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8789: Saint-Domingue- born Audubon: An artist of beauty and violence (fwd)

From: Max Blanchet <maxblanchet@worldnet.att.net>

Weekend: An artist of beauty and violence - Driven by a manic energy, John
James Audubon, who died 150 years ago, was an unusual amalgam of artist,
naturalist and adventurer, writes Eileen Battersby
Irish Times; Jul 21, 2001

For generations of children throughout North America, early impressions of
the riches of that continent's native bird life have been dominated by the
dramatic images created by the extraordinary 19th-century artist, naturalist
and adventurer John James Audubon, who died 150 years ago this year. His
most famous work, The Birds of America, one of the enduring achievements of
US art as well as a pioneering glory of natural history published between
1827 and 1838, is a feast of almost surreal beauty and spectacle,
breathtaking yet dignified and accurate. Audubon was many things, but he was
not a sensationalist - at least not as an artist - and he studied his
subjects in their natural environment, not in museum cases.

His name has also become synonymous with conservation. The National Audubon
Society is a North American organisation founded in 1886 for the study and
protection of birds. Admittedly, this may seem ironic, considering the vast
number of birds Audubon (who loved to hunt) killed in the pursuit of art and
sport. Still, in later life he did come to regret the killing. Thanks to his
graceful Passenger Pigeon (1824), we have a beautiful record of this now
extinct bird once also known as the wild pigeon, at one time more numerous
than all other species of birds in the US combined. In Audubon's day, an
estimated five billion of these birds inhabited Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio
alone. The last one died in captivity in a Cincinnati zoo in 1914.

Many of the watercolours - such as Snowy Egret, American Bittern, Little
Blue Heron, Common Snipe, Greater Flamingo and Peregrine Falcon; his
dazzling depiction of the opportunistic trio, Blue Jays; as well as Whooping
Crane, American Swallow-Tailed Kite and Bald Eagle (in the 1828 version) -
have been reproduced so often and in so many contexts they are simply part
of US life. Since 1937, when Macmillan publishers in New York reproduced the
435 Audubon prints in a smaller-than-original size from the Elephant Folio
(1827-1838) and an additional 65 prints from the octavo, the artist has been
assured of an audience even his brittle ego could never have envisaged.

Over a 20-year period, the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of
Milwaukee drew on Audubon's genius when reproducing his bird watercolours
for its annual calendars. They were no ordinary calendars, but were of
unusually high quality, and regarded as collector's items to be zealously
guarded. Some 10 million prints were probably framed across the US, in time
acquiring the status of family heirloom.

Audubon was an original and a stylist. He was also entirely self-taught, a
fact he tended to conceal, inventing stories about training under
Jacques-Louis David. He may have met the master, he certainly admired him
and saw himself as his follower, adhering to David's teaching: always
drawing what one sees and copying nature. But it is logistically impossible
for him to have studied with him. It seems more likely the young Audubon may
have briefly attended the local academy of drawing. He was a showman with a
difficult personality tempered by a variety of insecurities, including his
lack of scientific training. Even more troubling for him were the facts of
his birth.

This most American of artists was born on April 26th, 1785, in Les Cayes,
Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) to a Frenchman, Captain Jean Audubon, and his
mistress, Jeanne Rabin, a young chambermaid. The infant was named Jean
Rabin. However, when he was just over six months old, his mother died. On
his third birthday, he was taken by his father to the home in Nantes he
shared with his wealthy wife, Anne Moynet.

Just over a month short of his fourth birthday, he was formally adopted by
his father and his wife, who seems a civilised woman and raised the boy and
the daughter of another of her husband's affairs as her own. The child's
name was then changed to Jean-Jacques Fougere. During this time, the prelude
to the French Revolution, Captain Audubon, true to his entrepreneurial
instincts and perhaps also looking to his son's future, purchased Mill
Grove, a farm near Philadelphia. Audubon the artist, who became a US citizen
in 1812, never appears to have forgotten what he referred to as the shame of
his birth. Yet he was privileged. He was raised as a gentleman, could draw -
concentrating on birds and flowers - and fenced.

