Audubon Landscapes in the South

By Steinberg, Michael K. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Audubon Landscapes in the South


Steinberg, Michael K., The Mississippi Quarterly


Introduction

JOHN JAMES AUDUBON (1785-1851) IS ARGUABLY THE WORLD'S BEST KNOWN wildlife artist. His seminal work, Birds of America, published 1827-39, remains a benchmark against which all other bird paintings are measured. In Birds of America, a collection of four hundred and thirty- five prints, Audubon transformed the course of wildlife art by portraying his subjects in motion, sometimes almost theatrical motion, rather than in the traditional lifeless poses depicted by his rivals (Farber 104-07). This new style often stunned audiences more familiar with the stiff or lifeless natural history painting traditions of this era (Streshinsky 167). While this break from tradition was criticized at the time in some scientific circles for presenting unrealistic dramatic poses, the enduring popularity of Birds of America is a testament to Audubon's unique style. He is not only a celebrated artist; his keen observations about many of the species he painted have fared well under the scrutiny of modern science as well. His observations of frontier wildlife and environmental conditions remain important sources of historical environmental records through which we can examine environmental changes (for examples of his observations, see Writings 264; Rhodes 73-75).

Audubon's paintings, reproduced in various forms such as coffee table books, posters, post cards, calendars, and other, higher quality, reproductions remain, more than one hundred and fifty years after his death, popular among a wide-ranging audience of serious art collectors, casual bird watchers, and outdoor enthusiasts. Audubon himself remains an enduring figure within American biographical studies. When it seems unlikely any new information about Audubon's life could be winnowed from the limited, original remaining documents penned by his own hand, a new biography appears that offers new perspectives on some aspect of Audubon (see Danny Heitman's illuminating 2008 book on Audubon's time in St. Francisville, Louisiana).

Beyond being an accomplished artist and keen observer of nature, Audubon was a complex, sometimes contradictory character. For example, even though today he is widely associated with bird conservation, he wantonly shot birds. During the production of Birds of America, Audubon and his associates killed thousands of them, including dozens of individuals of species that were considered increasingly rare at the time (Writings 264). Audubon commented in great detail how valuable and desired ivory-bill skins were at the time by natives and non-natives alike (Writings 270-71). He seems to have shared a commonly held, albeit wrong, perception of his era, that nature was inexhaustible, that there would always be more ivory-billed woodpeckers, another flock of Carolina parakeets, and herds of buffalo (Figure 1). The very idea of extinction appears to have been unknown to American society during much of the nineteenth century (Isenberg 3-6; for descriptions of massive flocks of Passenger Pigeons in the early 1800s, see Cokinos 197; Schuler 9).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Audubon also presented himself in radically different forms to different groups. On the American frontier, he played the part of a cultured European whose command of languages, dance, and music impressed his audiences and won him many admirers and clients for his art. In eastern US cities such as Philadelphia and while traveling in Europe, he acted the part of American woodsman, even donning buckskin and keeping his hair long to further validate his frontier authenticity among his spectators (Streshinsky xvi, 166). Audubon, well aware of the power of images of authenticity, thus tapped into the fascination in the East and in Europe with anything associated with the American frontier. He recognized the value of his uniqueness or eccentricities and played upon them when he felt they were needed to impress or win favor with his audience.

The embarrassing circumstances of his birth also led Audubon to invent a third persona as a response to his birthplace and background. …

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