Authors: William Souder
Bonaparte had been amazed by Audubon's drawings.
In his brief time in the city, Audubon had met a few painters Mease knew, and they had praised his work. But Bonaparte was the first person who truly understood the significance of what Audubon had brought out of the wildernessâand also the first to share Audubon's passion for his subjects. The paintings were unlike anything the young prince had seen, though they depicted something he loved deeplyâthe terrible life-and-death struggle that is nature itself. Aububon's birds were breathtakingly beautiful. And hugeâeven the largest were painted to full life-size, some filling Audubon's enormous sheets of paper from edge to edge. But it was the aliveness of the images that startled and delighted Bonaparte. Instead of showing only what the birds looked like, Audubon had captured how they lived. Wheeling beneath storm-wracked skies, clamoring in bushes and trees, recoiling from attacking animals, or ripping flesh in bloody gobbets from freshly killed prey, Audubon's ferocious birds looked as if they might fly screeching off the page. This was not good form, not the accepted style at all. It was something totally new. To Bonaparte, the birds looked truly wild, much like the strange, nervous man standing next to him.
With Bonaparte as his patron, Audubon rushed through the city over the next several weeks, being introduced to artists and scientists. Meanwhile,
his new acquaintances developed a fascination with the artistâan inquisitiveness Audubon met with a Kentucky storyteller's penchant for exaggeration. Audubon was quite a piece of workâshy and awkward one minute, a blustery braggart the next. Everyone wanted to know who he was and where he came from. His account of himself, even alongside the slight support Dr. Mease could offer, was difficult to swallow. Audubon claimed to have been born in the territory of Louisiana. His father, he said, served as an admiral in the French navy and had also been a hero in the American war of independence. His mother was a Creole of Spanish extraction, who was courted and married by his father at her sprawling plantation near New Orleans. After her untimely death, Audubon was taken to France, where he was adopted by his father's second wife and developed an interest in nature and painting. One of his teachers there, Audubon boasted, was the great portraitist Jacques-Louis David. At eighteen, Audubon had come to America to manage his father's property, a large farm called Mill Grove, just west of Philadelphia. From there, he said, he had traveled far, seeing much of the country while devoting himself to the study of birds, acquiring a knowledge of their ways and appearance that he felt sure was unequaled by any other ornithologist.
And that is how the real trouble started.
Audubon was on safe ground in his airy dismissal of European naturalists as “cabinet ornithologists” who studied American birds by looking at moth-eaten stuffed specimens, never setting foot in America.
Beginning with Thomas Jeffersonâwho had identified more than one hundred new bird species and who feuded with scientists in France over the vigor and uniqueness of New World faunaâAmerican naturalists had been eager to gain authority in their own country. In Philadelphia, especially among members of the academy, any informed opinion against European views of American natural history was enthusiastically received.
But Audubon threatened the legacy of Alexander Wilson, America's preeminent ornithologist and a hero in the cause of New World scientific independence. Wilson, who had come to Pennsylvania from Scotland in 1794, was a poet and naturalist. A lonely man, Wilson was repeatedly troubled by political and romantic intrigues. He supported himself as a weaver and peddler, and later by teaching school and working as a book editor. Wilson discovered an interest in birds after he was befriended by William Bartram, an eminent botanist whose well-stocked library in
Philadelphia became Wilson's favorite retreat. In 1804, the year he was granted citizenship, Wilson had set out to draw and write about all the birds of North America. He was advised against it. He had limited artistic ability and the large, lavishly illustrated book he had in mindâwhat we would today think of as a coffee-table bookâmade little financial sense.
It was almost sure to cost him more to publish than he could ever hope to earn back.
Wilson never did get rich. But he did publish
When he died suddenly in 1813 at the age of forty-seven, he had completed seven volumes and was working on the eighth. By any measure, it was the most handsome, the most expensive, and one of the most important works yet published about America.
