Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/September 1887/Sketch of J. J. Audubon
WHEN Audubon's fame was just beginning, "Christopher North" (Professor Wilson, of the University of Edinburgh, and editor of "Blackwood's Magazine") wrote, under the form of a dialogue between himself and the Ettrick Shepherd (James Hogg, the poet), as follows:
"North. What a pity, James, that you were not in Edinburgh in time to see my friend Audubon's exhibition!
"Shepherd. An exhibition o' what?
"North. Of birds painted to the life. Almost the whole American ornithology, true to nature as if the creatures were in their native haunts in the forests, or on the sea-shores. Not stiff and staring like stuffed specimens, but in every imaginable characteristic attitude, perched, wading, or a-wing—not a feather, smooth or ruffled, out of its place—every song, chirp, chatter, or cry made audible by the power of genius.
"Shepherd. Where got he sae weel acquaint wi' a' the tribes—for do they not herd in swamps and woods where man's foot intrudes not—and the wilderness is guarded by the rattlesnake, fearsome watchman, wi' nae ither bouets than his ain fiery eyne?
"North. For upward of twenty years the enthusiastic Audubon lived in the remotest woods, journeying to and fro on foot thousands of miles—or sailing on great rivers, great as any seas—with his unerring rifle, slaughtering only to embalm his prey by an art of his own, in form and hue unchanged, unchangeable—and now, for the sum of one shilling, may anybody that chooses it behold the images of all the splendid and gorgeous birds of that continent.
"Shepherd. Where's the exhibition now?
"North. At Glasgow, I believe—where I have no doubt it will attract thousands of delighted spectators. I must get the friend who gave a glance over 'Selby's Ornithology' to tell the world at large more of Audubon. He is the greatest artist in his own walk that ever lived, and can not fail to reap the reward of his genius and perseverance and adventurous zeal in his own beautiful branch of natural history, both in fame and fortune."
John James Audubon was born near New Orleans, May 4, 1780, and died at the present Audubon Park, New York city, January 27, 1851. His father, the son of a fisherman of La Vendée, was a French naval officer, who, having become wealthy, had acquired a plantation in Louisiana, and married a lady of that colony, of Spanish descent. The son imbibed a love of Nature at an extremely early age, which was probably strengthened by his short residence on his father's plantation in Santo Domingo, and was not repressed, but mastered the situation when he was sent to France to be educated. It is recorded of him that he was accustomed to amuse himself when a mere child by trying to draw the birds he saw around him; and that, his crude efforts not being satisfactory, he used to make a bonfire of them at each birthday. His father desired him to be qualified for some occupation connected with the navy, or with engineering. He was sent to France, where the father had bought an estate near Nantes, on which his step-mother was living, to be taught mathematics, drawing, geography, fencing, and music. His drawing-master was the celebrated artist David, who set him to drawing "horses' heads and the limbs of giants," but he preferred birds, and improved such opportunities as he could get to exercise himself upon them, and spent much of his time in excursions into the woods, collecting specimens, and making drawings of them. The real supervision of his operations was with his indulgent step-mother, who gave him ample scope for the exercise of his own tastes. When Audubon's father returned from sea he was astonished at the large collection his son had made, and then asked what progress he had made in his other studies. The reply not being satisfactory, he took the youth in hand himself, and kept him for a year in the close study of mathematics. But every opportunity for natural history rambles was still improved. Audubon spent another year at Nantes, when he went over after having returned to America, and settled at Mill Grove, to expose the unfaithfulness of an agent whom his father had intrusted with the charge of one of his enterprises, and to consult his parents respecting marriage. During one of these residences in Nantes he is credited with having made a hundred drawings of European birds. Three specimens of these works have recently come into the hands of Dr. R. W. Shufeldt, who has described them in "The Auk." They are all drawn in a combination of crayon and water-colors, on a thin and not expensive kind of drawing-paper; are numbered 44, 77, and 96, and represent the magpie, the coot, and the green woodpecker. The earliest of the sketches is the magpie, represented as of life-size and standing on the ground. "The execution is quite crude, though the naturalist 'sticks out' in it, for, notwithstanding the somewhat awkward position the bird is in, there is life in it." The second picture, that of a coot, "is a marked improvement on the magpie. Far more pains have been taken with the feet, legs, bill, and eye, though little has been gained in the natural attitude of the bird. ... Except very faintly in the wing, no attempt has been made to individualize the feathers, the entire body being of a dead black, worked in either by burned cork or crayon." Dr. Shufeldt also remarks that, "as is usually the case among juvenile artists, both this bird and the magpie are represented upon direct lateral view, and no evidence has yet appeared to hint to us of the wonderful power Audubon eventually came to possess in figuring his birds in their every attitude." The green woodpecker "is a wonderful improvement, in every particular, upon both of the others. The details of the plumage and other structures are brought out with great delicacy, and refinement of touch; while the attitude of the bird, an old male, is even better than many of those published in his famous work. The colors are soft, and have been so handled as to lend to the plumage a very flossy and natural appearance, while the old trunk, upon the side of which the bird is represented, presents several evidences of an increase of the power to paint such objects."
