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Artist and Backwoodsman

ISSUE:  Winter 1937

Audubon. By Constance Rourke. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company: $3.00. Singing in the Wilderness: A Salute to John James Audubon. By Donald Culross Pcattie. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $2.50.

Perhaps no more fitting emblem could have been chosen by Audubon than the engraved seal given him by an English friend, which bore in miniature his own drawing of the wild turkey cock with the motto, “America my Country.” A Frenchman by birth, he early became the most ardent of Americans, with a love, passionate and intense, for America’s mountains, her rivers, her forests, and her plains. He knew well the Atlantic coast from Labrador to Florida, and the Gulf Coast; he knew as well the great Mississippi Valley, and the Missouri; while the Ohio was his thoroughfare between East and West. He found a freedom wholly congenial to his spirit both in America’s continental expanse and in her institutions.

Again, Audubon was almost to the last a hunter. Although now known to millions as the eponymous hero of the great bird-protection society, during many periods of his life he lived mainly by what fell to his gun. There was no more magnificent game bird in America than the wild turkey. Its habitat was extensive. And it was plentiful—so plentiful that in 1836-7, as Audubon records, turkeys sold in the Washington market for seventy-five cents each. This abundance of bird life was typical of the age, and the unique value of Audubon’s work is due largely to his description of conditions of the old frontier which were passing even in his day.

Finally, the turkey cock was the first plate, engraved in 1826, of that monumental work, the “Birds of America,” which was to establish Audubon’s fame as naturalist and artist. His ambition was great. He wanted to show life-size every known North American species, from the wild turkey and whooping crane to the humming-birds. And he did. The work was completed in 1838, after nearly twelve years’ labor: four hundred and thirty-five plates in four volumes, “double elephant folio” in size—that is, about thirty-nine by twenty-five inches—engraved in aquatint and line, and water-colored by hand. Ten plates were engraved in Edinburgh, the rest in London, all from his originals in water-color, sometimes overlaid with pastel. So large a work was necessarily limited in edition and high in price. About one hundred and seventy-five copies were issued at one thousand dollars each. Today the cock turkey alone, the rarest of the plates, brings three-fourths of that sum. Audubon’s position as a naturalist is important, but his work as an artist in this field is unsurpassed.

It is easy to see why Audubon’s life should have a perennial popular appeal. It was picturesque, but at the same time it afforded a copy-book model of the success which should reward persistent genius. Two recent biographies, Constance Rourke’s “Audubon” and Donald Culross Peat-tie’s “Singing in the Wilderness,” are both frankly popular. Although both authors acknowledge their debt to the scholarly “Life” by Dr. Herrick, both dispense with all footnotes and other impedimenta of scholarship. Mr. Peattie is a naturalist who feels that he owes a tribute to Audubon. He gives a romantic picture of Audubon’s boyhood in France, his coming to America, his love and marriage with Lucy Bakewell on the Perkiomen in Pennsylvania, his setting up in trade at Louisville, his business misfortunes in Kentucky and Missouri, and the gradual emergence of his dominant desire to draw birds as he saw them. Mr. Peattie practically bids Audubon farewell when he sets sail for England in 1826 to find an engraver and publisher, for the years of his achievement are merely summarized. The author’s philosophic theme of ideal values prevailing obtrudes sometimes, but his praise of the bird-plates is always happy and discriminating. The story has a moving charm which springs obviously from a deep sympathy with the subject.

Miss Rourke’s interest is in Audubon as a backwoodsman.

But a backwoodsman with a difference: for, to account for his romantic glamour, she advances the theory that he was the Dauphin, son of Louis the Sixteenth and Marie Antoinette, was spirited from the Temple, and was given into the custody of Captain Audubon, a trusted French naval officer of Royalist sympathies in La Vendee. Space does not permit a critical examination of this hypothesis, but it rests mainly on the agreement in age between Audubon and the Dauphin, and on certain vague expressions of Audubon’s own about his birth. In the fragment of autobiography written in 1835, Audubon spoke of himself as the son of Captain Audubon and “a lady of Spanish extraction,” who soon after his birth in Louisiana accompanied his father to his estate Aux Cayes, in Santo Domingo, where she fell a victim to the Negro insurrection. In 1917 Dr. Herrick found, after an exhaustive examination of original records in France, that a child was born to “Mile. Rabin,” a Creole, and Captain Audubon in Santo Domingo on 26 April, 1785, who would appear to have been the same as the boy “Fougere” legitimated through adoption by Captain Audubon and his wife in France in 1794, baptized in 1800 as Jean Jacques Fougere Audubon, and named variously “Jean Rabin” and “Jean Audubon” in the several wills of Captain Audubon and his wife. This identification, of which Audubon’s granddaughter had an inkling twenty years earlier—all the original documents are given in full in Herrick—would appear established, unless, as Miss Rourke suggests, it was all a plan to conceal the Dauphin’s identity. On this assumption speculation has no bounds.

From this point on, however, Miss Rourke carries Audubon’s life to its end in 1851 in orthodox fashion, skillfully weaving into her narrative the various picturesque incidents recounted by Audubon in his brief autobiography, his journals (of which five have been printed), and the “episodes” sprinkled throughout his letter-press to the “Birds.” She has been particularly successful in setting before the reader vivid pictures of the birds which he was constantly watching and drawing, by minutely describing many of the great plates. Only now and then does lack of bird observation strike a false note, as when she speaks of a fish-hawk rising with a fish in its beak (p. 19). The book is notable for its appreciation of Audubon as a master of design and color; and it emphasizes the originality of his presentation, extraordinarily life-like and often dramatic, of birds with native trees and shrubs. The accuracy of his scientific delineation is equalled by the art of his composition. Since Miss Rourke has made an original contribution to our knowledge of the portraits which Audubon drew or painted as pot-boilers from time to time, it may be regretted that no more exact details are given. Her book gives a well-founded picture of Audubon’s life, and an excellent critique of his art.

Both books contain colored reproductions of a few of the bird-plates, which, although good, but faintly proclaim their grand originals.


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