Audubon and Murals

Endangered Harlem by Gaia.

[By popular demand, here’s the short talk I gave in celebration of John James Audubon’s birthday to the Riverside Oval Association and friends last week. A good time was had by all, I think, and the cake was delicious. Photos are from the same day: I walked around looking at some the Audubon Murals in the neighborhood, a joint project of National Audubon and Gitler &_____ Gallery. There are some 80 murals up now, less than half of those planned; all of birds threatened by climate change.]

The opportunity to speak today means I got to do something I’ve hardly ever done, and that’s read some Audubon. Everybody’s familiar with the art, I assume, but Audubon was also a prolific journal keeper, letter writer, and author.

Cerulean Warbler by Tom Sanford.

If I may quote the birthday boy: “Doubtless, kind reader, you will say, while looking at the seven figures of Parakeets represented in the plate, that I spared not my labor. I never do, so anxious am I to promote your pleasure.”

So wrote Audubon about Carolina Parakeets in his Ornithological Biography—the five-volume work that accompanied the original four double elephant folios of The Birds of America.

Those magnificent Carolina Parakeets, by the way, ranged up the East Coast as far north as where we are today, and were the only indigenous parrot in this part of the Americas. The very last one died 99 years ago in a Cincinnati zoo.

We must credit Lucy Audubon and William MacGillivray, his Scottish collaborator, with revising and polishing Audubon’s prose and science, but the voice in the writings seems to me to give a good sense of Audubon himself. Just add those Quaker “thee’s” and “thou’s” he used after learning English in Pennsylvania at the age of 18.

Brown Pelican by Jason Covert.

“I am anxious to promote your pleasure.” These are the words of a showman; his life’s work was a performance, which is not say it wasn’t also stupendously hard work. Carrying a hundred-pound portfolio; walking hundreds of miles; braving the weeks it took to cross the Atlantic multiple times; working day and night hunting and painting birds; then hustling door-to-door subscriptions for the masterwork in Britain, Canada, Europe—well, at least Paris—and the antebellum United States.

It culminated in Birds of America of course. The final volume was completed in 1838 after a decade’s worth of publishing.

It was the profits from the smaller, cheaper, royal octavo version that helped the Audubon family move uptown from White Street to where we are today. They named it Minnie’s Land, after Lucy’s Scottish diminutive, and because the property was in Lucy’s name, since John James still owned debts from the great Panic of 1819.

I came across references to 14, 20, and 30 acres of land purchased here, with 300-500-yards of the Hudson shore. Such are the loose details of history. The Audubons introduced a menagerie of poultry, horses, cattle, deer, elk, bears, foxes, and wolves here; they planted pear, apple, quince, apricot, nectarines, and plum trees; and built a new house they moved into in April of 1842. Their first summer they caught an 8-foot long, 200-300 pound sturgeon from shore.

Bald Eagle by Peter Daverington.

By rights, the 57-year old, nearly-toothless John James should have been in retirement, but he and the Reverend John Bachman continued work on The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.

So in 1843, he journey out West for the first time beyond the Mississippi. This was a trip he wanted to do years earlier. He and his companions travelled up the Missouri to what’s now North Dakota through the summer and fall, through a landscape which had been devastated by a recent smallpox epidemic. At one point they were so hungry they came close to eating a wolf, before a last-minute bison was shot, back when there still were last-minute bison. In addition to numerous mammals, he bagged several more bird species to add to the royal octavo.

Of course, The Viviparous Quadrupeds, in two volumes, has nothing like the fame of Birds of America. As completed by Bachman and Audubon’s sons John Woodhouse and Victor Gifford, Viviparous Quadrupeds isn’t the monumental, mind-blowing production Birds is. What could be? Birds was one of last monster-oversized, hand-colored, engraved art book. Havell, the London publisher, had 50 employees working on the project at one time. Lithography, the new printing technology used for the octavo birds and mammals, was not nearly so impressive.

Williamson’s Sapsucker by ATM.

Audubon was described at the age 57 as “a tall, thin man, with a high arched and serene forehead, and a bright penetrating grey eye; his white locks fell in clusters upon his shoulders, but were the only signs of age, for his form was erect, and his step as light as that of a deer.” But upon his return to Minnie’s Land in late 1843, he began a notable decline. His failing eyesight forced him to stop painting within three years. In the Matthew Brady daguerreotype of 1848, he has no teeth at all. That year, his old friend and co-worker Bachman said his “mind… was all in ruins.” The next year, Lucy wrote “Alas, I have only the material part of my old friend, all mind being gone.”