When about seventeen or eighteen years old, young Audubon returned to the United States, and his father, willing to gratify his now decided tastes, settled him upon a farm which he owned near Philadelphia, "Mill Grove," at the mouth of Perkiomen Creek. Here he had full opportunity for the gratification of his huntsman's and naturalist's inclination, and improved it so industriously that he appeared to be good for little else. Desiring to form a matrimonial engagement with Lucy Bakewell, he was advised by the father of the young lady to go into business, and he accordingly entered the employment of a firm in New York; but even here it was the study of Nature and not trade that engaged his attention. "For a period of twenty years," he confesses in the biographical preface to his "Birds," "my life was a series of vicissitudes. I tried various branches of commerce, but they all proved unprofitable, doubtless because my whole mind was ever filled with my passion for rambling and admiring those objects of Nature from which alone I received the purest gratification." It is in connection with the relation of the story of a hurricane, while he was living at Henderson, years after his Philadelphia experiences, that he says that, just before the breaking out of the awful storm, his thoughts were, "for once, at least, in the course of my life, entirely engaged in commercial speculations." He soon gave up his New York engagement, and shortly afterward formed a partnership with Ferdinand Rosier to go into trade at Louisville, Kentucky. His settlement at this place having been determined upon, he was married to Miss Bakewell in April, 1808. This lady was a descendant of the Peverils of the Peak, one of whom has given name to one of Walter Scott's novels, and was a relative of the famous British geologist Bakewell. She proved a congenial wife to the naturalist, and gave him valuable aid while he had his great work under way, by helping him to pay the expenses of his enterprise out of the fruits of her own industry. The farm at Mill Grove was sold, a stock of goods was purchased with the proceeds, and Audubon removed with his wife to Louisville, making the journey down the Ohio River in a flat-boat, with two rowers. At Louisville, again, he left business to his partner, and occupied himself with natural history and his drawings.
In 1810 he was visited at his store by Alexander Wilson, who came to solicit subscriptions to his "Ornithology." He was about to sign the list, when his partner suggested to him, in French, that he could make better drawings than Wilson, and probably knew as much about American birds as he. Wilson understood the remark, and asked Audubon if he had any drawings of birds. Audubon exhibited what he had, and, to Wilson's question if he intended to publish his work, replied that he had never thought of it. The two naturalists seem to have spent some time together. Audubon explored the woods with Wilson, lent him his drawings, and aided him in various ways; but, after all this, Wilson, in the mortification of his vanity that he had met a superior in his own special field, had it in his heart to enter in his notes against Louisville that "science or literature had not one friend in the place."
As might be expected, the business at Louisville was not prosperous. After four years, marked by two removals to secure better success, the partnership was dissolved, and Audubon removed to Henderson, Kentucky, in 1812. Another business adventure, entered into with his brother-in-law in New Orleans, failed. Only natural history prospered with him. A very large proportion of his work in this line, which bore so noble and so abundant fruit in later years, was done during his residence in Henderson. Aiming to represent the birds which he drew in position as far as possible, he adopted ingenious devices to secure correct views of them as they looked in Nature. Those which he had to shoot he would afterward set up and support in natural attitudes, while he painted them; others he would view, with their actual surroundings, through a telescope. Audubon's father died about 1812, leaving to him the estate in France and seventeen thousand dollars, which had been deposited with a merchant in Richmond, Virginia. "Audubon, however, took no steps to obtain possession of his estate in France, and in after-years, when his sons had grown up, sent one of them to France for the purpose of legally transferring the property to his own sister Rosa." Before Audubon was able to obtain the money from the merchant in Richmond, the latter died insolvent; and so no benefit accrued to the naturalist from either part of his legacy.
