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

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

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Audubon had begun teaching himself to draw birds in France. Operating general stores in Louisville and then downriver in frontier Henderson, Kentucky, he was responsible for keeping the cooking pot filled with fish and game and the shelves with supplies while his business partner ran the store and Lucy kept house, worked the garden and bore John James two sons. As he hunted and traveled, he improved his art on American birds and kept careful field notes as well. His narrative of an encounter with a flood of passenger pigeons in Kentucky in autumn 1813 is legendary. He gave up trying to count the passing multitudes of the grayish blue, pink-breasted birds that numbered in the billions at the time of the European discovery of America and now are extinct. “The air was literally filled with Pigeons,” he wrote of that encounter; “the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.” His observations match his best drawings in vivacity: of chimney swifts lining a hollow sycamore stump near Louisville like bats in a cave, brown pelicans fishing the shallows of the Ohio, sandhill cranes tearing away waterlily roots in a backwater slough, and robins down from Labrador occupying apple trees. He saw bald eagles that nested by the hundreds along the Mississippi swooping like falling stars to strike swans to the ground. Crowds of black vultures, protected by law, patrolled the streets of Natchez and Charleston to clean up carrion and roosted at night on the roofs of houses and barns. Bright scarlet, yellow and emerald green Carolina parakeets, now extinct, completely obscured a shock of grain like “a brilliantly colored carpet” in the center of a field, and a least bittern stood perfectly still for two hours on a table in his studio while he drew it.

Not many of the birds Audubon drew stood still for him, nor had cameras or binoculars yet been invented. To study and draw birds it was necessary to shoot them. Audubon’s predecessors typically skinned their specimens, preserved the skins with arsenic, stuffed them with frayed rope and set them up on branches to draw them. The resulting drawings looked as stiff and dead as their subjects. Audubon dreamed of revivifying his specimens—even the colors of their feathers changed within 24 hours of death, he said—and at Mill Grove, still a young man, he found a way to mount freshly killed specimens on sharpened wires set into a gridded board that allowed him to position them in lifelike attitudes. He drew them first, then filled in his drawings with watercolor that he burnished with a cork to imitate the metallic cast of feathers. After drawing, he often performed an anatomical dissection. Then, because he usually worked deep in the wilderness, far from home, he cooked and ate his specimens. Many of the descriptions in his Ornithological Biography mention how a species tastes—testimony to how quickly the largely self-taught artist drew. “The flesh of this bird is tough and unfit for food,” he writes of the raven. The green-winged teal, on the other hand, has “delicious” flesh, “probably the best of any of its tribe; and I would readily agree with any epicure in saying, that when it has fed on wild oats at Green Bay, or on soaked rice in the fields of Georgia and the Carolinas, for a few weeks after its arrival in those countries, it is much superior to the Canvass-back in tenderness, juiciness and flavor.”

Though drawing birds had been something of an obsession, it was only a hobby until Audubon’s mill and general stores went under in the Panic of 1819, a failure his critics and many of his biographers have ascribed to a lack of ability or irresponsible distraction by his art. But nearly every business in the trans-Appalachian West failed that year, because the Western state banks and the businesses they serviced were built on paper. “One thing seems to be universally conceded,” an adviser told the governor of Ohio, “that the greater part of our mercantile citizens are in a state of bankruptcy—that those of them who have the largest possessions of real and personal estate . . . find it almost impossible to raise sufficient funds to supply themselves with the necessaries of life.” The Audubons lost everything except John James’ portfolio and his drawing and painting supplies. Before he declared bankruptcy, Audubon was even briefly thrown in jail for debt.

Through these disasters, Lucy never failed him, although they lost an infant daughter to fever the following year. “She felt the pangs of our misfortunes perhaps more heavily than I,” Audubon remembered gratefully of his stalwart love, “but never for an hour lost her courage; her brave and cheerful spirit accepted all, and no reproaches from her beloved lips ever wounded my heart. With her was I not always rich?”