John James Leforest Audubon, who was given the name “Jean Rabin,” when he was born on Saint-Domingue, passed away in January 1851, at the age of 65. Now, one of his biographers thinks he worked himself to death, but 65 was a pretty respectable age in 1851.

Black-chinned Hummingbird by Ashli Sisk.

Dying in 1851, though, means he never met George Bird Grinnell, who was born in Brooklyn in 1849. Minnie’s Land still resounded with Audubonalia when the young Grinnell’s family moved to upper Manhattan. There were antlers, stuffed birds, animal skins, and of course the original paintings (before Lucy had to be sell them in 1863). The elderly Mrs. Audubon, who survived her husband by 23 years, and outlived both her boys, had gone back to her old calling of teaching to make ends meet, opening her school in 1857. Grinnell was one of her students.

Lucy Bakewell herself seems to have possessed an indomitable character. She born in relative comfort in England in 1787 and immigrated to America with her family in 1801. Coincidently, the Bakewell family physician was Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s pro-evolution grandfather. Lucy’s favorite book was one of Erasmus’s epic poems about the love life of plants. The half-hearted medical student Charles Darwin himself heard Audubon’s paper on turkey buzzards in Edinburgh in 1826 and quoted Audubon in Origin of Species and later works. We should take this as testament to Audubon’s powers of observation, since Darwin was nothing if not a compiler of evidence.

Swallow-tailed Kite (and Others) by Lunar New Year.

So, while John James was out shooting and painting and trying to get his opus published, Lucy was an independent frontier woman holding the family together in Kentucky and then Louisiana. The marriage was a strong and difficult one, fraught with financial worries and the sheer physical distance of a world in which their letters—addressed “my Dearest Friend”—took months to reach each other.

The sheer presence of his teacher’s late husband must have impressed young George Bird Grinnell as he ran around the grounds here. By the way, did anybody ever have a more perfect middle name than George Bird Grinnell? This was the person who, after all, in 1886 founded the first Audubon Society. Named of course to honor Audubon and his proto-environmentalist concerns about dwindling numbers of birds—Birds of America portrays six now-extinct species—not to mention the disappearing forests and bison. For Audubon had seen the desolations wrought by England’s industrial revolution and thought they foretold America’s future. “I hate this infernal Smoaky London as I do the Devil!!” Audubon wrote in 1834 with two exclamation points.

In addition to memorializing Audubon, Grinnell is also credited with helping to bridge the gender divide in the first phase of conservation in America, between sportsmen and women reformers battling over the slaughter of birds for their feathers. This is how historian Carolyn Merchant describes it: “a gendered dialectic emerges during the 1880-1900s that moves back and forth between male and female blame and responsibility, to female activism, and finally to women and men working together […] to pass laws to halt the trade in feathers and preserve birdlife.”

Fish Crow by Hitness.

It’s true this first Audubon Society went belly up in 1889 for want of more members and funds. But it was the women who’d joined forces with Grinnell and who he published in his sporting journal Forest and Stream—women like Celia Thaxter, Florence Merriam Bailey, and Mabel Osgood Wright—who regrouped and started the organizations in the Nineties that, in 1905, joined together in the national Audubon, the ancestor of today’s organization, and led to the great laws that still protect the birds.

This is only a guess on my part, but not I think a far-fetched one: the example of Lucy Bakewell Audubon was what made Grinnell unafraid of strong women in an era when men who supported women, particularly in reform movements, were called “political hermaphrodites” by their enemies.

Talk about continuity!


This is the Audubon memorial over the remains of John James and Lucy Audubon in Trinity Cemetery. His birthdate is wrong! It was actually April 26, 1785. Fittingly incorrect, considering he was always embarrassed to have been born illegitimately and told a whopper or two about his birth over the years?

Red-faced Warbler by ATM.

1 Response to “Audubon and Murals”

  1. 1 Kathleen May 8, 2017 at 8:47 am

    Thanks for sharing your presentation! I was bummed to miss the actual event so glad to “hear” it now.

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