By the pressure of this disappointment and other failures, Audubon was compelled to work for a living. He took up the drawing of crayon-portraits with much success, and is said to have seemed to get a new start in life. In a short time he received an invitation to become a curator of the museum at Cincinnati, and for the preparation of birds received a liberal remuneration. In conjunction with this situation he opened a drawing-school in the same city, and obtained from this employment additional emolument sufficient to support his family comfortably. His teaching succeeded well until several of his pupils started on their own account. The work at the museum having been finished, Audubon fell back upon his portrait-painting and such resources as his genius could command. Applying for assistance to an old friend whom he had helped into business, the ungrateful wretch declared he would do nothing for his benefactor, and further added that he would not even recommend one who had such wandering habits. On more occasions than this his genius for discovery was made an argument against him.
In October, 1820, Audubon left Cincinnati, and sailed down the Ohio in company with Captain Cumming, an engineer, who had been appointed to make a survey of the Mississippi River. He was provided with letters of introduction from General Harrison and Henry Clay, and intended a long ornithological excursion through Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, up Red River, and down the Arkansas. At Bayou Sara, in the following June, he accepted an engagement with Mrs. Perrie to teach her daughter drawing during the summer months at sixty dollars a month. Mrs. Perrie's real aim is supposed to have been to provide for Audubon an opportunity to carry on his pursuits under the guise of an employment which would be congenial and not interfere with his work. Later in the year he was invited to join another artist in painting a panorama of New Orleans. But, he wrote in his journal, "My birds, my beloved birds of America, occupy all my time, and nearly all my thoughts, and I do not wish to see any other perspective than the last specimen of those drawings."
For the first two months of 1822 it is written by his wife in her "Life," "the records of Audubon's life are sparse and imperfect, on account of his inability to purchase a book to write his journal in!" The one at last obtained was made of thin, poor paper, and the records entered are rather in keeping with his financial difficulties. It took all his means at this time to supply his family with the necessaries of life; and in order to obtain money to educate the children, his wife undertook the duties of a situation in which she had charge of and educated the offspring of a Mr. Brand. They afterward removed to Natchez, where Audubon drew and taught drawing in the college at Washington, Mississippi, and Mrs. Audubon taught; and then to Bayou Sara, Louisiana, where Mrs. Audubon established a school, with the proceeds of which she was enabled to aid materially in the publication of the "Birds," and Audubon assisted her by teaching music and dancing. A member of one of the families, in which Mrs. Audubon was a governess during this period, has furnished Dr. Shufeldt with a childhood's reminiscence of the naturalist. "He was with us," she says, "eight months, but during the greater part of the time was wandering all over the State, walking almost the entire time; no insect, worm, reptile, bird, or animal escaped his notice. He would make a collection, return home and draw his crayon-sketches, when his son John would stuff the birds and such animals as he wished to preserve."
In the spring of 1824, Audubon, with two hundred drawings, representing about a thousand birds, went to Philadelphia in order obtain help to complete his ornithological work. He was soon satisfied, it is said in Mrs. Audubon's "Life," that the venture would be successful. Having purchased a new suit of clothes and dressed himself with extreme neatness, he called upon Dr. Mease, an old friend, and was introduced by him to several artists, who paid him pleasant attentions. He was also introduced to Prince Canino, son of Lucien Bonaparte, "who examined my birds," Audubon writes, "and was complimentary in his praises. He was at the time engaged on a volume of American birds, which was soon to be published; but this did not prevent him from admiring another naturalist's work.—April 12th. Met the prince at Dr. Mease's, and he expressed a wish to examine my drawings more particularly. I found him very gentlemanly. He called in his carriage and took me to Peale, the artist, who was drawing specimens of birds for his work; but from want of knowledge of the habits of birds in a wild state, he represented them as if seated for a portrait, instead of their own lively, animated ways when seeking their natural food or pleasure. Other notable persons called to see my drawings, and encouraged me with their remarks. The Prince Canino introduced me to the Academy of Arts and Sciences, and pronounced my birds superb and worthy of a pupil of David. I formed the acquaintance of Le Sueur, the zoölogist and artist, who was greatly delighted with my drawings." Audubon was engaged by Prince Canino to superintend his drawings intended for publication; but his terms being much dearer than Alexander Wilson's, he was asked to discontinue his work. "I had now," he writes, "determined to go to Europe with my 'treasures,' since I was assured nothing so fine in the way of ornithological representations existed. I worked incessantly to complete my series of drawings. On inquiry, I found Sully and Le Sueur made a poor living by their brush. I had some pupils offered at a dollar per lesson; but I found the citizens unwilling to pay for art, although they affected to patronize it. I exhibited my drawings for a week, but found the show did not pay, and so determined to remove myself."