At the age of 11, he began four years of naval training in
Rochefort-sur-Mer. In the summer of 1803, he was 18. His father sent him to
Mill Grove to learn English, or, more importantly, with the onset of the
Napoleonic Wars, to avoid conscription. It was an important time.
Internationally, the Louisiana Purchase, the biggest land sale in history,
under which the US secured from France the entire Mississippi Valley up to
the Rocky Mountains (an area of 828,000 square miles), was secured under
President Jefferson. It doubled the size of the US and freed it from French
influence. For the young Audubon, however, the year marked the beginning of
his lifelong fascination with the birds of his new country - at a time when
they were thriving at pre-environmental threat numbers. In the 1820s
American birds enjoyed unfettered profusion. There were no endangered

Drawing was already his life and he bartered drawing lessons in exchange for
tutoring in English. In 1805, aged 20, he returned to France for a year,
during which he drew birds in pastel. He would later view this work as the
beginning of his collection.

Having destroyed most of his earliest efforts, he began to keep his work
from this point on. About 109 of these drawings and pastel watercolours,
dated 1805-1812, and comprising the largest single collection, are owned by
Harvard University.

By late May, 1806, Audubon had arrived in New York. Among his luggage were
all of the drawings and pastels he had done in France. He presented them to
his fiancee, Lucy Bakewell. Within months, he would begin experimenting with
a technique he wanted to master, arranging newly killed birds in life-like
poses with the use of wire. He also began to introduce watercolour into his

Audubon the artist was also intent on succeeding in business. He moved to
Kentucky where his father had set him up in a general store. It was the
first of several disasters, including bankruptcy. By then he had married
Lucy, who would prove ever resourceful, raising their surviving two
children, sons (both daughters died as babies), single-handedly. Meanwhile,
her volatile, obsessive husband divided his time between his expeditions,
painting his subjects and the more frustrating task of securing financial
backing for his great project: The Birds of America.

It didn't take long for Audubon to realise he had no flair for merchant
trading in flour, pork and lard, nor was he a natural real-estate
speculator. The New Orleans-based business he began with his brother-in-law
would not survive. But before the business collapsed, he would leave
Kentucky and return to Pennsylvania, then resettle in Kentucky.

He was soon on the move again and often ended up giving art classes. One of
his students in Ohio was extremely gifted. Joseph Mason was only 13 but, as
Audubon wrote to Lucy, 'he now draws flowers better than any man in
America'. The two only worked together for two years and Mason would later
complain he never received due credit for the foliage and flowers he
contributed to possibly up to 57 of Audubon's paintings. The artist's
transient lifestyle makes for a complicated biography but it explains how he
saw so much of his adopted country and its wildlife.

Apparently his personality was a handicap when it came to securing
subscribers for his great project. In American Visions (1997), art critic
Robert Hughes acknowledges Audubon as 'a great formal artist' and praises
The Birds of America as 'a touchstone of American sensibility', noting 'its
sense of profile, placement, rhythm and graphic energy'. He also makes it
clear 'he was not a nice guy'.

Nice or not, Audubon was determined. Having been rejected by Philadelphia's
scientific community, he travelled to London. The English loved the wild
woodsman image cultivated by Audubon, whose flair for mythic self-invention
finally paid off. Sporting long hair, slicked with bear grease, and a
buckskin jacket, he played the part and won the exhibition space, patrons
and membership of natural history societies he had sought back home. He also
secured a fine engraver, the Havell family firm. By 1831, the then
46-year-old Audubon, who had all the while been also busy writing, was ready
to see the first of five volumes of his Ornithological Biography (1831-1839)
published. He also met a soulmate and fellow naturalist, the Rev John
Bachman. His two daughters would each marry Audubon's widower sons.

Audubon's art had become the family business. His sons were also artists,
though not as gifted as their father. However they would play an important
part in completing his final work, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of America.
This was the result of the artist's expedition to the West in 1843 as the
frontier was being transformed. Then 58, Audubon no longer possessed the
manic energy that had always sustained him but he survived the journey with
some enthusiasm.

In less than three years, two of the three volumes of Quadrupeds had
appeared. But his sight was failing. In 1847, he suffered a stroke and was
in the early stage of Alzheimer's disease. The final volume of Quadrupeds
was published the following year. John James Audubon died four months before
his 66th birthday. Twelve years after his death, his destitute widow, Lucy,
then supporting the families of both sons, who had also died, persuaded the
New York Historical Society to buy the original paintings for a mere dollars
4,000. The old lady lived on until 1874, and died in Kentucky aged 87. Life
was cruel to her. Yet the artistic legacy of the obsessive, Faustian Audubon
remains a testament to the grandeur, beauty and violence of nature.

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