At the Academy of Natural Sciences, Wilson was revered as the “father of American ornithology”âa true giant in American natural historyâand
was regarded as an almost sacred text, the first major scientific publication produced in America by an American.
Audubon failed to be suitably impressed. He may have mentioned what he believed were mistakes in Wilson's taxonomy and drawings.
He may have alluded to his later claim that he had actually met Wilsonâin Kentucky. As Audubon recalled, Wilson had shown up in Louisville some years back, selling subscriptions to his book and looking for new birds. According to Audubon, Wilson had been flustered and then dismayed when Audubon, who seemed ready to purchase
, instead got out his own bird drawings, which on comparison were decidedly superior to Wilson's. In an attempt to make his visitor feel better, Audubon said, he took Wilson hunting the next day and even helped him locate and bring down a new species of warblerâa bird Audubon now claimed Wilson had included in
All of thisâthe sketchy story of where he was from, the frontiersman posturing, and especially the casual disparagements of Wilsonâwas in the air when Audubon at last made his way to the Academy of Natural Sciences on a Saturday evening sometime between May and the middle of July. He arrived with Bonaparte in the prince's carriage, stopping before a narrow, two-story brick building with high, arched windows.
They walked down a sidewalk that skirted a courtyard and mounted a steep flight of stairs. Audubon, portfolio pressed to his side, was naÃ¯vely convinced that he stood on the threshold of acclaim.
Although the members of the academy were in the end divided in their feelings about Audubon and his birdsâa few were enthusiastic about the drawingsâthe mood at the academy would swing against him. It was not entirely his fault, since there was little Audubon might have done differently that would have prevented the opposition of the long-faced man presiding over that evening's session.
The son of a rich ship chandler and rope maker, George Ord was only four years older than Audubon. He was a doughy, sharp-tongued man who had spent more time tending the family business and going to academy meetings than he had tramping the woods.
His only serious attempt at field research was an abbreviated expedition to Florida with several academy colleagues in 1817. The explorers got as far as St. Augustine, where rumors of Indian unrest forced them to retreat.
What Ord had that Audubon didn't was a reputation as a zoologist. Ord was also an influential promoter of American scienceâin particular the science of Alexander Wilson.
Ord had been a close friend of Wilson's and was the executor of Wilson's estateânot that it amounted to much. Wilson died with many more liabilities than assets, but Ord construed his responsibility in larger terms.
He'd completed Wilson's unfinished eighth volume of
and had started on the ninth and final installment. Ord was protective not only of
but also of Wilson's role in earning respect for American science, and he took an instantaneous dislike to Audubon that would congeal into lifelong hatred.
Ord dismissed Audubon's drawings, which he found gaudy and ridiculous. They were simply too, too much. Audubon, he said, had twisted his subjects into attitudes never seen in nature. The images were too big and too busy with extraneous elements like trees and flowersâAudubon had commingled zoology with botany! Ord did not limit his observations to Audubon's art and science.
In the weeks following Audubon's appearance before the academy, Ord denounced him as a man without honorâan imposter and a liar who misrepresented himself and traduced the reputation of Alexander Wilson.
Ord was delighted when he learned that a young artist named Joseph Mason, now working in Philadelphia, claimed to have collaborated with Audubon in Louisiana, painting background plants and flowers under the false impression that he was to be given credit for these contributions.
Audubon, who could well have wondered why he was set up for this
abuse, evidently didn't. He never questioned Bonaparte's motivations, which must have been complex, in bringing him to the academy. Bonaparte, who didn't have the same investment in “American” science as other members of the academyâand who did not share their reverence for Wilsonâmay have been insensitive to the politics of the situation. More likely, he wanted to see what would happen when Audubon's brash new interpretation of North American birds came up against Wilson's.
Bonaparte hinted at a future partnership with Audubon.