Thus, notwithstanding the pleasant social aspect of his reception in Philadelphia, he does not appear to have been encouraged in its material promise; and he met with a misfortune which would have depressed the spirits of the bravest and most sanguine. His plates, the fruit of years of labor and of almost exclusive preoccupation during the whole time, were destroyed in a single night by rats. He went to work at once, however, to restore his drawings, and did so. Mr. McMurtrie, the conchologist, advised him to take his drawings to England. Prince Canino advised him to go to France. He proceeded to New York, having left Philadelphia "free from debt and free from anxiety about the future." In New York he visited the museum and "found the specimens of stuffed birds set up in unnatural and constrained attitudes. This appears to be tbe universal practice, and the world owes to me the adoption of the plan of drawings from animated nature. Wilson is the only one who has in any tolerable degree adopted my plan."
The prospect for having his drawings published in New York did not appear very encouraging, although it seemed more hopeful than it had been in Philadelphia. He visited the Lyceum, and his portfolio was examined by the members of the Institute, among whom, he writes, "I felt awkward and uncomfortable." After living among such people I felt clouded and depressed; remember that I have done nothing, and fear that I may die unknown. I feel I am strange to all but the birds of America. In a few days I shall be in the woods and quite forgotten." On the next day: "My spirits low, and I long for the woods again; but the prospect of becoming known prompts me to remain another day." He was invited by the artist, Vanderlyn, to sit for a portrait of General Jackson, whom his figure was thought to resemble considerably.
From New York he proceeded up the Hudson and into the lake-region, visiting Niagara, but not crossing over to Goat Island on account of the low state of his finances; then returned by way of Erie, Pittsburg, and the rivers, to his home in Bayou Sara. His wife was receiving an income of nearly three thousand dollars a year from her labors in teaching, and he took charge of a class in dancing by which he cleared two thousand dollars; and with this capital and his wife's savings he was now able to foresee a successful issue to his great ornithological work.
He had determined upon going to England where, although he knew no one, he hoped that he might find a way to get his plates engraved. He sailed from New Orleans in May, 1826, and arrived in Liverpool on the 20th of July. He exhibited his pictures, with satisfaction to his visitors at Liverpool and Manchester, to their admiration at Edinburgh. He made friends of Herschel, Sir Walter Scott, and "Christopher North," who has left the record of his warm admiration for the man and his work in two of his essays, and of Cuvier, Humboldt, and Saint-Hilaire in France. He resolved to go on with the publication of his works, although his friends advised him that the risk was too great to venture upon. In 1827 he issued the prospectus of "The Birds of America," to be published in numbers of five folio plates each, the whole to be included in four volumes, and to be sold for one thousand dollars a copy. The entire cost of the work would exceed one hundred thousand dollars; yet when the prospectus was published he had not money enough to pay for getting out the first number. With the aid of Sir Thomas Lawrence he sold some pictures, and was enabled to carry himself over this difficulty; and this led the way to his finding a regular means of support while his enterprise was going on, by painting. He visited Paris in 1828, canvassing for subscribers, and experienced an admiration from illustrious men parallel with that which had greeted him in England. But he does not appear to have appreciated the money value of this admiration as highly as what he found in England, for he wrote: "France is poor indeed! This day I have attended the Royal Academy of Sciences, and had my plates examined by about one hundred persons. 'Fine, very fine,' issued from many mouths; but they said, also, 'What a work! what a price! who can pay it?' I recollected that I had thirty subscribers at Manchester, and mentioned it. They stared and seemed surprised; but acknowledged that England, the little island of England, alone was able to support poor Audubon. ... Now it is that I plainly see how happy, or lucky, it was in me not to have come to France first; for if I had, my work now would not have had even a beginning. It would have perished like a flower in October; and I should have returned to my woods, without the hope of leaving behind that eternal fame which my ambition, industry, and perseverance long to enjoy." Baron Cuvier was requested by the Academy of Sciences to make a verbal report on Audubon's "Birds," and he responded, describing the work "as the most magnificent monument which has yet been erected to ornithology." The author, having returned to his own