Posted by: atowhee | April 25, 2021

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, J-J

Audubon.

This man stands astride 19th Century American bird study like both a statue and a razor-wire wall.  He cannot be ignored and he’s still hard to get past.

He was complex, brilliant, self-centered as any great artist must be.  His wife raised their sons and kept the household together as he rambled, then traveled to Europe to peddle his works.  The fact that he is the only human to ever publish a multiple volume “double elephant folio”, still the world’s largest commercially published books is, symbol, typical and affirmation of the man.

Audubon’s market power has never vanished. The two most expensive books ever bought at auction are copies of his folio–beating out even Shakespeare!

April 26, 1785, he was born in Haiti to one of his plantation-owning father’s servant girls.  Back in France his name went from Jean-Jacques Rabin to Jean-Jacques Audubon.  Upon being sent to America to manage his father’s New Jersey plantation, and avoid military service in the Napoleonic Wars, he changed his name to John James.

It was a chance meeting with Alexander Wilson that spurred Audubon onto his ultimately brilliant life’s work.  They met in an ill-fated store Audubon was running into the ground in Louisville.  Wilson was himself a refugee from European affairs—driven from Scotland for his political views that angered mill owners. He had already begun his own work of illustrating in color all the birds of North America.  Wilson would be published, and dead-too-soon, before Audubon got started on his own elephantine publishing.  Some of Audubon’s most entrancing art copies design and bird placement from Wilson’s earlier, less romantic, renderings.

While he spent much afield himself and discovered many new species, Audubon became a great executive producer, making art from the work and discoveries of many.  Daughters-in-law drew some of the plants in the background.  Sons and friends collected birds and then mammals for him.  Rev. Bachman taught him much of the south’s natural history.  Field work by Wilson, William Bartram,  Nuttall and Townsend’s discoveries from the Pacific Coast were all encompassed in the on-going work.  Then, in Europe, Audubon hired William MacGillivray to ghost-write the six-volumes of “his” bird  biographies.  Later Bewick and Swainson would help him sell the folios to those wealthy enough to afford them, few in America could have.

He once wrote that a day in the field in which he had not killed a hundred birds was failure, thus was bird study in the romantic period.  In 1833 he took a large ship and some young collectors on a trip up the maritime coast of Canada. He hoped to see a living Great Auk. He was angry that egg thieves were collecting the pelagic birds’ eggs as fast as they could lay them. He foresaw a bitter end. The adult birds were also killed for food by passing boats, had been for three hundred years. The last known living Great Auk was seen in 1844. Audubon drew his auk pair from stuffed specimens as he did nearly all his images.

Audubon died in 1851, an infirm, wealthy 66 year old in New York City. Here he had a twenty-acre estate in northern Manhattan, surrounded by farms at that time. The New York Historical Society still owns the largest collection of Audubon’s original watercolors that were the basis of his books and later prints.

Here, some of Audubon’s own words:

On landing at New York I caught the yellow fever. The kind man who commanded the ship that brought me from France took charge of me and placed me under the care of two Quaker ladies. To their skillful and untiring care I may safely say I owe my life.

I never for a day gave up listening to the songs of our birds, or watching their peculiar habits, or delineating them in the best way I could.

The worse my drawings were, the more beautiful did the originals appear.

My wife determined that my genius should prevail, and that my final success as an ornithologist should be triumphant.

How could I make a little book, when I have seen enough to make a dozen large books?

The gay bunting erects his white crest, and gives utterance to the joy he feels in the presence of his brooding mate; the willow grouse on the rock crows his challenge aloud; each floweret, chilled by the night air, expands its pure petals; the gentle breeze shakes from the blades of grass the heavy dewdrops.

The Fur Company may be called the exterminating medium of these wild and almost uninhabitable regions, which cupidity or the love of money alone would induce man to venture into. Where can I now go and find nature undisturbed?


My own summary of Audubon is that his romantic nature enabled him to undertake that which was barely conceivable, find a capable printer on another continent, and carry it all off. Only one such work was ever done. This by a man who once spent time in American debtors prison, was a failed shop-keeper and farm manager, an itinerant tutor and fiddle player, yet full of vision, energy and determination. Plus J-J had an unquestionable ability for drawing true to life images. At that time most European scientists and nature collectors knew that the creatures found in America were inferior and less advanced than those in their Euro-centric world. From people to parakeets, American life was ugly and backward. Audubon forced a reckoning with the bird-life of North America. Perhaps we shall some-day do the same for other life forms in the once New World (in European eyes).

If you enjoy reading about this topic, there’s a link to some Dickinson college students’ papers from a dozen years ago, on Thoreau and wilderness. Audubon is just one of the subjects. Also, Eiseley, Abbey, Leopold, Snyder, Carson, Dillard, Oregon’s Barry Lopez, et al.


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