Portrait Of Complexity

Author draws the life of John James Audubon in exciting and exacting detail


October 10, 2004|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,Special to the Sun

John James Audubon, by Richard Rhodes. Alfred A. Knopf. 528 pages. $30.

After reading Richard Rhodes' Audubon biography -- the third published this year -- I can't wait for the Broadway musical. Can a movie be far behind?

It's a story with everything.

Illegitimate teenage son of a French naval officer is sent to the United States to escape conscription into Napoleon's army and start a business career. Flops because he is more interested in wildlife and drawing.

Goes to the edge of the wilderness at the beginning of the 19th century, where he makes a living doing portraits, and teaching art, music and French to patrons, while planning a revolutionary picture book on birds that eventually will be regarded as an unparalleled work, elevating the science of ornithology into art.

Audubon's story includes sex, violence and comic relief: A mysterious woman has him do a nude portrait of her in New Orleans. A married woman to whom he is teaching drawing refuses to pay him after he rejects her advances. He stabs a man who brutally beat him after a business dispute. He nearly asphyxiates himself and his son in an effort to painlessly kill an eagle with carbon monoxide. The eagle is unaffected.

There are forays into abundant landscapes, whose eventual disappearance Audubon foresees with sorrow. He has dealings with Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston, the Clark of "Lewis and ...", DeWitt Clinton, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and other original Americans who, like Audubon, are becoming "American" in essence as well as nationality.

Rhodes, author of 19 previous books, including the Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Making of the Atom Bomb, emphasizes that transition from colonists to Americans. The subtitle of his Audubon is The Making of an American. He quotes Sir Walter Scott's description of Audubon after a meeting: "He is an American by naturalisation, a French-man by birth, but less of a Frenchman than I have ever seen."

One of the other Audubon biographies, Under a Wild Sky, by William Souder (North Point Press, 384 pages, $25) was published in June. It is smoothly written, a good substitute for Rhodes' volume for readers who prefer an easier, shorter read.

Rhodes' book can be exhausting at times, but it's worth the read for its vast forest of facts as well as many lyrical pages that bring to life people, places and things as well as any play or screenplay could. It also contains more than 100 illustrations, including 16 pages in lush color on cream paper, mostly reproductions from Audubon's masterwork, Birds of America. It is the Audubon biography of choice.

The other recent Audubon book, Audubon's Elephant, by Duff Hart-Davis (Henry Holt, 288 pages, $27.50), is also beautifully illustrated. The title refers to the size of the paper that Audubon insisted on for his book, expensive, unwieldy so-called "double elephants," about 27 inches by 39 inches.

Hart-Davis' book deals only with Audubon's years-long effort to raise the money for and to serially publish and market such an unusual volume, largely in England, largely solo.

Rhodes calls Audubon's start-to-finish effort a "staggering achievement, as if one man had single-handedly financed and built an Egyptian pyramid."

Audubon insisted on the unusually large pages because he wanted to display birds at their actual size, in their actual environment, in natural life action. Before him, ornithological representation was static and artificial-looking profiles.

Audubon's ornithology is enduring art, rare in more ways than one. Original portfolios seldom come on the market. The last one to do so sold for $8.8 million.

Theo Lippman Jr. is a retired Sun editorial writer.

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