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JOHN JAMES AUDUBON.
A PECULIAR charm invests the lives of naturalists. The path of the military conqueror is blood-stained, that of the statesman involved and tortuous, while the pale legions of avarice usually beset the goal of maritime discovery, and associate the names of its heroes with scenes of anarchy and oppression ; but the lover of Nature, who goes forth to examine her wonders, or copy her graces, is impelled by a noble enthusiasm, and works in the spirit both of love and wisdom. We cannot read of the brave wanderings of Michaux in search of his sylvan idols; of Hugh Miller, while at his mason's work, reverently deducing the grandest theories of creation from a fossil of the “old red sandstone;" or of Wilson, made an ornithologist, in feeling at least, by the sight of a red-headed woodpecker which greeted his eyes on landing in America, without a warm sympathy with the simple, pure, and earnest natures of men thus drawn into a lifedevotion to Nature, by admiration of her laws, and sensibility to her beauty. If we thoughtfully follow the steps and analyze the characters of such men, we usually find them a most attractive combination of the child, the hero, and the poet, with, too often, a shade of the martyr. An inkling of the naturalist is, indeed, characteristic of poets. Cowper loved hares ; Gray, gold-fish ; Alfieri, horses ; and Sir Walter Scott, dogs; but, when pursued as a special vocation, ornithology seems the most interesting department of natural history.
Audubon's career began and was prosecuted with an artistic rather than a scientific enthusiasm. His father appears to have been an intelligent lover of nature, and took pleasure in walking abroad with his son to observe her wonders. These colloquies and promenades made a lasting impression upon his plastic mind. It is evident that the habits and appearance of animated nature at once enlisted his sympathies; the accidental view of a book of illustrations in natural history excited the desire of imitation, and he began in a rude way to delineate the forms, colors, atti
a tudes, and, as far as possible, the expression of the creatures he so admired. Chagrined, but never wholly discouraged, at the ill-success of his early attempts, he annually executed and destroyed hundreds of pictures and drawings, until long practice had given him the extraordinary skill which renders bis mature efforts unequalled, both for authenticity and beauty. He artlessly confesses that, finding it impossible to possess or to live with the birds and animals which inspired his youthful love, he became ardently desirous to make perfect representations of them; and in this feeling we trace the germ of his subsequent greatness. Thus the origin of Audubon's world-renowned achievements was disinterested. His love of nature was not philosophic, like that of Wordsworth, nor scientific, like that of Humboldt, nor adventurous, like that of Boone ; but special and artistic, -- circumstances, rather than native idiosyncrasy, made him a naturalist; and his knowledge was by no means so extensive in this regard as that of others less known to fame. But few men have indulged so genuine a love of nature for her own sake, and found such enjoyment in delineating one of the most poetical and least explored departments of her boundless kingdom. To the last his special ability, as an artistic naturalist, was unapproached ; and, while one of his sons drew the outline, and another painted the landscape, or the foreground, it was his faithful hand that, with a steel-pen, made the hairy coat of the deer, or, with a fine pencil, added the exquisite plumage to the sea-fowl's breast. For years he fondly explored woods, prairies, and the Atlantic shores, and drew and colored birds and beasts, without an idea of any benefit other than the immediate gratification thus derived. It was not until his interview with Lucien Bonaparte in 1824, and the latter's unexpected offer to purchase his drawings, that he conceived the project of giving the results of his explorations to the world. Although, in pursuance of this intention, he embarked soon after for Europe with characteristic promptitude and eager hopes, the loneliness of his position, and the want of means and influence, depressed him on landing; but the instant and cordial recognition he met with from the active literary and scientific men abroad soon confirmed his original resolution. Roscoe, Wilson, Jeffrey, Brewster, Herschel, and Humboldt, successfully advocated his claims, and cheered him with their personal friendship; and, under such favorable auspices, his first contributions to ornithology appeared in Edinburgh. Indeed, notwithstanding the privations and difficulties he encountered, an unusual amount of sympathy and encouragement fell to the lot of Audubon. Compared with other votaries of a special object purely tasteful and scientific in its nature, he had little reason to complain. Of the one hundred and seventy subscribers of a thousand dollars each to his great work, eighty were his own countrymen ; and his declining years were passed in independence and comfort in the midst of an affectionate and thriving family, the participants of his taste. His elasticity of temperament, also, was not less a distinction than a blessing; it supported his wearisome and lonely wanderings both in search of birds in the forest and of encouragement among men; and, when the labor of years was destroyed, after a brief interval of mental anguish, it nerved him to renewed labor, so that in three years his portfolio was again filled.
