Audubon's Artful Nature

By Hank Burchard
Friday, May 30 1997;; Page N57
The Washington Post

AN AWFUL MISTAKE the Smithsonian made more than a century ago still haunts the institution. A ghostly reminder of its failure to acquire the artworks and papers of John James Audubon is on display at the National Museum of American History.

The great naturalist and artist is an American icon now, but he spent much of his life on the brink of bankruptcy. When Audubon (1785-1851) died, his destitute widow tried to sell his priceless original drawings, watercolors and plates for the famous four-volume "The Birds of America" to the Smithsonian, which turned her down. She eventually sold the works on paper to the New York Historical Society for a comparative pittance; the engraved copper plates, wonderful artworks in themselves, went to a scrap metal dealer (who, happily, saved some of them from the melting pot; two are included in the exhibition).

Other Audubon material and memorabilia were scattered, and a great deal was lost. Much of what remains has been gathered for this exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, a semi-independent unit within the institution. The show is necessarily dimly lighted to preserve the fragile materials, rendering it an appropriately gloomy cave of sorrows.

Yet one cannot remain downcast long in the presence of Audubon's work. His energy and originality makes his renderings of birds and mammals pulse with life, and the story of Audubon's own life is astounding. The bastard son of a French slave trader and his Creole mistress, Audubon was born in what's now Haiti, but was legitimized by adoption and taken to France at the age of 9, where his interest in drawing was rather casually encouraged. He was sent to America at 18 to avoid conscription in the Napoleonic Wars and failed at mining, storekeeping and several other enterprises. For a while Audubon eked out a living as a taxidermist, portraitist and drawing teacher, supplemented by his wife Lucy Bakewell Audubon's income as a governess.

All the while Audubon was drawing birds. Much of his inspiration came from the work of Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), whose nine-volume "American Ornithology" won him brief recognition as America's leading ornithologist until his reputation was eclipsed by Audubon. Wilson partisans in fact accused Audubon of plagiarism, and to this day -- including at the exhibition opening --there are Wilsonians and Audubonians who do not speak to each other.

Audubon obviously stands on Wilson's shoulders, but he looms plenty tall in his own right. There is no artistic comparison between Audubon's vibrant renderings of birds and animals and Wilson's careful drawings. And while Wilson's contributions clearly have much more scientific value, it is Audubon's lifelike (if occasionally inaccurate) images that inspired bird lovers and eventually led to the end of wholesale slaughter of American wildlife.

Audubon endured hunger and hardship while trying to search out every American bird. He missed many Western species, of course, but found so many Southern and Midwestern birds that were new to science that Audubon was accused of inventing some of them until he produced the stuffed specimens (ornithologists then and now work from "the bird in hand," usually acquired by shotgun). The exhibition includes the buckskin breeches and caped jacket that Audubon, then 58, wore during an 1843 trek along the Missouri sketching animals.

The contrast between the roughness of his working conditions and the refinement of his paintings is heightened by selections from Audubon's diaries. His works plainly were too fine for any American printer to handle properly, so Audubon had to go to London to find an adequate printing house (Robert Havell) and patrons to underwrite the four-volume "double elephant" edition (27-by-40 inches) necessary to render large birds such as cranes and eagles life-size. The edition sold for $1,000 (but not to the Smithsonian; the volume on display is on long-term loan from the National Audubon Society).

After the great bird book was published, Audubon undertook "The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America," which was a family enterprise involving Audubon's wife and their gifted sons, John Woodhouse and Victor Gifford. The sons, aided by naturalist John Bachman, would carry on the work after Audubon's arduous expeditions ruined his health.

The exhibition, assembled from hither and yon, gives a good sense of Audubon's talent, spirit and drive, and an overwhelming sense of how great an opportunity was lost when the Smithsonian spurned his widow.

AUDUBON & THE SMITHSONIAN -- Through May 1998 at the National Museum of American History, 14th Steet and Constitution Avenue NW (Metro: Federal Triangle or Smithsonian). Open 10 to 5:30 daily. 202/357-2700 (TDD: 202/357-1729).

@CAPTION: John James Audubon went to the birds, and changed the way Americans look at nature.
@CAPTION: Audubon went to extreme lengths to create lifelike portraits of such birds as the kingfisher (left) and such "viviparous quadrupeds" as the Pennant's marten.


JUNE 9, 1997 VOL. 149 NO. 23



from TIME


"Audubon's Birds of America is a book which everyone has heard of and which everyone wants to see at least once in his lifetime." Thus, in 1888, wrote George Brown Goode, assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, about the stunning and still famous masterwork produced by John James Audubon (1785-1851). So it seems only fitting that the Smithsonian is offering everyone a chance to see the so-called double-elephant folio edition of The Birds of America, which Audubon and a team of British printers, engravers and colorists laboriously assembled between 1827 and 1838. This massive volume, one of the 200 originally printed, is the centerpiece of "Audubon & the Smithsonian," a yearlong exhibit that recently opened at the National Museum of American History in Washington.

But the exhibit does not simply provide visitors a chance to look at one big, beautiful book. "There's more to Audubon than just the bird pictures," says Smithsonian Institution Libraries guest curator Helena Wright. The items she and her staff have assembled--many gathered from the Smithsonian's own holdings--certainly bear her out. An original copy of Audubon's less famous work on mammals, Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1845-48), demonstrates his astonishing range in art and natural science. Both are fields he mastered, as far as anyone can tell, by teaching himself.

If Audubon were able to visit this show mounted in his honor, he might find it a trifle modest: two rooms filled with books, watercolors, excerpts from his extensive writings, a few of the natural specimens he collected and drew, and personal effects such as his embroidered leather coat and trousers, beaded moccasins and bear-claw necklace. And all these artifacts are rather dimly lit, since the Smithsonian could not afford to install the fiber-optic lighting that would protect precious illustrations from fading. But Audubon would have found any tribute to himself insufficient; while he lived, he was as easy to admire for his achievements as he was difficult to like for his aggressive and vainglorious personality.

Born in Haiti as the illegitimate son of a French planter and slave trader and his Creole mistress, Audubon was sent to France for a brief education and then to live on a property owned by his father near Philadelphia, where he became enamored of local birds and wildlife. But a series of businesses he tried all failed; in 1819 he had to declare bankruptcy. That was when, at age 35, he decided to enlarge the collection of American bird paintings he had done over the years and prepare them for publication.

That this mission enabled him not only to survive but to become famous still seems incredible. At the outset, most of his contemporaries scoffed at this upstart crow with no known training in either art or ornithology. Audubon scoffed back. In 1824 he managed to antagonize the Philadelphia scientific community and could find no publisher for his swelling collection of bird paintings. Two years later, he departed for England, where, togged out in backwoods garb, he wowed the sophisticates, arranged a publishing deal and oversaw the realization of his dream.

"I have never drawn from a stuffed specimen," Audubon claimed in 1828. "Nature must be seen first alive." Like nearly everything else he said about himself, this statement was, at best, a half-truth. Audubon killed thousands of birds; before photography and high-resolution binoculars, that was the only possible way to render accurate images of them. But before Audubon shot them, he watched his subjects intensively, noting how they moved and behaved, the plants or habitats they preferred. When he had his bird in hand, he used wires to arrange the specimen in a characteristic pose.

Audubon's bird illustrations have become part of the experience of living in America, available on calendars, coffee mugs and cd-roms. The Smithsonian exhibit traces these images back to their humble and extraordinary roots.

--Reported by Dick Thompson/Washington


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