country after his schooling in France, "thought he could not make a better use of his talents than by representing the most brilliant productions of that hemisphere. The accurate observation necessary for such representations as he wished to make soon rendered him a naturalist. ... Formerly the European naturalists were obliged to make known to America the riches she possessed; but now Mitchell, Harler, and Bonaparte give back with interest to Europe what America had received. Wilson's history of the 'Birds of the United States' equals in elegance our most beautiful works on ornithology. If that of Mr. Audubon should be completed, we shall be obliged to acknowledge that America, in magnificence of execution, has surpassed the Old World." After spending the winter in London, Audubon returned to the United States in April, 1829, and made his way, interrupted by excursions in quest of birds, to Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey, and the "Great Pine Swamp" in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania, to his home in Louisiana, which he reached in November. His book, in the mean time, was going steadily on, and the first volume was published in London in 1830. It contained one hundred plates, representing ninety-nine species of birds, with every figure of the color and size of life. The whole work was completed in four volumes, in 1839. It contained four hundred and thirty-five plates, representing one thousand and sixty-five distinct specimens of birds all, from the eagle to the humming-bird, of the size of life. Again, after three months at home, spent in hunting and drawing, he visited England in 1830, where he found that he had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and on the 6th of May took his seat in the great hall, and paid his entrance-fee of fifty pounds, "though I felt myself that I had not the qualifications to entitle me to such an honor." He was shortly afterward joined by his wife, who accompanied him in his journeys to get new subscribers. In 1831, anticipating another tour of observation and study in the South, he visited Washington, to get letters of introduction to the commanders of frontier posts and officers along his route. All received him in the kindest manner. The winter of 1831-'32 was spent in East Florida, in what Audubon called a rather unprofitable expedition, but which furnished the material for several striking "episodes," as his accounts of the events have been designated.
In his subsequent journey Audubon visited the coast of Maine, accompanied by his family. According to Dr. Griswold's account, although no reference to the circumstance is made in Mrs. Audubon's "Life," the cholera then prevailing in the country, he was taken sick in Boston and detained there for some time. Aside from his illness, his experience in Boston must have been of the most grateful character, for he wrote of it, "Although I have been happy in forming many valuable friendships in various parts of the world, all dearly cherished by me, the outpouring of kindness which I experienced in Boston far exceeded all that I have ever met with." With these kindnesses he associated the names of the men who lent to the Boston of that time its peculiar luster. Continuing his journey, he explored the forests of Maine and New Brunswick and the shores of the Bay of Fundy, and then went by schooner to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Magdalen Islands, and the coast of Labrador; and in the latter part of the season visited Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. In the ensuing spring, after nearly three years of travel and research, he went for the third time to England, where, and in Edinburgh, he lived a year and a half. As soon as the first volume of the "Birds" was published, Audubon began his "Ornithological Biographies," to accompany it; a work which, besides descriptions of the birds, contained reminiscences of personal adventure, with delineations of scenery and character. It was completed in five volumes (1831-'39). It has a literary and historical value apart from that which the accounts of the birds give it, in that it presents in language warm from his having been a part of the scenes, a virgin past of our country, and its forests and prairies, which can never be restored or so well described again. Having spent the winter of 1836-'37 at Charleston, with excursions to the sea-islands, Savannah, and Florida, Audubon, in the spring of 1837, sailed in a revenue-cutter for explorations in the Gulf of Mexico, of which he has left sketches of scenes in the Louisiana bayous, and in Texas. In 1838 he returned to Edinburgh, where he spent several months in preparing the fourth and fifth volumes of the "Ornithological Biography" and in finishing the drawings for the "Birds." In 1839 Audubon came back to the United States for the last time, bought an estate on the banks of the Hudson River, which he called Minniesland—now Audubon Park, and within the city of New York—and engaged in the preparation of an edition