By William Souder
Milkweed Editions, 2014 (originally released by North Point Press, 2004)
Reviewed by Eric Olsen
The other morning, my wife Cheryl and I were driving home from the gym and made a right turn up the short, steep approach to our place and saw a huge hawk, or what I assumed at first was a hawk, sitting in a thick growth of succulents on the hillside. He was maybe 15 feet away, motionless, his partially folded wings pressed on the plants on either side, as if for balance on the slope.
Cheryl, who was driving, hit the brakes. We stared at the bird, and he stared back. “He’s beautiful,” Cheryl whispered. We’d never seen a hawk that close before, though plenty of red-shoulder hawks live in the neighborhood. But this guy was no red-shoulder. He had to be twice as big as a red-shoulder hawk, maybe three times. Plus he didn’t have red shoulders (not that any of the red-shoulders do, either, exactly).
Just then, as we watched, the bird spread his wings, pumped them in a rather dismissive way, as if he’d had quite enough of being admired but was in no great rush, and eased down the hillside in a slow glide, with something brown and furry clutched in his talons.
“I wonder what kind of hawk it was,” Cheryl said.
“John James Audubon would have known,” I said, “and then he would have shot it.”
When Cheryl first suggested I read William Souder’s terrific biography of Audubon, Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of The Birds of America, I had my doubts. My taste in reading tends toward murder mysteries, or nonfiction accounts of crime and murder, or financial skullduggery or political doom and disaster, or anything else having to do with the folly of Man.
But a biography about a French birdwatcher? I didn’t think so.
And yet, to please Cheryl, I started reading. Hey, it’s hard to argue with a bunch of awards and a finalist for the Pulitzer, afterall. I was quickly enthralled by Audubon the character, Souder’s clear prose, and especially the story of Audubon’s various struggles to find his place in a young nation’s scientific and artistic communities.
And better yet, it turns out Audubon wasn’t from France—he was born in Haiti, in fact, though he usually told people he was from New Orleans. John James Audubon wasn’t his original name, either—he started out Jean Rabin, illegitimate son of a French sea captain named Jean Audubon and a chambermaid named Jeanne Rabin. After young Jean’s mother died, his father officially adopted him and gave him his new name.
And while Audubon was, of course, a birdwatcher, he was also an artist of no small accomplishment, and plenty more besides, including one trigger-happy SOB. I mean, if this guy saw a bird he liked, out came the trusty flintlock and down went the bird. Or birds. Lots and lots of them. And any other creatures that had the bad luck to cross Audubon’s path, whether furred, scaled, or feathered. And unfortunately for our young nation’s wildlife, Audubon was apparently a hell of a shot.
“Audubon’s zest for killing wild animals is jarring to modern sensibilities,” acknowledges Souder,
….especially to people who cannot reconcile hunting with the idea of conservation—the latter a cause now closely associated with the name Audubon…. But Audubon was a pre-modern man. He hunted, as everyone did then, to put meat on the table. He also hunted for sport. At one time or another, Audubon killed specimens of all but a handful of the more than four hundred species of birds he ultimately painted, plus most of the quadrupeds of North America, from squirrels to alligators to moose.
Liberal softy long-time member of the ASPCA that I am, with all my “modern” sensibilities, I found the accounts of Audubon’s pre-modern cruelties rather off-putting (not that the modern mentality is any less cruel or trigger happy than the pre-modern mindset; it’s more so, if anything, but now we have the luxury of contracting out our cruelties and pretending we’re more civilized). Worse, I found myself thinking if Audubon were around today, he’d probably have felt right at home on Dubya’s ranch in Texas, strutting around with the ex-prez, guns ablazin’, high-fivin’ one another and feelin’ like Real Men after slaughtering a few big-eyed herbivores.
But then Audubon’s cruelties were tangled up not only with his pre-modernity, but with his art, and it was the story of those connections of cruelty and art that kept me riveted to Souder’s narrative.
In Audubon’s day, the New World’s natural history was still being defined by Europeans, largely based on reports, writes Souder, “that were inaccurate, mean-spirited, or poorly translated,” and in particular on reports by one especially influential French naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon. It was the comte who declared that in the New World, “‘…nature is always rude and sometimes deformed.’ America, he said, was well suited to lower life forms like reptiles and bugs but was otherwise a gloomy and disadvantaged environment for living things.”
The comte described “a kind of ecological withering that was the reverse of evolution, in which animals responded over time to an oppressive climate by becoming less fit. America was a land of stunted, less vigorous survivors.” Of course, the comte’s disdain for New World flora and fauna extended to the New World specimens of the human variety. “The answer to these brutal words,” writes Souder, “and to the whole theory of degeneration—would be offered, and when it came it would mark the beginning of American science.”
