UNDER A WILD SKY: John James Audubon and the Making of the Birds of America
Renowned for his knowledge of the American wilderness, John James Audubon (1785–1851) was equally adept at the quintessential American activity of self-invention. Arriving in New York City in 1803, the 18-year-old native of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and illegitimate son of a French sea captain passed himself off as the Louisiana-born scion of a French admiral and claimed to have studied painting with the European master Jacques-Louis David. Audubon (even the name was false) came to the United States to manage a small estate his father co-owned near Philadelphia. Unsuccessful, he eventually tried his hand as a shopkeeper and a mill owner, but failed there, too. His passion for hunting—and for making life-size, realistically posed paintings of the animals he shot—led to the creation of his magnum opus, Birds of America , now one of the most admired works of American art. But this monumental venture was fraught with difficulties that sometimes brought the artist near the brink of despair. Audubon's work was initially scorned in the U.S.; he had to travel through Britain and France to arouse enough interest to fund the project. Even after its completion and its enthusiastic reception in Europe and the U.S., the work left the naturalist with only a modest income for a lifetime of effort. Souder (A Plague of Frogs ) presents Audubon as a complex individual: a loving but distracted husband; a driven artist often plagued by doubts; a scrupulous observer of nature who thought nothing of fabricating some of his written material for dramatic effect. Sympathetic yet balanced, this account shows how much Audubon was shaped by the deep paradoxes of the time and place in which he lived. B&w illus. not seen by PW . Agent, Christy Fletcher. (June)
Forecasts: This volume will compete with the recently published and wonderfully illustrated Audubon's Elephant by Duff Hart-Davis. However, Under a Wild Sky gives a fuller account of Audubon's life and more context, and therefore the two will more than likely complement each other.