Online Artist Archive
b. 1785; d. 1851
"In dealing with Audubon one must realize, right off, that he was not a nice guy. He was self-inflated, paranoid, and a bit of a thug. He jeered bitterly at the good work of rivals, or, worse, claimed it as his own."
- Robert Hughes, Time Magazine art critic and author of "American Visions"
"We tend to think of 'ornithological art' as a branch of illustration; but the work of John James Audubon (1785-1851) went far beyond that. He was a great formal artist, which could never be claimed for Cole; and one reason why his climactic work, "The Birds of America," remains a touchstone of American sensibility -- and has influenced artists well into the 20th century, such as Ellsworth Kell -- is its abstract quality: its sense of profile, placement, rhythm, and graphic energy."
- Robert Hughes
John James Audubon's eyes were not on the Mandan Indians or the landscape when he arrived at Fort Union aboard the Omega in 1843. His attention, instead, was turned to the feathered and four-footed citizens of the Upper Missouri River Valley.
The 58-year-old artist's interest was in buffalo, grizzly bear, sheep, antelope, fox and black-footed ferret. He had come to sketch them, to create a new and defining work on the animals of North America. He wanted to build upon the recent success of his "Birds of America."
And, like his birds, Audubon's animals were not plucked from nature and out of context. His portrait of a mountain lion captures the cat just after it has killed a calf. One paw, claw extended, rests upon the black bovine's jugular. His mule deer has been shot through the lungs, and the hunter can be seen in the background. Audubon's black-footed ferret is about to dine on the contents of a bird's nest. The American swallow-tailed kite clutches a snake, and the claws of his golden eagle grasp a rabbit, one talon driven through the rabbit's eye.
Audubon didn't shirk from the savagery of nature. His hands fairly dripped with the blood of his subjects.
Hidden behind Audubon's lush animal and bird portraits are the carcasses of hundreds and thousands of creatures the artist killed or had killed so that he might draw them. He would take their still-warm bodies and position them in life-like poses that he would transfer to his creations.
Audubon was an excellent hunter.
Yet Audubon was astounded by what he found at Fort Union. Audubon biographer John
Chancellor reports on the buffalo hunt by fur traders: "It was not long before Audubon was able to 'make havoc' with buffaloes; he took part in a buffalo hunt. This experience brought about in him a change of heart. After killing his first bull, he cut off the brush of the tail and stuck it in his hat. Other members of the party broke open the head of Audubon's bull and ate the brains, raw and warm. He began to be shocked by the wantonness of the buffalo slaughter. 'What a terrible destruction of life, as it were for nothing, or next to it, as the tongues only were brought in, and the flesh of this fine animals was left to beasts and birds of prey, or to rot on the spots where they fell.' He saw that senseless destruction of buffaloes could lead to their extinction. 'Immense numbers are murdered almost daily on these boundless wastes called prairies . . . this cannot last . . . before many years the Buffalo, like the Great Auk, will have disappeared,' surely this should not be permitted.'"
Audubon didn't spend much time hunting at Fort Union. He relied on others to kill and bring dead game into the fort for him to sketch. When he did go out, it was in a cart or wagon. Such behavior was somewhat out of character for Audubon, who was an accomplished woodsman who had gone into the field searching for birds most of his life.
But time had changed him, just as it had the West.
When the Omega left St. Louis for Fort Union, it carried 500 dozen eggs and 15 dozen bottles of claret. Audubon was met at Fort Union by Superintendent Alexander Culbertson, who that first afternoon rode down and shot a wolf as his guests watched from the high walls of the fort. "I should like to see some of the best English hunting gentlemen hunt in the like manner," Audubon is reported to have said.
The 34-year-old Culbertson, along with his Blackfoot wife, Natawista, put on riding exhibitions for Audubon and other guests. Fort Union had become nearly civilized, and Audubon was pretentious enough to enjoy it.
"Samuels' Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West" places Audubon's birth at Les Cayes, Haiti, on April 26, 1785. His father was a slaver and his mother a Creole slave. Shirley Streshinsky, in her biography of Audubon, says he was born in the West Indies, specifically on a plantation named Perche, his mother a chambermaid. Audubon in autobiographic writings legitimized his birth, a position his offspring held to after his death.