And Audubon was there at the start. Problem was, his impulses as an artist put him at odds with the New World’s fledgling scientific community. It also ruined him financially on more then one occasion. His is a tale of woe that I suppose any “creative” — if I might be forgiven for using a term that’s been done to death by 20-something techies at TED talks — will find both alarmingly familiar and, for that, perhaps somewhat comforting. Writes Souder:
Keen-eyed, and with a tolerance for the rigors of the outdoors, Audubon had wandered widely across the American frontier, honing his woodcraft. He disappeared into the wilderness often, turning up days or weeks or even months later, laden with trophies: animals of every kind—most dead, sometimes a few still living—plus eggs, nests, plants, and a myriad of brilliantly hued skins of birds both known and unknown to science. And there were his paintings. Audubon had begun drawing birds as a child. He had talent, but more important, he had a rare feeling for his subjects. He was as interested in how birds lived as he was in their appearance. Over time, as he refined his technique, Audubon’s paintings had begun to merge the beauty of the birds with their wildness in a way no previous naturalist had managed.
Audubon’s problem from the beginning was his impulse to make something beautiful, and in so doing capture what he viewed as the true nature of the birds he was depicting. Audubon’s vision, in short, put him at odds with an “establishment” that had already secured its place in a very young country. And it was this vision that also led in no small way to his tendency to shoot at any feathered creature that had the bad luck to cross his path. Maybe if he’d had a digital camera with a nice telephoto lens, the carnage would have been a little less extreme. But he didn’t, and his vision demanded that he somehow capture the aliveness of the birds he observed, rather ironically, by blowing them out of the sky. Then he’d stuff them and mount them in life-like poses so he could study and then draw them.
Making matters worse, he insisted on drawing his birds life-size, which meant in some cases, say in the case of a golden eagle, about which more below, huge engravings, which no engravers and printers in this country were willing or able to take on, meaning Audubon had no way of “monetizing” his work, to use a rather annoying, but nonetheless accurate enough term now tres au courant in our digital era.
Audubon was in his mid-30s when he traveled to Philadelphia to present a large portfolio of his beautiful life-size paintings of birds of North America to the éminences grises at the prestigious Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, in the hopes of being accepted as a member, which he imagined would secure him a firm place in America’s fledgling scientific establishment as a naturalist, and perhaps also some semblance of financial stability, something that had eluded him for years. Poor naïve bastard, Audubon figured these guys would love his work.
In Philly, Audubon met a young ornithologist who was visiting the States at the time, a prince named Charles-Lucien Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon, then the emperor of France. Young Bonaparte was blown away by Audubon’s paintings, which were unlike anything the young prince had seen…
…though they depicted something he loved deeply—the terrible life-and-death struggle that is nature itself. Audubon’s birds were breathtakingly beautiful. And huge—even the largest were painted to full life-size, some filling Audubon’s enormous sheets of paper from edge to edge. But it was the aliveness of the images that startled and delighted Bonaparte. Instead of showing what the birds looked like, Audubon had captured how they lived. Wheeling beneath storm-wracked skies, clamoring in bushes and trees, recoiling from attacking animals, or ripping flesh in bloody gobbets from freshly killed prey, Audubon’s ferocious birds looked as if they might fly screeching off the page…. It was something totally new.
Bonaparte became Audubon’s champion at the Academy, but to no avail. Both of them were “so animated and eager, so French,” writes Souder. “Their manners were foreign and their instincts for doing the wrong thing infallible.” And above all, the Academy didn’t want anything quite as flagrantly new as Audubon’s paintings. Audubon’s application was voted down. The Academy wanted “correct lines,” not “new” and certainly not beautiful. Audubon faced the same problem artists with a clear vision have always faced: His vision put him in the wrong place at the wrong time.
By then, Audubon had already suffered plenty of set-backs in America, often, though not always, brought on by his drive to make art rather than, say, a living for himself and young family… and worse, art that squared with his vision rather than what the market might have wanted. At first, Audubon thought of himself primarily as a businessman, and his art as a hobby, but his various forays into the mercantile realm usually met with disaster, not least because his “hobby” kept taking him off into the wilderness for a month or two with gun, pencils, chalks, charcoal, and a drawing pad, to kill things and then draw them, rather than tend to business. He was even briefly jailed in Louisville at one point over outstanding debts. And while it was bad enough that the Academy had rejected him and his paintings, perhaps worse was having one irreplaceable portfolio of new paintings eaten by rats—the lesson here, folks, is always back up your work—and another irreplaceable portfolio lost or more likely stolen while on a trip down the Ohio River to New Orleans. Worst of all, he and his wife Lucy had lost two of their infant children to illness.
