Think of birds, and you think of Audubon. But who was he? Caroline Popovic finds out
The founders of the Audubon Society named their august organisation after a hunter. This is the great irony: that the man who became legendary for his loving portraits of birds and animals felt so little compunction about killing them.Jean-Jacques (or John Jack) Audubon killed in the interests of research. His daily specimen count often totalled 100 birds — indeed, he considered it a bad day otherwise. He extolled the gastronomic virtues of birds like the sparrow and a certain breed of owl “often sold in the New Orleans markets” with which “the Creoles make a soup, for its meat has a good taste.” He even ate cormorants and crows.Audubon sometimes regretted the killing sprees. He once pillaged a nest of sandpipers. “I am really sorry to take their eggs,” he noted, “and it is only because I was forced to do so by my love of science that gives a good excuse to some of the most abominable acts.”
Of his first encounter with the Arctic Stern, Audubon wrote: “In all admiration of its ease and grace, I felt the strong desire to take it. We loaded our shotguns with lead pellets and you should have seen the beautiful birds fall, spiralling in the sea . . . Poor creatures! I remember the pain I felt in carrying out this sentence. At that instant I thought of long ago when one treated members of my own species in the same fashion; but on reloading my double-¬barrelled shotgun, I excused my acts as a matter of necessity.”
Audubon was a naturalist painter of world renown. Americans claimed him as one of their own; they erected a monument to him in Louisiana and recorded that he was born in New Orleans in 1780 (the claim still appears in some encyclopaedias). Audubon himself did little to correct the error. He dropped the French “Jean-Jacques” and assumed “John Jack” or John James instead. In order to make his ancestry more exotic, he hinted that he was the Dauphin Louis XVII, a tale supported only by his Bourbon-style nose.
Although he realised the proverbial American dream of fame and fortune, Jean-Jacques Fougère-Audubon was in fact born in the Caribbean, in Haiti. His father was a naval officer and slave trader who owned plantations in what was then Ste Domingue. His mother was not Audubon senior’s wife; Madame Audubon had elected to remain in Nantes, the Audubon home town in France, while her husband sailed off to look after his affairs.
Accounts as to the identity of Audubon’s real mother vary. In the introduction to the French version of Audubon’s Birds of America, she is presented as Mademoiselle Jeanne Rabin, a lady whom Audubon senior met on one of his voyages to Haiti. He installed her at his plantation in Les Cayes, on Haiti’s south coast, where in 1785 she gave birth to a boy, Jean-Jacques.
She died of fever, and Audubon senior went on to acquire a daughter in 1787 with Mademoiselle Catherine Bouffard. He then returned to France with his two children, having sold most of his property in Haiti where the upheavals of the late 18th century had begun; he formally adopted Jean¬-Jacques and his sister in 1794, and his patient wife raised the children as her own.
However, in his book Bonjour Blanc, the chronicle of a five-month journey through Haiti, British journalist Ian Thomson tells a different story. From Dr William Fougère, the great-great-¬grandson of Jean-Jacques Audubon’s brother Belony, he learned of extensive family research into the life of the famous artist, and was able to study the results.
According to Fougère’s father’s investigations, Mademoiselle Marie Rabin Fougère, a Creole from a wealthy family of Bordeaux, had settled in the northern Haitian city of Cap Haïtien, where she met and fell in love with Captain Jean Audubon, a retired officer of the French Navy, who was already married to one Anne Moynet from Nantes. When the family learned of the affair and the resulting pregnancy, the couple was banished from Cap Haïtien and moved to Les Cayes, the location of Audubon’s properties. There, Miss Fougère gave birth to Jean-Jacques Fougère-Audubon, the future artist. There is even a suggestion that Jean-Jacques’s real father was Daniel Gellée, son of the landscape painter Claude Lorraine, on whose estate the couple lived; in which case perhaps it was the genius of Lorraine that resurfaced in young Jean-Jacques.
Mademoiselle Fougère produced another son, almost certainly the offspring of Captain Audubon, but was murdered in 1789 during a slave revolt, while Audubon was in France. Jean-Jacques was sent to France that autumn and at the age of 15 was baptised under his father’s name.
A tangled story. But Jean-Jacques Audubon never dwelt on his origins; Haiti held no special place in his heart, and he never returned.
His father went on to acquire property in Pennsylvania, and tried to persuade his son to take an interest in trade and plantation management. The boy, however, was far more interested in painting. He may have been sent to study in Paris with Jacques-Louis David, the celebrated court painter; but he quit prematurely and returned to Nantes.
In 1803, Jean-Jacques’s father sent him to America to look after the family interests (and to avoid being drafted into the Napoleonic wars). The 18-year-old was enraptured by America’s almost pristine landscapes. He became popular; he barely spoke English (a lack remedied by Lucy Bakewell, the woman he would eventually marry), but he had all the genteel manners of a well-brought-up French gentleman. He danced well and was an accomplished musician. He never lacked invitations.