of the "Birds" in volumes of a reduced size. In this edition the matter was classified, a feature which had not been found practicable in the method of publication of the original edition. He had also had in hand for some time a book on the "Quadrupeds of America," for which he, his sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse Audubon, and the Rev. John Bachman, of Charleston, South Carolina, had gathered much material. A trip to the Rocky Mountains had been planned in connection with this work, but Audubon was induced to give it up, after having gone as far as the Yellowstone River, on account of his age. The first volume of the "Quadrupeds," which was largely the work of his collaborators, was published in 1846, and the last volume in 1854, after Audubon's death. During the last four years of his life, Audubon became weak in mind, and not able to do any regular work. "The interval of about three years," says Mrs. Audubon, "which passed between the time of Audubon's return from the West and the period when his mind began to fail, was a short and sweet twilight to his adventurous career. His habits were simple. Rising almost with the sun, he proceeded to the woods to view his feathered favorites till the hour at which the family usually breakfasted, except when he had drawing to do, when he sat closely to his work. After breakfast he drew till noon, and then took a long walk. At nine in the evening he generally retired. ... He was very fond of his grandchildren, and used often to take them on his knees and sing to them amusing French songs that he had learned in France when he was a boy. ... After 1848 the naturalist's mind entirely failed him, and during the last years of his life his eye lost its brightness, and he had to be led to his daily walks by the hand of a servant."
Various estimates of Audubon's character and work, and accounts of his appearance have been given us, all to his praise. Dr. Griswold says, in his "Prose-Writers of America," that his highest claim to admiration "is founded upon his drawings in natural history, in which he has exhibited a perfection never before attempted. In all our climates in the clear atmosphere, by the dashing waters, amid the grand old forests, with their peculiar and many-tinted foliage, by him first made known to art he has represented our feathered tribes, building their nests and fostering their young; poised on the tip of the spray and hovering over the sedgy margin of the lake; flying in the clouds in quest of prey, or from pursuit; in love, enraged, indeed, in all the varieties of their motion and repose, and modes of life so perfectly, that all other works of the kind are to his as stuffed skins to the living birds. But he has also indisputable claims to a respectable rank as a man of letters. Some of his written pictures of birds, so graceful, clearly defined, and brilliantly colored, are scarcely inferior to the productions of his pencil. ... From the beginning he surrendered himself entirely to his favorite pursuit, and has been intent to learn everything from the prime teacher Nature. His style as well as his knowledge is a fruit of his experience." His personal appearance, as a reference to his portrait will show must have been the case, was calculated to impress a visitor. He is described as having been tall and commanding in person, with a countenance which, from the sharp glance of his eye and the outline of his features, "suggested a resemblance to the eagle." He is believed, from his own account, to have been somewhat of a dandy while he was living at Perkiomen. "It was one of my fancies," he says, "to be ridiculously fond of dress; to hunt in black satin breeches, wear pumps when shooting, and dress in the finest ruffled shirts I could obtain from France." When on his hunting-tours, as he records in the relation of a visit to Niagara, he would allow himself to get into the plight of the poorer class of Indians, and worse, from not having, like them, plucked his beard or trimmed his hair in any way. "Had Hogarth been living, and there, when I arrived, he could not have found a fitter subject for a Robinson Crusoe. My beard covered my neck in front, my hair fell much lower at my back; the leather dress which I wore had for months stood in need of repair; a large knife hung at my side; a rusty tin box, containing my drawings and colors, and wrapped up in a worn-out blanket that had served me for a bed, was buckled to my shoulders. To every one I must have seemed immersed in the depths of poverty, perhaps of despair." Some explanation was needed to convince the landlord of the hotel that he was a suitable subject for entertainment, but it seems to have been satisfactory. Christopher North says of him in the "Noctes Ambrosianæ," as he appeared at Edinburgh: "The man himself is just what you would expect from his productions; full of fine enthusiasm and intelligence, most interesting in his looks and manners, a perfect gentleman, and esteemed by all who know him for the simplicity and frankness of his nature."