having trudged something more than ten miles hauling his heavy portfolio in a fruitless quest for new subscribers to the project. On another occasion he wrote, "If I could be spared from Drawing Birds and from going to England for 12 months after my next Voyage, I could procure in that time and in our own Country too, one hundred additional Subscribers." In the end some 200 copies of the giant portfolios were issued, with such eminent names as "The Honourable Daniel Webster," "Henry Clay, Esq.," "His Imperial and Royal Highness the Grand Duke of Tuscany," "His Majesty Philippe I, King of the French," "Her Most Excellent Majesty, Queen Adelaide, England" and along several learned institutions in America and Europe - among the original subscribers. A great many of those sets have been broken up and the plates sold individually, a number of the subjects at prices many times higher than that of the entire work when Audubon first marketed it. By the time Audubon died in 1851 at the age of sixty-six, this "Creole de Saint-Dominque," as he was referred to in his father's will, this inept Kentucky merchant, a one-time bankrupt, had built his idiosyncrasy into an organized institution of international stature; and into a business with its own momentum which, astonishingly, grossed very large sums of money - perhaps as much as a half-million dollars during his own lifetime. A framed color lithograph after J.W. Audubon, titled YELLOW-CROWNED HERON, printed by J. Bien
Even before Audubon had completed work on the big edition, with the help of his two sons he was preparing a "petite edition" in octavo size, to be issued in 100 separate parts and to be sold for one dollar a part. For these, at the very outset, he sold subscriptions faster than he could supply the parts, although he employed as many as seventy persons to speed the production. While Victor and John lived, these books proliferated in several reprints. Subsequent reprints of the plates have been for the most part copies of the Audubon publications or, indeed, copies of copies of such copies in an almost endless descent until the essential qualities of the originals are often barely discernible. For all the enterprises of the family, including a book on North American mammals which Audubon started with his usual vigor and determination but which was completed by his sons and others only after his death, no sizable family fortune was founded. Among other things, the high costs of production ate deeply into the gross income from the publications. At the age of seventy-five, Audubon's widowed Lucy, from "absolute need," sold the original drawings of birds from which such endless copies had been made to the New York Historical Society for $4,000; and there they remain to this day, except for one that is somehow missing. It is not easy to pass critical judgment on the work of a man, who, like Audubon, has become something of a national institution. To question its enduring merits is almost like questioning the virtues of motherhood. However, Audubon's reputation can stand some analysis. When he showed some of the first finished engravings in Paris, they were hailed by the learned Baron Cuvier, the great French naturalist, as "the most magnificent monument which has yet been raised to ornithology." "Who would have expected such things from the woods of America?" exclaimed Francois Gerard, one of the most eminent French artists of the day. He was quickly elected to membership in several distinguished scientific societies on both sides of the Atlantic. Since then it has been repeatedly claimed that he was one of the greatest nature artists of all time. Today there are some ornithologists and some artists who concur with this estimate - and some who do not, who find his works something less than flawless representations of the natural subjects. The study of ornithology has progressed far beyond anything Audubon and his contemporaries were aware of, as Audubon predicted it would. Quite aside from the vast amount of new knowledge coming from laboratories, today's artists and ornithologists, armed with high-resolution cameras and binoculars, have a far wider and more intimate range of references for their work than even Audubon's keen eye could bring to his tasks. They have been able - some of them - to depict birds with a greater technical accuracy and understanding than the revered "American woodsman" ever achieved. In virtually all instances Audubon worked from dead models, and his mind's eye did not always correctly recall their typical postures in flight and in their various active pursuits. Just as other artists did not accurately
represent a galloping horse until the camera supplied evidence with images frozen while the beast was in successive stages of action, so Audubon often did not represent birds as they actually appeared at any precise moment of activity - as he tried to do. And he had no understanding of the mechanics of flight to inform his art. Thus, too, Audubon's dead models were of course expressionless. He was a man of his times, a romantic, and to revivify the countenances of the models, without benefit of photographic images and close-up observations provided by binoculars to guide him, he gave them facial "expressions" suggesting human feelings appropriate to their situations anger, terror, affection, pity, lust and other emotions that birds are not given to or, at least, do not feel or show in such ways. (The famous English painter Sir Edwin Landseer did much the same thing in the anthropomorphic expressions he gave to his dogs and stags.) Audubon's public responded to the personal relationship, however specious, that he thus established between birds and men, and still does for the most part. It no doubt accounts in some fair measure for his popularity. Audubon never did become a conservationist as the word is understood these days. As time passed, he became increasingly aware that the wilderness world he had known so well was rapidly vanishing before the plundering advance of civilization. His own role in conservation - a role, he wrote, that had been "allotted to him by nature" - was to record the likeness of all the birds of America in their primeval haunts before it was forever too late. This was conservation in the most empirical form and in pursuing his goal he won a larger and more popular audience than any other naturalist in history. A 20th C Framed Audubon print 'Pileated Woodpecker' signed 'New York Graphic Society Inc,'
Audubon's fieldwork was accomplished largely without reference to informed scientific or artistic opinion. There were no satisfactory predecessors to whom he could confidently turn to guide his efforts. He set his own criteria. The wonder is not that he made mistakes and that there were gaps in his knowledge, but that he succeeded in learning and accomplishing all he did. If his work was often inexact or distorted, it was based on original study done in the field, an early branch of outdoor natural history, the pure study of birds and animals in their environment. Out of such pioneering activity would evolve such advanced disciplines as ecology and ethnology, words unknown to Audubon, and it was his widespread fame that called attention to such advances in science. When this lithe and handsome "woodsman" with curly chestnut hair falling in thick clusters to his shoulders and with his inexhaustible stories of life in the wilderness, told with an engaging French accent, walked out of the forests of America into social and scholarly A mechanical reprint of an 'American circles here and especially abroad, he seemed Sparrow Hawk Carolina Parrot' after to have the freshness and wonder of the J.W. Audubon unspoiled New World still upon him. As one early critic observed, his works seemed more than brilliant ornithological studies executed on a brave new scale and they evoked a fresh poetic image of America in all its wild abundance. They fired the imagination, as did the man himself. The fact that his compositions were almost always brilliantly designed and textured enhanced this impression, an impression that still has the force to move us today.
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