But his managerial ability was non-existent, and his father had to engage an overseer to run the family property, Mill Grove. His son’s sole interests were painting, socialising and hunting.
In 1808, Jean-Jacques married Lucy Bakewell, a woman with immense courage. She knew that her husband would never be a reliable breadwinner. She was right. With his friend and associate Ferdinand Rizier he tried his hand at lead-mining, store-keeping and running a steamboat enterprise. All the businesses folded. He worked as a taxidermist at the Western Museum of Cincinnati. He turned his hand to portrait painting. He gave drawing lessons, music and dance classes to high society.
But he was unfulfilled, and at the age of 35 he admitted to his wife that as a businessman he was a total failure. All he really wanted to do, he said, was travel the United States in search of new bird specimens and to paint them.
To keep her two children and herself, Lucy went out to work as a governess, leaving Audubon free to spend his time travelling and painting. The result was an astonishing collection of work that would eventually become Birds of America.
Audubon set out to paint each bird life-size. He used paper that measured 98 x 73 cm, but even so certain species like flamingos and cranes had to be bent into unnatural positions in order to fit on the sheet. To achieve this, he strung up the dead birds in appropriate postures.
The idea of pinning the birds into place came to him one morning at Mill Grove. “I killed the first kingfisher I met, I passed an iron wire through its body and fastened it onto a board, another wire held the head and the smallest fixed the feet . . . There before me was a veritable kingfisher. I drew it and coloured it. This was my first totally natural drawing.”
But his greatest idea was to paint all his birds in their natural habitat, perched on their favourite plants, eating the fruits and grains that they habitually fed on. It was this attention to detail that made Audubon more than a simple painter of birds. He was one of the first to use the tagging system to establish migratory habits. He made Europe familiar with the passenger pigeon, one of the most abundant species of all time. Tens of millions inhabited America before the arrival of the Europeans; the last died in 1914. Once, in 1830, while he was working on the production of Birds of America, Audubon arrived in England with 350 live passenger pigeons.
His exhaustive travels took him from Florida to Labrador and to the as yet uncharted west coast. By the time he finished, Audubon had acquired more than enough material for his book. He had to go to England, however, to find the skills to print the work and raise money for publication.
He must have created quite a stir upon his arrival. His shoulder-length hair was slicked into place with bear-grease pomade and he wore the buck skins of an American trapper. But he got his way. Even George IV agreed to help sponsor the publication.
In 1828, Audubon went to France in search of additional funding. Baron Cuvier, the great French anatomist, introduced him to the members of the Academy of Sciences, who pronounced on seeing his work that “there is nothing to surpass the works of Mr. Audubon.” Encouraged by this reception, Audubon believed that he would raise the rest of the money in France. However, after two months of waiting without receiving a single penny, he left bitterly disillusioned. “Poor France,” he wrote, “your gentle climate, your vineyards and the kind wishes of your scholars don’t mean a lot; you are nothing but a poor beggar without resources and not the powerful friend that you seemed to be.”
Eventually he found the staggering $115,640 needed to publish 200 copies of Birds of America. Each copy sold for $1,000 and contained 435 hand-coloured plates. He compiled the 3,500 pages (in five volumes) of The Ornithological Biography, where he painstakingly documented the behavioural, feeding, reproduction and migratory patterns of all the species in Birds of America.
The work appeared between 1827 and 1839. Not all of it was accurate: he painted the same bird in different phases of plumage under several different names, believing that each time he had discovered a new species, and also presented three species that never existed. But the sheer scale of the work defied criticism. An index, A Synopsis of Birds of America, appeared in 1839, and a smaller version of Birds of America was published between 1840 and 1844.
After this massive project, Audubon began a similar work on mammals. Between 1845 and 1848, he published the Vivaparous Quadrupeds of North America in three volumes with 150 plates. But it was the success of Birds of America that brought him wealth and fame. He bought an immense property on the Hudson River in New York, and built a massive house that he called Minnie’s Land, after the pet name for his wife.
Many of the American birds Audubon recorded and painted so painstakingly are now extinct.
Towards the end of his life, Audubon began to feel more deeply about conservation. He spoke out against the disappearance of once plentiful species like the Prairie Hen, the Turkey and the Carolina Parrot, and against the slaughter of the American Bison. It was as if he finally realised that nature is not an inexhaustible larder.
In 1846, Audubon started to go blind; his flamboyant spirit started to wane, and he retired from public life. He died in 1851, at the age of 66. In 1886, just 35 years after his death, the first Audubon Society was formed in America, with the aim of defending wild animals and places and creating greater awareness of the need to preserve and protect natural habitats.
Today Audubon is recognised as a genius; just one original plate of his work is worth a small fortune. In 1977, a complete original copy of Birds of America sold for $750,000. Out of the 200 original copies, some were dismantled and the plates sold separately; in 1980, a Great Blue Heron plate fetched $30,000.
Some, perhaps, would pay just as much to hear what he thought of the modern North American landscape, or the denuded countryside of his birthplace, Haiti.