Today, birds redeem a troubled life. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The biography of James Audubon has only
recently been coming clear. And what a picture!
Audubon was born in Santo Domingo in 1785, the
illegitimate son of a French seafarer and
plantation owner. His mother was a French
Audubon himself spun contradictory yarns about his
origins. Some thought he might be the Dauphin --
heir to the French throne. Biographer John
Chancellor tells us flatly that Audubon was
only marginally literate ... indifferent to the
truth ... vulgar, infatuated with himself as the
exotic woodsman, the artist naturalist ...
But, he adds, if this harsh judgement is
true, it is unimportant. He quotes Cuvier, who called
Audubon's work "the most magnificent monument [ever]
raised to ornithology." Like too many great geniuses,
Audubon invented himself as he invented his art.
He was in Paris during the French Revolution -- a
7-year-old watching beheadings. At 14 his father
enrolled him in the French Naval Academy. He had no
talent for that. He wanted to draw.
Finally, if we can believe the story, he studied
art with the revolutionary artist David. Early
Audubon drawings show none of David's classic
rigor. And they are all of birds.
He moved to America in 1803 to dodge being drafted
into Napoleon's voracious army. From the age of 18
to 41 he sought his fortune. He married the
remarkable Lucy Bakewell in 1808. She taught school
and steadied his erratic life. He worked as a
dancing master, itinerant portrait artist,
storekeeper, and taxidermist. It was a life marred
by debtor's prison and bankruptcy.
All the while Audubon painted birds. Lucy and his
birds were constants in a life with no other
visible center. Finally, with the help of Lucy's
savings, he took his portfolio to England in 1826.
He had, by then, created the most spectacular and
complete set of bird pictures ever made.
To Liverpool he carried only his pictures. He left
his reputation for exaggeration and combat back at
the New York dock.
Those pictures! Beautiful birds, flying, feasting,
fighting -- those birds nested in their American
wilderness! Those birds took England's heart.
Success had finally found James Audubon. Artistic
and scientific societies alike embraced him.
Most important, he found an Edinburgh publisher to
print his "Birds of America" in a great double
elephant folio color book. That printing tour de
force paved the way for his other books.
Audubon's name has, ever since, meant birds --
wheeling, turning, craning -- daring us with their
fierce beauty and freedom. Among the birds, Audubon
reached that perfect honesty -- that we all find so
elusive in the human world.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Chancellor, J., Audubon. New York: The
Viking Press, 1978.
Ford, A., John James Audubon: A
Biography. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988.
Audubon, J.J., Audubon's America: The
Narratives and Experiences of John James
Audubon (D. C. Peattie, Ed.). Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Co., 1940.
Youmans, W.J., Pioneers of Science in
America; Sketches of Their Lives and Scientific
Work. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1896,
pp. 152-166. (Youman's old book incorrectly puts
Audubon's birth in New Orleans in 1880.)
The following website offers a fine example of
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Episode | Search Episodes |