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Discover Mid-America August 2006
John James Audubon: The Making of an American by Richard Rhodes (New York: Vintage, 2006) 528 pages; color and b/w pictures and illustrations; $16.00; 037571393X
Rhodes creates a portrait of passion
The paintings of John James Audubon, on the surface, seem the most meticulous record of North American birds before many were hunted to extinction. But, on closer examination, the lifelike posture of the birds, generally set among native flora, reveal the inner nature of a man conflicted, ambitious and ultimately in love.
Richard Rhodes, the man who brought the American public such masterpieces as Farm, The Making of the Atomic Bomb and A Hole in the World, now tackles a biography/history of a man’s whose paintings are so ubiquitous that anyone would recognize them even if they had never heard the artists name.
The book’s subtitle reveals the nature of Rhodes quest: To tell the story of a lonely young man, born in Haiti and raised in France, haunted by his illegitimate birth, who became an icon so American that few knew or even suspected his foreign birth. Through painting, his knowledge of the outdoors, and his ability to blend into polite society, among people and places where he was never comfortable, he became legitimate both in his own mind and in that of the public — even if he had to lie about who he was and where he came from.
The public, however, little suspected that Audubon’s insecurity motivated him as an artist. He arrived from France as Thomas Jefferson was sealing the deal with Napoleon Bonaparte for the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Audubon spoke no English, but had already developed an interest in the study of birds.
Rhodes has done a masterful job of following Audubon from his correspondence. He leads the reader through the life of Audubon from this point forward with shifts through Audubon’s life. He falls in love with Lucy Bakewell, an English lady with money, connections and eyes only for the young hero. He moves into Kentucky to explore, learn and observe the birds and animals that would later make him famous. When Lucy has to return to England, the mournful and longing love letters reveal a man who sensitivities belie his outer confidence and courage.
Rhodes fault is also his asset. He becomes intimate with Audubon, his wife and his father. We see great character studies of his publisher, his fellow travelers and his detractors. But sometimes the text moves so lovingly slow that it makes tough reading. On the other hand, these preoccupations, almost obsessions for Rhodes, are the very things that pull us through.
What most people know, yet is still surprising about Audubon’s work, is that the birds and animals he painted were dead. An expert marksman, Audubon himself shot his subjects in the wild and transported them to his studio. There, he impaled the birds on a harness of wire spikes that he could manipulate and move to achieve what he considered not only the most lifelike but also the most revealing positions. He attempted to mimic, on his apparatus, the feeling and appearance of flight, its seeming weightlessness and detachment from the earth. For instance, his depiction of a fish hawk, which is reproduced in part on the cover, has the bird against a gray sky. Mountains and bluffs, an odd combination of geology, rings a plain or lake devoid of color yet crossed with a shadow.
The background was painted this way intentionally so as not to distract from the subject. But the effect is almost surreal; the hyper realistic bird in an ethereal setting that is not far from the truth. The panicked fish looks at the reader with a human-like eye, revealing fear and helplessness.
In the fish hawk, as with many other paintings, Audubon reveals himself. The letters, notes and journals tell us what Audubon wants us to hear. But like the hostage confronted at the door by a curious stranger, the pictures attempt to tell us what’s really going on with the man.
In part, this has to do with his long-distance romance with his wife. The remoteness of the American West from England both keeps his love ignited but is a source of great pain. His life’s work, The Birds of America, both heightens his celebrity and success but was a source of constant insecurity and care. His revisions, the meticulous nature of his work, and his need to have it accepted both by the public and the scientific community creating endless activity and headache.
Ultimately, John James Audubon is a story about a man who makes a new start. A person becomes American not through the mere presence in the States, but by living, breathing and working in American society. He was able to shed both his illegitimacy and his escape from conscription by becoming famous in America. He shows himself in nearly every picture he drew, from the proud wild turkey Rhodes selected from Birds of America, to the fledgling chuck-wills-widow being fed by an adult.
The question and fascination comes in looking at the paintings, strategically placed toward the end of the text. They become personal to Audubon, revealing of his secrets. Is he the fish hawk, strong, masterful of flight and sure? Or is he the frightened fish? A couple of long-billed curlews have a distinctly human aspect, hidden away in the long grass on a peace lakeshore, while a city spreads around the opposite shore. Is this a wish for he and Lucy to be alone and affectionate, but safe? Or is he the bison calf, whose head is so obviously decapitated and lying on a table, beautiful and alone but content?
And where is Audubon in his depiction of a flying golden eagle with what seems s to be a sleeping white bunny in its talons? Although he shows himself in the background crossing an abyss on a fallen tree, he is still small, helpless in the landscape. I would argue, after reading Rhodes text, that Audubon is — like many Americans — all three, the eagle, the bunny and the man.
Patrick Dobson is a Kansas City-based writer and Ph.D. candidate in history. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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