Tuesday, December 20, 2005
The American Woodsman
Visit Eye Level to read a short piece about J.J. Audubon and Walton Ford, two of my favorite artists. The post is a nice primer (and provides some worthwhile Ford links), but readers who are especially interested in Audubon should follow the crumb trail to a more substantial article, "Audubon's Birds, Flightless and Soaring," in The Washington Post.
Reviewing "Audubon's Dream Realized: Selections from the Birds of America," an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Paul Richard, a Post critic, writes, "Not everyone will love these birds. They look a little stiff, perhaps...And their beadiness of eye is frequently reptilian." Apparently Richard doesn't consider the relationship between birds and reptiles. 150 million years ago the distinction between bird and lizard was considerably less clear cut. Indeed, many physiological similarities remain. Such "gaps" in Richard's knowledge of natural history aside, however, his piece competently describes the curious creation of Audubon's magnum opus, "The Birds of America."
Richard paints a picture of the artist/naturalist as the consummate American businessman. "'It is not the naturalist I wish to please,' [Audubon] wrote in 1826, 'it is the wealthy part of the community.'" Like Benjamin Franklin, Audubon was a savvy socialite who understood the importance of persona. But whereas Franklin used his social proficiency to cast himself as every Frenchman's favorite statesman, Audubon used his abilities to make money. He appealed to his European collector base by playing the role of "noble savage," that most iconic of American archetypes. "In London, Audubon strode into grand drawing rooms with fringes on his buckskins, and bear grease in his hair." The truth is that Audubon was neither frontier woodsman nor drawing room aristocrat; rather, he was a hybrid of the two. When schmoozing in Paris or London, he donned the coon tail cap, but when in the States, he didn't hesitate to play up the "science," such as it was, of his undertaking.
Reading Richard's article this morning, I recalled a conversation I had in a friend's kitchen, over six years ago, not long after I had decided to move to New York City from the Eastern Shore of Virginia. My friend's father suggested I draw attention to my "country boy" upbringing. "You hunt and fish, enjoy working in the field, and don't know a thing about fashion," he observed. "You should take to chewing on a length of straw up there in the city, even insist on wearing around a pair of bib overalls and a camo baseball cap, if need be. Just let 'em know you're country and you'll sell more paintings...give those rich, city folks something to talk about."
I rolled my eyes at the time...but maybe he was on to something?
Image credit: Frederick Cruickshank, circa 1831