But he was already engaged in a delicate business of collaborating with Ord on the continuation of
while at the same time drafting a series of papers for the academy disputing many entries in the Wilson classic. His loyalties divided, Bonaparte sided with nobody, steering a middle course that Audubonâhungry for the prince's approvalâwent along with.
Bonaparte was circumspect as well, carefully avoiding asking Audubon too many questions. But he could easily have checked out his new friend's story.
Jacques-Louis David, Audubon's supposed teacher, had recently painted portraits of Bonaparte's wife and sister-in-law. And Louisiana was not the faraway place to Bonaparte that Audubon assumed it was in claiming it as home.
Bonaparte's father had negotiated the 1801 treaty with Spain that ceded the territory to Franceâtwo years before his uncle Napoleon sold it to Thomas Jefferson.
Audubon's company stole some of the luster from Bonaparte's reputation around Philadelphia. They seemed an odd, guileless pairâone compact and neat, the other a hulk fresh out of the woods, both of them so animated and eager, so
. Their manners were foreign and their instincts for doing the wrong thing infallible. After the disastrous visit to the academy, Bonaparte had another idea.
He took Audubon to see Philadelphia's most accomplished engraver, a man named Alexander Lawson. Lawson, who had engraved the plates for
and who had stood by Wilson during the arduous years of its production, had already heard all about Audubon from George Ord. Bonaparte and Audubon called at Lawson's shop one morning early enough to wake him up.
Lawson could not believe that Bonaparte took Audubon seriously. Flipping through Audubon's portfolio, Lawson repeated Ord's complaints about the drawings. They were too big. The images were mushy and in some cases wrong. The birds looked unnatural. He told Audubon he could understand why some people liked his workâit really wasn't
bad for a self-taught amateur. But ornithology, Lawson said, was about “truth” and “correct lines.” When Audubon mentioned his training under David, Lawson was incredulous. He was even more put out when Bonaparte suggested that he wanted to publish some of Audubon's drawings. “
You may buy them,” Lawson said, “but I will not engrave them.”
Audubon was not without supporters.
Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, a fellow French expatriate and illustrator who had discovered more than two thousand new species of fish on a daring expedition to the South Pacific, considered Audubon's drawings brilliant. But he suggested that Audubon would be more likely to find a publisher for them in Europe. Lesueur cosponsored Audubon's nomination to the academy. Although the bylaws stipulated that election of a new member required a unanimous vote, this was not normally a great obstacle.
Admission to the academy after being nominated was almost automatic. So the vote on Audubon, in the face of stiff opposition to his election, was an unusual one. Members cast their votes by dropping either a white (yes) or a black (no) marble into a small wooden box. Ord, though he could have blocked Audubon's election by himself, lobbied against Audubon's suitability and expected support from his colleagues. He got it.
When the vote for Audubon was counted on August 31 he had been officially blackballed.
Audubon was, by then, long gone. Sensing that the situation in Philadelphia was hopeless, he decided not to wait out his rejection at the academy and instead left for New York at the start of August. He found the city empty in the heat of late summerâand learned that word of his failure in Philadelphia was already spreading. Facing dim prospects of finding a publisher for his drawings, Audubon visited the Lyceum, New York's version of Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences.
His work was so admired there that he was invited to deliver a paper and was hastily elected a member.
But he continued to feel uncomfortable in these gatherings, and grew increasingly “cloudy and depressed” in the city.
Audubon entertained the contradictory thought, reflecting his doubt and ambition all at once, that he had wasted his life and might “die unknown.” After a few weeks he decided to return to Louisiana.
He took his time, traveling through upstate New York, earning a few dollars sketching landscapes as he went. He idled for weeks watching the waterfowl massing ahead of
their migrations before making his way to Pittsburgh, where he managed to buy a skiff and head downriver.
Unshaven and wearing moccasins, he visited Victor at Shippingport, where he endured the stares of townsfolk appalled at his appearance. By the time he got home it was late fall. He had been gone for more than a year.