John J. Audubon, Iconic Painter of Birds
The following book review is part of a series writer Jordan Jones calls the “Environmental Canon,” books that have shaped the environmental movement. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
Sometimes, the most extraordinary and singular lives prove to be the most typical. Through a sheer depth and diversity of experience, a person who appears well outside the norm can serve to embody it. If this were ever true of anyone, it was true of John James Audubon.
In the life and work of this failed businessman — turned bird painter — turned environmental icon, one can discern a piece of the fundamental American character. The energy, resourcefulness and enterprising nature of early Americans are bound up in Audubon.
As his biographer, Richard Rhodes, wrote, “No life was at once more unique and more representative of that expansive era when a national character emerged than Audubon’s. Celebrate him for his wonderful birds; but recognize him as well as a characteristic American of the first generation.” And as America made Audubon, so too did Audubon make himself.
The American experience is quite often an immigrant experience, and it is fitting that one of America’s most famous sons originated beyond its shores. Jean Audubon was born in Haiti in 1785, the illegitimate son of a French sea captain. After the death of his biological mother, young Audubon sailed to France with his father. Growing up, he showed aptitude in his studies, but little interest. In a hint of things to come, he spent much of his time studying and sketching birds.
At the age of 18, without purpose, Audubon immigrated to Mill Grove, Pennsylvania to run a family farm, and it is here that Audubon’s American story begins. He was instantly fascinated by the land’s untamed wilderness and diverse wildlife. Quite quickly, he once again took up amateur ornithology.
After marrying his sweetheart, Lucy Bakewell, Audubon took his family west to Kentucky where he opened several general stores. In the fateful year of 1819, a banking crisis caused Audubon’s businesses to fail and set him on the artist’s path. Left with only his family, his painting supplies and his love of birds, he began the labors that would come to define his life.
In the dogged spirit of America’s pioneers, Audubon scraped up enough money through a series of odds jobs to begin his great endeavor: the production of a comprehensive account of bird life in America. With an extraordinary determination and ingenuity, Audubon roamed throughout his adopted homeland, recording his observations and painting his favorite subjects.
In need of further financing, he traveled to England to make his case to the aristocracy there. Soon, this American woodsman was rubbing elbows with some of the richest and most powerful people in Europe. And by all accounts, his manner was as charming as it was shrewd.
The result of his efforts was the magisterial work, The Birds of America, a collection of 435 color prints accompanied by five volumes of “bird biographies” and accounts of pioneer life. Even today, the beauty and amount of detail is remarkable enough as to compel awe. One can sense a phenomenal depth of knowledge behind each composition, and it is this veracity that puts this work in a class of its own.
Audubon’s major artistic contribution — never mind the significant scientific value of his work — was to show birds as they truly are in nature. He pioneered a kind of naturalist art form that merged scientific detail with an artist’s eye for beauty. Though there were other attempts to document the bird life of America, most notably American Ornithology by Audubon’s friend and contemporary Alexander Wilson, none ever had the impact of Audubon’s masterpiece.
Central to his artistic vision was the role of point-of-view. As Robert Welker wrote in Birds and Men, “[the bird] is not moved into place for the observer but the other way around. We are at ground level to see two black vultures squabbling over the head of a deer; we peer through the blackberry brambles to see the towhee. We find ourselves far up in a black walnut tree to look at a crow and we fly hundreds of feet above earth and water with the golden eagle and the osprey. There is a sense of immediacy, of identification, and intimacy and understanding.”
Rejecting the stiff and clinical styles of earlier naturalist-artists, Audubon infused his work with movement. His birds chatter and sing, fly and dive, feed and fight. To put it simply — they live. In my opinion, this is the outstanding feature of his art, this sense of vibrancy, of urgency. His birds threaten to burst from the page and fly away.
Audubon’s style ranged from the stark to the ornate. In his portrait of the Arctic tern, the creature dives through a black and blue sky, majestic and alone. In Carolina Parakeet (my personal favorite), a gaggle of the colorful birds is arranged in a serpentine line down a tree limb in all manner of poses, each one stunningly true to life.
As Audubon became more confident in his work, he began to insert little stories within his compositions. Mockingbirds defend their nests from a marauding rattlesnake in one composition and, in another, a mother house wren feeds her chicks a spider, while the father stands guard against intruders.
In one of Audubon’s most famous works, Golden Eagle, the eponymous creature soars magnificently up into the sky, having just snagged a white rabbit. In the background, a lone hunter makes his way across a chasm by way of a fallen tree. Like the eagle, he too is on the hunt.
Audubon may as well have been depicting himself, for though he was extremely farsighted and respectful of nature, he was a man of his time. He shot most of the birds he painted, both for food and for use as specimens. Furthermore, as a frontiersman during the beginning of America’s great westward expansion, he (almost literally) paved the way for the exploitation of same wilderness he loved.
This contradiction says less about Audubon than it says about the time he lived in and the wilderness he saw. The American frontier was so wild and bountiful that few ever expected it to vanish. (Human development certainly moved at a slower pace back then. When Audubon retired in 1838, he was able to buy a large plot of land on the still-not-fully-urbanized island of Manhattan, which he stocked with deer and elk.)
This poignant theme is underscored in some of his writings, most notably in his famous essay on the passenger pigeon, a creature once so numerous that, in Audubon’s words, “the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse.” This species is now extinct — the result of deforestation and a level of over-hunting by “the tyrants of nature, man,” that bordered on the pathological.
Nevertheless, Audubon’s legacy to his adopted homeland is rightfully one of conservation and ecological responsibility. In producing his life’s work, which gave to the world a comprehensive example of nature’s beauty, Audubon assured that he and his birds would live on. Shortly after his death in 1851, the Aububon Society (now Audubon) was formed to protect and study America’s birds, and the members took the namesake of the man who had inspired them. Today, the Audubon and similar organizations work to safeguard America’s natural heritage and the birds within it.
Audubon was an immigrant, a frontiersman and an entrepreneur — three roles that, at a certain time and place in American history, were nearly one and the same. He embodied his era for the same reasons he transcended it. His independence, resourcefulness and risk-loving determination made him a truly American man.
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