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John James Audubon: The Making of an…

John James Audubon: The Making of an American

by Richard Rhodes

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I really knew little about Audubon other than his artwork. Rhodes does a great job of revealing the man, his long-suffereing wife, and America of the early 19th Century. ( )
  dasam | Jun 21, 2018 |
A very detailed (maybe a little TOO detailed) look at the life of John Audubon. The first thing that struck me is the fact he would kill hundreds of birds in his quest to draw them. He'd wire the birds up in a "natural" pose to get all the details of the subject--yet Audubon was known for bird conservation. Audubon was a prolific letter and journal writer, thus large volumes of information exist surrounding his life. The other fascinating piece is the mode of travel in the early 1800's and how long and dangerous it was to search out birds. Forty three days to cross the Atlantic. Walking 120 miles- no problem! Audubon was enamored with all wildlife, but was also a man on a mission to paint/draw all the birds of America. To finance his trips and pay for "The Birds of America" pictorial essay book, he had to be a salesman too. Yet he was not arrogant or pushy, just VERY passionate about his lifework.Very interesting look at the man and the America of the 1800's. ( )
  camplakejewel | Sep 18, 2017 |
This excellent and very detailed biography of John James Audubon left me with three main new insights:

* Unlike many of the gentlemen naturalists of the Royal Society (as described in Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder, for example), or such Victorian era scientists as Charles Darwin, John James Audubon was not monied, and both he and his devoted wife worked hard most of their lives.

* Rhodes makes a strong case that Audubon was a good businessman and a daring entrepreneur. After an early business failure, he developed his vision - compile and ultimately publish the highest quality and most complete catalog of North American birds - and then he worked relentlessly for years to accomplish that. He weathered false friends, production difficulties, and the emotional challenge of separation from his wife and sons for several years; and nonetheless managed to raise the equivalent of $2 million in funding through subscriptions, admission at gallery shows, and ongoing sales of paintings to cover production costs. Audubon comes across in the biography as both a gifted artist and a man of incredible practical will.

* America changed so much during Audubon's life, from virtual wilderness on the frontier, to tame - even worn out - landscapes in some of the same places just a few decades later. Rhodes' narrative picks up on revealing changes in the landscape, society, and the economy, from the greater comfort in the Atlantic crossing brought by steamships, to the line of advance of the domesticated honeybee in the mid1840s (somewhere along the Upper Missouri), to this reflection of Audubon's, traveling down the Mississippi after his first return from England in 1829:

"When I see that no longer any aborigines are to be found there, and that the vast herds of elks, deer, and buffaloes which once pastured on these hills and in these valleys... have ceased to exist; when I reflect that all this grand portion of our Union, instead of being in a state of nature, is now more or less covered with villages, farms, and towns... when I remember that these extraordinary changes have all taken place in the short period of twenty years, I pause, wonder, and although I know all to be fact, can scarcely believe its reality."(p337).

In that sense, while this is a comprehensive biography of Audubon, and brings him very much to life, it's also a terrific on-the-ground complement to broader political and economic histories of America in the first half of the 1800s. Thanks to Audubon's many moves and travels - in Virginia and Pennsylvania, along the Ohio, down to Louisiana, to New York, Charleston, and Florida; to Maine and Labrador - the book gives a rich, geographically diverse view of America in this era as well. ( )
  bezoar44 | Mar 4, 2017 |
John James Audubon, born illegitimately in Haiti as Jean Rabin, he grew up in France as Jean-Jacques Audubon, returning to America to escape the Napoleonic Wars. Quite successful as an entrepreneur and merchant in Pennsylvania and the Midwest, he was ruined by the panic of 1819. He turned his hobby of painting into his profession, painting portraits for cash and birds for pleasure. Traveling across the United States in search of money and birds, he amassed the basis for his opus magnum: The Birds of America. This project of creating life-sized color illustrations of American birds needed rich financial backers which only bird-mad Britain could supply in numbers. Thus, Audubon shuttled between the Old and the New World in search of subscribers and birds. Only sixty complete sets of Audubon's elephant folio version of The Birds of America exist, making them instantly extremely valuable. Audubon lived in an age prior to merchandising and Kickstarter, thus, despite achieving quite respectable turnover figures, he could never cash in on his work.

The paperback version of the book is beautiful with many high-quality color illustrations and numerous b/w ones throughout the text. Sometimes, Rhodes as a non-specialist misses obvious connections and parallels, e.g. Audubon and Albert Gallatin were both originally French-speaking European immigrants to Pennsylvania with key interests in classification. This is, however, only a quibble about a splendid and highly recommended biography. ( )
  jcbrunner | Feb 29, 2012 |
I strongly recommend this book - excellent read. My perception of JJ Audubon was popped when I was younger when I heard how he actually shot many of the birds he painted. The Horror! For some reason, this unconscious negative stayed with me into my adulthood.

My Sister gave me this book for Christmas and I quickly became engrossed in the details of this amazing man's life. I quite liked the biography genre as well. I left the book longingly and now have a new appreciation of his life and the context under which he shot so many birds! ( )
  Cygnus555 | Jan 29, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 037571393X, Paperback)

John James Audubon came to America as a dapper eighteen-year-old eager to make his fortune. He had a talent for drawing and an interest in birds, and he would spend the next thirty-five years traveling to the remotest regions of his new country–often alone and on foot–to render his avian subjects on paper. The works of art he created gave the world its idea of America. They gave America its idea of itself.

Here Richard Rhodes vividly depicts Audubon’s life and career: his epic wanderings; his quest to portray birds in a lifelike way; his long, anguished separations from his adored wife; his ambivalent witness to the vanishing of the wilderness. John James Audubon: The Making of an American is a magnificent achievement.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:30 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

A biography of artist John James Audubon offers a study of his private life, detailing his arrival in America from France in 1803, his life in frontier Kentucky, and his extraordinary images of native American wildlife.

» see all 2 descriptions

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