His mother, likely Jeanne Rabin, died in November 1785. At age 4, Audubon traveled with his father to France, where he received his education, with no particular stress on drawing or art. In 1803, the 18-year-old Audubon was sent to the United States, to help manage a farm near Philadelphia owned by his father, where he would learn a trade and English.
Then, Audubon was a bit of a fop, but there was something else already apparent in his makeup: "Audubon's diet and the hours which he kept contrasted with his flamboyant lifestyle. He rose at dawn to devote himself to his bird studies; he lived on fruit, vegetables, milk and seldom allowed himself a glass of wine," Chancellor writes.
By 1810, his portfolio included the portraits of more than 200 American birds.
Unfortunately, his business acumen didn't match his ornithological vocation. As a young man, Audubon manage to lose or failed at whatever business he tried. In 1820, he was responsible for a wife and children, and was bankrupt. Often, he would be forced to do portraits and teach drawing to pay bills.
Chancellor wrote: "He was much in demand for portraying persons on their deathbeds and one clergyman went so far as having his dead child exhumed in order to have a likeness, in Audubon's hand, of his face."
Audubon's money trouble was the catalyst that changed his life.
"On 12 October 1820 Audubon, aged 35, embarked on the most important journey of his life. The bankrupt, itinerant artist and tutor, with his guns, portfolio of bird drawings, black chalk and watercolors, set out to enlarge his knowledge and enrich his portfolio,"
Chancellor writes. For four years he stalked birds for his sketches, the results of which he took to Philadelphia, where his arrogance was his undoing. He managed, in a short time, to offend the people who had the final word on what was good ornithological research in America, to the point that no printer would consider producing Audubon's birds.
As Catlin traveled to England with his Indian Gallery because Congress would not buy it, so, too, Audubon was forced to England to search for support and a British printer, which in the end was a good thing, because at that time British printers were much better than their American counterparts.
THE GREAT IDEA
Audubon sketches were life-sized, on the largest available commercial paper produced at the time, 29.5-x-39.5 inches. The animals were done on 22-by-28-inch paper. The plan for the quadruped book was to create 30 sets of five plates each, at $10 a set, with the text published separately. Eventually, 150 hand-colored lithographs were completed, half by Audubon and half by his son, with the text written by Audubon's lifelong friend, Dr. John Bachman.
Audubon sketched at Fort Union through the summer of 1843, and, in August, began the trip home aboard a 40-foot barge named Union. He returned with a small menagerie, including a caged fox, a pet badger and a small Rocky Mountain deer.
He was described at the time of this Upper Missouri trip as being tall and thin, with bright penetrating eyes and white locks down to his shoulders.
Once home, he began to prepare the animal sketches for publication.
"In November 1843 Audubon was back at Minnie Land, having grown a beard. Some of the enormous number of animals which they killed were brought back in barrels of 'common rum' -- prairie dogs and wolves, grizzly bears, marmots, foxes, elks, calabashes, otters, mountain rams and antelopes," Chancellor writes.
Audubon's daughter wrote: "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 close to his work. After breakfast he drew till noon and then took a long walk."
His partner on the project, Bachman, had expected Audubon to bring back extensive notes on the behavior and habitat of the animals he sketched, but the artist had done little of that work. Bachman kept asking for the notes, and the artist kept putting off his partner and continued to work on the drawings.
Bachman was pleased with the drawings, but wanted the notes. In 1847, Bachman visited Audubon and discovered the truth: "Alas, my poor friend Audubon! The outline of his beautiful face and form are there, but his noble mind is all in ruins. It's indescribably sad."
The family had hid this from Bachman.
Chancellor writes: "Audubon's eyesight was indeed failing: Soon he would not be able to see well enough to draw. By 1846 he had completed half the large illustrations for the 'Quadrupeds,' but he could do no more."
The artist had either suffered a series of strokes or had Alzheimer's disease.
He died in 1851.
- Ken Rogers
Originally published under the title "An American Master" in Lewis and Clark: Art of the Upper Missouri. (Ken Rogers, Tim Fought, editors. Jim Bridges, publisher. Bismarck: The Bismarck Tribune, 2000.) Used with permission. Audubon images courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota (#4271 and #4272).