To escape conscription into the French Army, John James Audubon (1785-1851) fled to Philadelphia in 1803. There he married Lucy Bakewell, daughter of a large, prosperous Quaker family. As they moved West to seek their fortune, Audubon was entranced by the wilderness; in 1820 he started to implement his plan of depicting every indigenous bird on canvas. Streshinsky ( The Shores of Paradise ) has written a scintillating biography, a richly detailed story of romance, separation and struggle. After a succession of business failures, the Audubons drifted to New Orleans and Natchez, Miss., where he earned money drawing portraits and Lucy taught school to plantation families. In 1826 Audubon, carrying letters of introduction, took his portfolio abroad and established himself in England and on the Continent as a brilliant portrayer of birds. In her solid and satisfying biography, Streshinsky gives a lively account of that period. Photos. (Oct.)
Popular biographies of John James Audubon have generally been either too worshipful or too condemning; Streshinsky, best known as a novelist (e.g., The Shores of Paradise , Putnam, 1991), has taken a middle way that recognizes Audubon's achievements in art and science without denying his personal eccentricities and sometimes unfair treatment of family and colleagues. Though her foreword disclaims any attempt to break new ground, she has tried to separate Audubon's own words from his wife Lucy's ``improvements'' in the published edition of his journals (most of the originals were destroyed) and to quote only Audubon himself. This is a balanced, well-paced, and readable account for general readers. Alice Ford's John James Audubon (Abbeville Pr., 1988. 2d ed. o.p.) is still the best scholarly study available. The publication of this book coincides with the New York Historical Society's first major traveling exhibition of Audubon's paintings, October 1993-April 1996.--Ed.-- Paul B. Cors, Univ. of Wyoming Lib., Laramie Communications
There hasn't been a popular biography of the naturalist and artist John James Audubon (1785-1851) in years. Perhaps it took the perspective and skills of a novelist to reexamine the life and personality of this prodigiously energetic and productive man. Streshinsky, author of "The Shores of Paradise" , was clearly stirred by Audubon's passion for the glorious bird-filled wilderness of early-nineteenth-century America and inspired by his indefatigable efforts to record his observations in prose and paintings. With his virile good looks, long hair, and frontiersman attire, Audubon seemed to be quintessentially American, and was, but he began life in Haiti, the illegitimate son of a French plantation owner and his mulatto lover. As soon as he got settled in America at age 18, he fell in love not only with the land and its birds but also with Lucy Bakewell, his future wife. Little did Lucy know that they would spend more time apart than together as Audubon, obsessed with discovering new bird species, roamed all over the country, rifle and art supplies in hand. Streshinsky describes the three decades of grueling work that went into the creation of Audubon's incomparable "Birds of America", from hours of meticulous labor to months of drumming up funds on both sides of the Atlantic. His exquisite bird paintings still thrill viewers, and it's no coincidence that this vivid biography was published just as a traveling exhibit of Audubon's paintings begins its nationwide trek. Timeliness aside, this is a marvelous biography of lasting interest.