Audubon took up portrait drawing at $5 a head. His friends helped him find work painting exhibit backgrounds and doing taxidermy for a new museum in Cincinnati modeled on painter Charles Wilson Peale’s famous museum in Philadelphia, which Audubon knew from his Mill Grove days. Peale’s PhiladelphiaMuseum displayed stuffed and mounted birds as if alive against natural backgrounds, and preparing such displays in Cincinnati probably pointed Audubon to his technical and aesthetic breakthrough of portraying American birds in realistic, lifelike settings. Members of a government expedition passing through Cincinnati in the spring of 1820, including the young artist Titian Ramsey Peale, son of the Philadelphia museum keeper, alerted Audubon to the possibility of exploring beyond the Mississippi, the limit of frontier settlement at that time. Daniel Drake, the prominent Cincinnati physician who had founded the new museum, praised Audubon’s work in a public lecture and encouraged him to think of adding the birds of the Mississippi flyway to his collection, extending the range of American natural history; the few ornithologists who had preceded Audubon had limited their studies to Eastern species.

By spring 1820, Drake’s museum owed Audubon $1,200, most of which it never paid. The artist scraped together such funds as he could raise from drawing and teaching art to support Lucy and their two boys, then 11 and 8, who moved in with relatives again while he left to claim his future. He recruited his best student, 18-year-old Joseph Mason, to draw backgrounds, bartered his hunting skills for boat passage on a commercial flatboat headed for New Orleans, and in October floated off down the Ohio and the Mississippi.

For the next five years Audubon labored to assemble a definitive collection of drawings of American birds while struggling to support himself and his family. He had decided to produce a great work of art and ornithology (a decision that Lucy’s relatives condemned as derelict): The Birds of America would comprise 400 two- by three-foot engraved, hand-colored plates of American birds “at the size of life” to be sold in sets of five, and collected into four huge, leather-bound volumes of 100 plates each, with five leather-bound accompanying volumes of bird biographies worked up from his field notes.

He had found a paradise of birds in the deciduous forests and bluegrass prairies of Kentucky; he found another paradise of birds in the pine forests and cypress swamps of Louisiana around St. Francisville in West Feliciana Parish, north of Baton Rouge, inland from the river port of Bayou Sarah, where prosperous cotton planters hired him to teach their sons to fence and their daughters to draw and to dance the cotillion. Elegant Lucy, when finally he was able to move her and the boys south to join him there, opened a popular school of piano and deportment on a cotton plantation operated by a hardy Scottish widow.

On his first inspection of the St. Francisville environs, Audubon identified no fewer than 65 species of birds. He probably collected there the bird he rendered in what would become his best-known image, the prized first plate of The Birds of America—a magnificent specimen of wild turkey cock that he had called from a Mississippi canebrake with a caller made from a wing bone.

Finally, in May 1826, Audubon was ready to find an engraver for his crowded portfolio of watercolor drawings.He would have to travel to Europe; no American publisher yet commanded the resources to engrave, hand color and print such large plates. Forty-one years old, with the equivalent of about $18,000 in his purse and a collection of letters of introduction from New Orleans merchants and Louisiana and Kentucky politicians, including Senator Henry Clay, he sailed from New Orleans on a merchant ship bound for Liverpool with a load of cotton. He was trusting to charm, luck and merit; he knew hardly anyone in England. In Liverpool, Lucy’s younger sister Ann and her English husband, Alexander Gordon, a cotton factor, took one look at Audubon’s rough frontier pantaloons and unfashionable shoulder-length chestnut hair (about which he was comically vain) and asked him not to call again at his place of business. But James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans had been published in London in April and was blooming to a nationwide fad, and some who met Audubon in Liverpool judged him a reallife Natty Bumppo. The letters he carried introduced him to the first family of Liverpool shipping, the Rathbones, Quaker abolitionists who recognized his originality and sponsored him socially. Within a month, he was a celebrity, his presence sought at every wealthy table; his in-laws soon came round.


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