John James Audubon: Who was he, and where did he come from, this frontier birdman with the French name? In his new book, John James Audubon: The Nature of the American Woodsman, author Gregory Nobles begins by probing the ambiguity of Audubon’s origins and goes on to tell a story of dogged self-invention and relentless determination on the part of the artist to achieve material as well as artistic success in the New World.
With artists, it is often a question whether or not they are equipped to survive at all in the world of business. If they make the attempt, how they fare gives rise to new questions. The artist who fails in business is looked on as a hapless child, out of his element, while he who succeeds will often find himself branded a sellout.
Then there is the matter of being self-taught versus academy-trained. And has it ever been possible for an artist to survive without wealthy, influential patrons? In life stories from the art world, there are few whose uphill path was smooth and easy.
But how many, I wonder, flung themselves upstream as persistently as did John James Audubon? His challenges and setbacks would have broken most men, and as Nobles makes clear, there was more to those challenges than finding money to buy paints, more to the setbacks than losing a promised portrait commission. More than once, I found myself exclaiming out loud and tugging at my artist husband’s sleeve to read him a few pages.
For example, in an 1811 partnership with his brother-in-law that Audubon undertook for the support of his new wife and infant son, the decision was made to expand their operations from a simple store to a steam-powered mill that would turn logs into boards for the construction boom then underway in Kentucky. It seemed like a good idea and one their little Ohio River community could use. But it turned out that the community did not need a mill as big as the one they built. The mill also could have been better built—and should have been built more quickly to take advantage of the need. Water proved more economical than steam for the operation of the mills that would survive when the discovery of good clay nearby prompted homebuilders to turn from lumber to bricks. In the face of the business failure, his brother-in-law departed the region and left Audubon holding the bag.
Investment in a steamboat, Audubon’s next partnership, was no more successful. The partner absconded with the boat! When Audubon encountered him again, an altercation in the street turned physical and nearly landed the artist in jail. Incarceration, however, was held at bay until the Panic of 1819, when the Audubon family lost all their business holdings, home and furnishings, and still could not clear their debts.
When Audubon went from Henderson to Louisville to try to clear up his financial situation, his creditors still hounded him, he was arrested for debt and put in jail, and he got out only by declaring bankruptcy. He left jail, he said, “keeping only the clothes I wore on that day, my original drawings, and my gun.” Those lat two possessions proved critical, soon becoming essential keys to his future.
On the other hand, it was shocking to me to learn that with Audubon’s early material success, before the bankruptcy, he became a slave-owner. My mental picture was jarred, as Nobles intends it should be. More familiar and more in line with our received impressions of the man are the stretches of hardship he endured. When he leaves his wife behind to support their children by teaching and goes downriver on a flatboat in 1820 with a young companion, paying his way by shooting game to feed the boat’s passengers, fretting in his diary about money all the way along but also finding time to glory in the birds he saw and shot and drew—this is closer to the frontiersman artist we recognize.
Of course, Audubon’s “Great Work,” as he referred to it long before its completion, necessitated a return to civilization, a search for patrons, lengthy negotiations with all kinds of businessmen and artisans, and careful business planning. The number and variety of skilled participants required by the work is staggering, and Audubon did not leave its supervision to anyone but himself. That this famous artist had high standards for the reproduction of his drawings will surprise no one. The production details are fascinating.
The main theme of Nobles’s John James Audubon, however, is that of self-invention, and that is where a new portrait of the artist appears. What elements of Audubon’s life does the artist himself stress? What is omitted? What embroidered? To what end? And, finally, how successful was the mythical self the artist projected?
We in Northport, Michigan, are in luck: Gregory Nobles and his wife have a vacation home in our midst, and the author will present a talk on his Audubon research findings this summer at Dog Ears Books. The date (sometime in July or August) has not yet been set, but I will happily take orders ahead of time for a book—and author—that our bird-loving and history-conscious community will not want to miss.
John James Audubon: The Nature of
The American Frontiersman
by Gregory Nobles
Hardcover, 360pp, illustrated