Born the same year that independence was declared by the Americans, his father an admiral in the French navy, and his birthplace Louisiana, he was early sent to France for his education, where he received lessons in drawing from David, but pined the while for the free life and the wild forests of his own country. On his return, his father gave him a beautiful plantation on the banks of the Schuylkill, and he married. But neither agricultural interests nor domestic ties could quell the love of nature in his breast; and for months he wandered in search of objects for his pencil, unsustained by any human being except his wife, who seems to have realized from the first the tendency and promise of
his mind. At length, in order to enjoy the opportunities he craved, and at the same time have the society of his family, Audubon determined to emigrate, and selected the village of Henderson, in Kentucky, for his new home. In the autumn of 1810 he floated down the Ohio, in an open skiff, with his wife, child, and two negroes, his mattress, viands, and rifle, happy in the prospect of nearer and more undisturbed intercourse with nature, and intensely enjoying the pomp of the autumnal woods, the haze of the Indian summer, and the wildness and solitude around him. The locality chosen proved adequate to his aims; day after day, with his dog, gun, and box of pencils and colors, he made excursions, now shooting down a fresh subject, now delineating its hues and form ; one moment peering into a nest, and at another scaling a cliff, for hours watching the conduct of a pair of birds, as, unconscious that their doings were to be set in a note-book, they constructed a graceful nest, fed their young, or trilled a spontaneous melody. Over streams, through tangled brushwood, amid swamps, and in stony ravines, beneath tempest, sunshine, and starlight, the indefatigable wanderer thus lived; the wild beast, the treacherous Indian, the gentle moon, and the lowly wild-flower, sole witnesses of his curious labors.
Audubon returned from Europe to prosecute his ornithological researches with fresh zest and assiduity; and his first expedition was to the coast of Florida, where he made rich additions to his portfolio among the sea-fowl of that region. He afterwards suc
. cessfully explored Maine, the British Provinces, and the ice-clad and desolate shores of Labrador. The most remarkable and happiest era of his life was, doubtless, that employed in collecting the materials, executing the pictures, and obtaining the subscribers to his “Birds of America." His wanderings previously have the interest of adventure, and the charm derived from the indulgence of a passionate love of nature; and his subsequent excursions, and artistic labors, in behalf of the work on the
Quadrupeds of America,” begun in 1842, afford pleasing evidence of his enduring taste and noble perseverance. But the period included by his ornithological enterprise is more characteristic and satisfactory. He had a great end in view, and the wildest forest and most unfrequented shores, the highest and
most cultivated sphere of society, and the most patient and delicate limning, were the means of its realization; and it is when contemplating him in this threefold relation that we learn to appreciate the mingled hardihood, enthusiasm, firmness, and dignity, so remarkably united in his character. In the woods, a genial companion, a single-hearted, kind, and generous friend, as well as a childlike enthusiast and manly sportsman; he stood before the council of an institution with his first delineation, - the baldheaded eagle, — or opened bis portfolio to the inspection of an English nobleman in his Jordly castle, with quiet self-possession, an independent air, and without exhibiting the least solicitude either for patronage or approbation. Arriving at a frontier village, after a tramp of months in the wilderness, his long beard, tattered leather dress, and keen eye, made him an object of idle wonder or impertinent gossip; but none imagined that this grotesque hunter-artist enjoyed the honors of all the learned societies of Europe. Ilis exultation at the discovery of a new species, and his satisfaction at the correct finish and elegant verisimilitude of a specimen, amply recompensed him for days of exposure or ill success. On his journey from the South, he kept pace with the migration of the birds; and he proclaimed the Washington sea-eagle to his country and the scientific world with the pride and delight of a conqueror.
Ilis passion for rambling caused Audubon to fail in several business enterprises he undertook; and at one period he applied to Sully for instruction in portrait-painting, but soon abandoned the idea. So faulty did Dawson, the engraver originally employed by the Prince of Musignano to illustrate his ornithology, consider the early specimens of Audubon's skill as a draftsman, that he refused to execute them, and appeared to consider the pigments invented by the woodland artist as the most remarkable feature they presented. Although thus discouraged on erery hand, we can readily believe his declaration, that he left America with profound regret, although his career abroad affords yet another striking evidence of that memorable and holy saying " that a prophet is not without honor save in his own country.” It is natural that a man who succeeded by virtue of toil and fortitule should repudiate the commonly received faith in mere