All Things Reconsidered by Bill Thompson III

All Things Reconsidered by Bill Thompson III

Author:Bill Thompson III
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

—MAY/JUNE 1990

Immortal Audubon

WHEN I WAS a teenager, more than sixty-five years ago, I painted a kingbird that had been killed by a car. My eyes were far more acute then, and with a fine 00 brush I tried to paint in every barb of every feather as I imagined John James Audubon had done. I spent a week on that drawing, but it was a disaster; far too “tight.” I did not know then that the extremely fine detail I saw in the Audubon prints had been added by Robert Havell, the engraver who made the copperplates from which the prints were struck. It was not until I went to art school in New York that I saw Audubon’s original watercolors and realized this.

My early role model remains a force and an influence today, for the name of Audubon has become synonymous with birds, and he has been all but canonized in American natural history. Whereas many once-famous men have faded from memory, Audubon’s mystique has been kept alive and growing, largely because of the conservation organizations that bear his name. His original watercolors for Birds of America are often still on display at the New-York Historical Society on Central Park West. Of the 435 originals, only 2 are missing—the blue-gray gnatcatcher and the black-throated blue warbler; where they are remains a mystery.

The collection of paintings, almost intact, was acquired from Audubon’s widow twelve years after his death in 1851 for a modest $4,000. Today these paintings are beyond price. At Sotheby’s gallery in New York in June 1989, a single print of the great blue heron—not the original painting—went at auction for $66,000. Several years earlier the full set of 435 prints was sold individually to bidders for a total of $1,716,660, more than 120 times the cost of the bound set of plates that was on display at the National Audubon Society’s Fifth Avenue home when I worked there fifty years ago. It was on loan from a Virginian named Duncan Reed, who told me that he paid $14,000 for it.

Jean Jacques Fougere Audubon was the son of a French seaman, also named Jean, who owned property in Les Cayes on the island of Santo Domingo (Haiti), where he fathered a boy and a girl out of wedlock. The mother of the boy, a French woman, a Miss Rabin, died less than a year after her son was born.

Audubon’s father returned to his home in France in 1791 with the young boy, Fougere, and his half sister, Muguet; how he explained things to his legal wife is not known. Mrs. Audubon apparently was a very forgiving woman, and being older than her roving husband and somewhat beyond the age of childbearing, embraced the children as though they were her own. If this suggests that Audubon’s origins were humble or disadvantaged, it is far from the truth; he was all but spoiled by his overindulgent adoptive mother and was given a young gentleman’s tutoring. His father’s attempt to give him a naval education was a fiasco; the young man hated it.


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