“This was Audubon’s lowest moment,” writes Souder. “For the first time since he’d arrived in America, he had nothing. No money. No property. No job. No home. His father was dead and he was disinherited.”
It was also a turning point in his career as an artist.
That turning point came in Europe, though, not the U.S., and in Liverpool, of all places, where he first landed with a thick portfolio of new paintings, and where his work was received with great enthusiasm. Better yet, as much as the Europeans were entranced by Audubon’s work, they were fascinated by the man. Whatever disdain the comte de Buffon might have had for toutes choses américains, and despite the fact that in America, Audubon might have seemed hopelessly French to the stuffed shirts at the Academy in Philly, the Brits found this tall, ruggedly handsome frontiersman from a boisterous young nation endlessly entertaining. It didn’t hurt, either, that Audubon had a knack for tall tales. Writes Souder, “Audubon carefully calculated his audience and what it wanted to believe, then blended fact, exaggeration, and outright lies into a mélange of self-promotion.”
In Liverpool, Audubon met a London bookseller named Bohn who appreciated the commercial possibilities of Audubon’s work. Bohn told Audubon there was a huge potential audience for his work “among people with taste and the wherewithal to buy an expensive book. These people liked to entertain, Bohn went on, and would likely buy Audubon’s book as much for its value as a conversation piece as for its artistic or scientific merits.”
But, Bohn argued, the paintings were far too large. “A book made from his life-size paintings would dwarf everything else its owner possessed—it would be more like a piece of furniture than a functional part of a library or an adornment for a sitting-room table.” Bohn pleaded with Audubon to redo the paintings on a more manageable scale.
Audubon was determined to do it his way. Compromise his vision so he could sell his work to a bunch of rich European collectors and return home with a big wad of cash so he could finally support his very much put-upon wife and family in grand style? Not a chance.
What I find so fascinating about Audubon’s story, and why I recommend Souder’s book whether you’re a writer or painter or musician or what-have-you, is how little things have changed on the creative front. The trajectory of Audubon’s career as an artist is no different than the typical artistic career today: years, maybe decades of struggle, financial misery, marital strains, raging self-doubt, and then, maybe, a bit of luck. Or maybe not….
Granted, now we don’t have to worry much about rats eating a portfolio, but the results are quite the same if you spill a latte on the keyboard of your laptop and fry the innards, and you’ve been neglecting for weeks to back up…. And hey, who backs up?
And god help you if you have a vision and stick with it.
Audubon’s determination to do it his way was in the end one of the hallmarks of his genius as an artist. Audubon saw the world through a lens all his own. And at a time when he was poor and in a precarious state of mind, Audubon’s real strength was his allegiance to his personal vision.
Audubon’s story is essentially one of hope, and as we all know so well, hope is what any artist in any medium needs, and plenty of it. Bohn eventually came around and agreed that Audubon’s vision was the right one. Audubon found engravers and printers capable of managing his huge paintings, printing them on “double elephant folio” pages, each 29 by 40 inches, including one of a life-size golden eagle, a white rabbit in one claw, about to launch himself into the sky, though as Audubon captured him on paper, the bird’s wings were still folded, otherwise, with a wingspan of upwards of eight feet, he wouldn’t have fit on the page, even a double elephant folio page, not even a double-double-double elephant folio. The prints began to sell, too. Audubon began to make money, returned to America where this time he and his work were accepted, made more paintings, printed more books, made still more money, and life, at last, was good.
Ok, in the arts, it doesn’t always work out that way, maybe it usually doesn’t, but sometimes it does and sometimes it’s good to at least believe it does, because let’s face it, sometimes a little self-delusion is a necessary part of keeping at one’s art. Certainly it worked for Audubon.
And no doubt you’ve figured out by now that the bird Cheryl and I saw the other day was a golden eagle. I know because we looked him up in our copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds. The eagle looked just like the one Audubon painted, if a little lighter in color. He seems to live in the neighborhood, or somewhere in a territory of fifty or sixty square miles, typically, that happens to include our neighborhood. Better yet, we’ve seen him lately in the company of another bird that’s just as big, we assume the mate—they mate for life—and so perhaps little golden eaglets are on the way. And as much as I’m now a big fan of Audubon and his work, thanks to Souder’s fine biography, I’m delighted that Audubon isn’t also in the neighborhood.