Charles Matthews's Reviews > John James Audubon

John James Audubon by Richard Rhodes
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Dec 07, 09


This review ran in the San Jose Mercury News on October 17, 2004:

John James Audubon produced his paintings of the birds of America by killing, skinning and dissecting thousands of them. Those astonishing images of birds full of life -- flying, fighting, mating, preening, feeding their young -- were achieved by mounting dead birds on a contraption of his own devising: ''Sharpened wires embedded in a board onto which he could impale his fresh specimens in lifelike attitudes,'' as Richard Rhodes describes it.
We cringe at facts like that, and I wouldn't be surprised if someone who reads Rhodes' brilliant new book quits the Audubon Society and joins People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals instead. But though it may be a sin to kill a mockingbird, how else are you going to depict a mockingbird accurately if you have no cameras, no color film, no telephoto lenses?

Rhodes' marvelously detailed and readable new biography lets us see anew what an extraordinary achievement Audubon's ''Birds of America'' was. Audubon's contributions to art and science not only earned him recognition as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London -- only the second American (the first was Benjamin Franklin) to achieve that honor -- but also, Rhodes points out, directly influenced Charles Darwin.
One of the revelations provided by history and biography is how the world changes. Rhodes' account of the life and times of Audubon is not only a portrait of an amazing man, it's also a look at untamed America in the early 19th century, a journey into a wilderness that was vanishing before Audubon's own eyes -- so fast that in 1833, 30 years after he first set foot in America, he wrote, ''Nature herself is perishing.''
When the 18-year-old Frenchman came to the United States in 1803, he was only a few years younger than the country itself. He came from a country that had recently experienced the grisly turmoil of the Reign of Terror, and that now threatened to draft him into the army Napoleon was assembling to conquer Europe. France had a population of 27 million; there were only 6 million people in the United States, Rhodes tells us, ''two-thirds of them living within fifty miles of Atlantic tidewater.''
What better place for a man to reinvent himself? And Audubon was already adept at reinvention: He was born out of wedlock to a chambermaid on his father's sugar plantation in what's now Haiti, and until he was 8 years old his name was Jean Rabin. When his father's wife agreed to raise the child, he was renamed Jean-Jacques Fougere Audubon. He later began calling himself John James LaForest Audubon, and throughout his life he made up stuff about himself: that he had studied with the artist Jacques-Louis David, for example, or that he was born in Louisiana.
Audubon's fibs have not endeared him to some people. Rhodes quotes, for example, the art historian-critic Robert Hughes' characterization of Audubon as ''self-inflated, paranoid and a bit of a thug.'' But Rhodes presents us with a very different Audubon, one who was many things: a handsome, charismatic, driven artist; an intrepid woodsman; a meticulous researcher; a perfectionist; an extraordinarily successful self-promoter; and a devoted husband and father.
Audubon's was an epic life. Slipping free of the constraints and bloody conflicts of early 19th-century Europe and the raw new civilization taking hold in the eastern United States, he made his way into the wilderness of the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. He married a woman nearly as intrepid as he -- Lucy Bakewell, who had emigrated from England with her family. They tried to make a go of it running a mill in the rough little river town of Henderson, Ky., but you sense that Audubon's fascination with birds, which he had already begun to paint, was a distraction that would doom any mundane business he put his hand to.
When the business failed, he supported his family by teaching art and painting portraits -- much in demand in that time before photography -- in Louisville and Cincinnati, while continuing to build up his portfolio of American birds. Eventually, as Rhodes puts it, he ''reimagined himself as a one-man ornithological expeditionary force'' and in 1820 he set out downriver, leaving Lucy behind to raise their two sons. The next decade of the Audubons' married life would be a series of long separations and brief reunions as he assembled his collection of images and sailed to England to try to get it published.
As Rhodes observes, ''Europe was more curious to know America than America was yet curious to know itself.'' Audubon's work caused a sensation in England and France, and the publication of ''Birds of America'' gave this self-made American fame and fortune.
It won't surprise anyone who read Rhodes' Pulitzer Prize-winning ''The Making of the Atomic Bomb'' that his Audubon biography is a masterly piece of storytelling. To be sure, the documentation available to him was generous -- Audubon left a clear paper trail; he was a prolific journal-keeper and letter writer, and the long separation of husband and wife made dutiful, detailed correspondence necessary, even though their letters would sometimes take many months in the delivery. But it falls to Rhodes to give Audubon's story texture and shape and significance, and he succeeds splendidly.
If I had to fault the book, I'd say that Rhodes never quite puts his finger on the source of Audubon's compulsive devotion to painting birds. Following the lead of one of Audubon's autobiographical writings (not always, as we've seen, the most reliable source), he ascribes it to a desire to ''revivify the dead,'' born of the young Audubon's witnessing of cruel death during the Terror. But nothing will ever quite explain the passion that drove Audubon to walk hundreds of miles in uncharted land, to plunge into snake-infested swamps and dense forests and in one instance that Rhodes beautifully re-creates, to climb inside a hollow tree swarming with chimney swallows, all in pursuit of knowledge of bird life.
Rhodes is simply awed by what Audubon accomplished: ''When he set out to create a monumental work of art with his own heart and mind and hands, he succeeded -- a staggering achievement, as if one man had single-handedly financed and built an Egyptian pyramid.'' Rhodes hasn't built any pyramids, but he should be fairly proud of his own achievement: an absorbing, revealing, entertaining biography, the best I've read this year.
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