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Trumpeter Swan, John James Audubon, 1838. (Corbis)

John James Audubon: America's Rare Bird

The foreign-born frontiersman became one of the 19th century's greatest wildlife artists and a hero of the ecology movement

“The man . . . was not a man to be seen and forgotten, or passed on the pavement without glances of surprise and scrutiny,” an anonymous contemporary wrote. “The tall and somewhat stooping form, the clothes not made by a Westend but a Far West tailor, the steady, rapid, springing step, the long hair, the aquiline features, and the glowing angry eyes—the expression of a handsome man conscious of ceasing to be young, and an air and manner which told you that whoever you might be he was John Audubon, will never be forgotten by anyone who knew or saw him.” Not only Audubon’s novelty won him attention in Liverpool and then in Manchester, Edinburgh and London. Britain was the most technologically advanced nation in the world in 1826, with gaslights illuminating its cities, steam mills weaving cotton, steamboats plying its ports and railroad lines beginning to replace its mature network of canals, but the only permanent images then available in the world were originally drawn by hand. Traveling from city to city, Audubon would hire a hall and fill it with his life-size watercolors of birds luminescent against their backgrounds of wilderness, hundreds of images at a time, and charge admission to the visitors who flocked to see them. AFrench critic who saw the drawings in Edinburgh was entranced:

“Imagine a landscape wholly American, trees, flowers, grass, even the tints of the sky and the waters, quickened with a life that is real, peculiar, trans-Atlantic. On twigs, branches, bits of shore, copied by the brush with the strictest fidelity, sport the feathered races of the New World, in the size of life, each in its particular attitude, its individuality and peculiarities. Their plumages sparkle with nature’s own tints; you see them in motion or at rest, in their plays and their combats, in their anger fits and their caresses, singing, running, asleep, just awakened, beating the air, skimming the waves, or rending one another in their battles. It is a real and palpable vision of the New World, with its atmosphere, its imposing vegetation, and its tribes which know not the yoke of man. . . . And this realization of an entire hemisphere, this picture of a nature so lusty and strong, is due to the brush of a single man; such an unheard-of triumph of patience and genius!”

So many scenes of birds going about their complicated lives would have flooded viewers’ senses as an IMAXTheater presentation floods viewers today, and all the more so because the world these creatures inhabited was America, still largely wilderness and a romantic mystery to Europeans, as Audubon discovered to his surprise. He answered questions about “Red Indians” and rattlesnakes, and imitated war whoops and owl hoots until he could hardly bear to accept another invitation.

But accept he did, because once he found an engraver in London worthy of the great project, which he had calculated would occupy him for 16 years, the prosperous merchants and the country gentry would become his subscribers, paying for the five-plate “Numbers” he issued several times a year and thus sustaining the enterprise. (When the plates accumulated to a volume, the subscribers had a choice of bindings, or they could keep their plates unbound. One titled lady used them for wallpaper in her dining room.)

Audubon thus produced The Birds of America pay as you go, and managed to complete the work in only ten years, even though he had to increase the total number of plates to 435 as he identified new species on collecting expeditions back to the Carolinas and East Florida, the Republic of Texas, northeastern Pennsylvania, Labrador and the JerseyShore. In the end, he estimated that the four-volume work, issued in fewer than 200 copies, cost him $115,640—about $2,141,000 today. (One fine copy sold in 2000 for $8,802,500.) Unsupported by gifts, grants or legacies, he raised almost every penny of the immense cost himself from painting, exhibiting and selling subscriptions and skins. He paced the flow of funds to his engraver so that, as he said proudly, “the continuity of its execution” was not “broken for a single day.” He paced the flow of drawings as well, and before that the flow of expeditions and collections. He personally solicited most of his subscribers and personally serviced most of his accounts. Lucy supported herself and their children in Louisiana while he was establishing himself; thereafter he supported them all and the work as well. If he made a profit, it was small, but in every other way the project was an unqualified success. After he returned to America, he and his sons produced a less costly octavo edition with reduced images printed by lithography. The octavo edition made him rich. These facts should lay to rest once and for all the enduring canard that John James Audubon was “not a good businessman.” When he set out to create a monumental work of art with his own heart and mind and hands, he succeeded— a staggering achievement, as if one man had single-handedly financed and built an Egyptian pyramid.

He did not leave Lucy languishing in West Feliciana all those years, but before he could return to America for the first time to collect her, their miscommunications, exacerbated by the uncertainties and delays of mail delivery in an era of sailing ships, nearly wrecked their marriage. Lonely for her, he wanted her to close her school and come to London; she was willing once she had earned enough to keep their sons in school. But a round of letters took six months, and one ship in six (and the letters it carried) never made port. By 1828 Audubon had convinced himself that Lucy expected him to amass a fortune before she would leave Louisiana, while she feared her husband had been dazzled by success in glamorous London and didn’t love her anymore. (Audubon hated London, which was fouled with coal smoke.) Finally, she insisted that he come in person to claim her, and after finding a trustworthy friend to handle a year’s production of plates for Birds, he did, braving the Atlantic, crossing the mountains to Pittsburgh by mail coach, racing down the Ohio and the Mississippi by steamboat to Bayou Sarah, where he disembarked in the middle of the night on November 17, 1829. Lucy had moved her school to William Garrett Johnson’s Beech Grove plantation by then, 15 miles inland; that was where Audubon was headed:

“It was dark, sultry, and I was quite alone. I was aware yellow fever was still raging at St. Francisville, but walked thither to procure a horse. Being only a mile distant, I soon reached it, and entered the open door of a house I knew to be an inn; all was dark and silent. I called and knocked in vain, it was the abode of Death alone! The air was putrid; I went to another house, another, and another; everywhere the same state of things existed; doors and windows were all open, but the living had fled. Finally I reached the home of Mr. Nübling, whom I knew. He welcomed me, and lent me his horse, and I went off at a gallop. It was so dark that I soon lost my way, but I cared not, I was about to rejoin my wife, I was in the woods, the woods of Louisiana, my heart was bursting with joy! The first glimpse of dawn set me on my road, at six o’clock I was at Mr. Johnson’s house; a servant took the horse, I went at once to my wife’s apartment; her door was ajar, already she was dressed and sitting by her piano, on which a young lady was playing. I pronounced her name gently, she saw me, and the next moment I held her in my arms. Her emotion was so great I feared I had acted rashly, but tears relieved our hearts, once more we were together.”

And together they remained, for the rest of their lives. If Audubon’s life resembles a 19th-century novel, with its missed connections, Byronic ambitions, dramatic reversals and passionate highs and lows, 19th-century novels were evidently more realistic than moderns have understood. Besides his art, which is as electrifying on first turning the pages of The Birds of America today as it was two centuries ago— no one has ever drawn birds better—Audubon left behind a large collection of letters, five written volumes, two complete surviving journals, fragments of two more, and a name that has become synonymous with wilderness and wildlife preservation. “All, but the remembrance of his goodness, is gone forever,” Lucy wrote sadly of her husband’s death, at age 65, from complications of dementia in January 1851. For Lucy all was gone—she lived on until 1874—but for the rest of us, wherever there are birds there is Audubon, a rare bird himself, a bird of America.

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