Monday, March 5, 2018


If someone were to say to you bird images, great big paintings of American birds, by an American artist, you would probably say Audubon, John James Audubon. And you would be right except for one thing - he wasn’t American he was French. That news sort of shocked me the first time I heard it as I think of Audubon as an icon of American art and as American as Davey Crockett.
I came across this tidbit of information in a newspaper article a few years ago.  Then recently there was more news of Audubon and we took a little drive up to the Natural History Museum in La Rochelle to see an exhibit of the early works of a young Jean Jaques Audubon.
It turns out that Audubon led a chaotic life starting with the fact that he was born to a mistress while his father was living in Haiti establishing sugar plantations. His mother died early on and he and his father left Haiti, went to Pennsylvania, and then to France to live with his father’s wife who had stayed back in France. His father pushed him into military school when he was 12 years old to become a seaman, but it was quickly evident that he got seasick and that he had no aptitude for mathematics or navigation. The young Audubon was thrilled to be back on dry land and in the fields where he could focus on birds. From his earliest days he was obsessed with birds, “I felt an intimacy with them….bordering on frenzy (that) must accompany my steps through life.” He was lucky because the 1800’s was a time of huge discoveries in natural history with funding for exploration and buyers of all things that gave the everyday citizen exposure to these new discoveries.
At 18 his father obtained a false passport for Audubon so that he could avoid conscription during the Napoleonic Wars. He avoided the military, but his calamities continued to follow him. Before he even got off the boat he came down with yellow fever. The captain took him directly to be nursed back to health by a group of Quaker women. This was his introduction to english and he always spoke with stilted, old fashioned words. Launched into American life he dabbled in several different careers and moved around from Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Missouri. Along the way he met and married Lucy Bakewell. They had two surviving sons. Audubon was often on the road, or rivers, in search of new bird species and working to perfect his representations of birds. His talent was quickly recognized, but there was a fair amount of competition in the field and he was perceived as a young upstart. Barley keeping his family afloat he did portraits on the side and Lucy was a teacher - the family seemed to be used to wandering around a lot and scratching things together just enough to stay afloat. Whenever possible Audubon tied his work to his passion for finishing up his main project, a book - The Birds of America. He developed wiring techniques that allowed him to show the birds in a more animated way. He’d redo all the paintings that had been done before he worked out this new technique. He hired hunters to gather specimens for him. He wandered up and down the waterways of the east coast where he could encounter the most diversity of birds. In all the project took 14 years of drawings, wandering, and self promotion of the project. There were not many folks that thought he could get the book into publication.

 He was rebuffed by the publishers he approached in Philadelphia. He had somehow upset the leading scientist at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Finally at the age of 41 he took his body of work to England to see if he could find the best engraver and a more sophisticated audience. His talent quickly caught the attention of the British who were in the throws of a Natural History craze. It cost Audubon - $115,640 (over $2,000,000 today) for the printing of the entire work. He earned his money back by selling subscriptions, hosting exhibitions, and selling commissioned works, and animal skins. Whatever it took to get his project out there. A contemporary French critic of The Birds of America wrote, “A magic power transported us into the forests which for so many years this man of genius has trod. Learned and ignorant alike were astonished at the spectacle….it is a real and palpable vision of the New World.”

Audubon’s story continued to be one of the driven, starving artist with highs and lows in his financial life. The things that were never in question were his endurance, his curiosity, and his faith in his work. At a time when he was losing subscribers he is quoted as saying, “The Birds of America will then raise in value as much as they are now depreciated by certain fools and envious persons.” (In 2010 a copy of The Birds of America sold at Sotheby’s auction for $11.5 million.)

I’ll encourage you to go to the John James Audubon wikipedia site. This is where my information has come from and there is oh so much more than I have quickly relayed to you here.

Our trip to the museum in La Rochelle was wonderful. The museum is a quaint, old fashioned, natural history museum. We started our tour among the many stuffed birds from the region and explanations of their habitats. These displays were the perfect lead in to the small collection of Audubon works. The museum found these papers tucked in their attic mixed in with the works of one of Audubon’s original teachers and founder of the museum when they did a restoration 10 years ago. The exhibit interwove a bit of his life story with his early works. We had gone expecting to see the big portfolio engravings, but were pleasantly surprised to find how engaging and rich the smaller early sketches were. The early sketches already showed the power of his representations and we could see his early experimantations with how best to share the beauty of these birds that he was so obsessed with.

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