In 1821, a penniless Audubon came to the Pirrie plantation in Feliciana Parish of Louisiana as tutor to the 15-year-old daughter of the house. He was broke and had two young sons, a situation most people would have found daunting. But as Danny Heitman says: “Freed from the constraints of the merchant and mill trade, a livelihood for which he had been groomed by his businessman father, the thirty-six-year-old Audubon felt at greater liberty to pursue the art that had always been his true passion.”
Heitman’s thesis is that Audubon’s summer on the vast plantation gave him the impetus his evolving work needed. He cites Dennis Dufrene, a ranger at the Audubon State Historic Site, who identified 23 paintings that Audubon completed at Oakley house and 16 more with possible links. But perhaps even more important, Oakley opened Audubon’s eyes to the possibilities of Louisiana; 167 of his plates, out of 435, have their origins there, more than in any other state.
If that were the only virtue of A Summer of Birds it would be no more than a worthy historical note, but the book is full of quirky particularities. I had never known that young Audubon specialized in a peculiar genre of the time—portraits of the newly dead in a time and place when death arrived unexpectedly and photography did not exist. Nor had I known that many of his meticulous backgrounds were painted by his assistant Joseph Mason, who may have been as young as 13, or that his engraver Havell rather than the painter himself may have “filled in” his backgrounds with portraits from Alexander Wilson, absolving Audubon from any taint of plagiarism.
Heitman can be funny; while arguing—in a description of the famous (or infamous) portrait of mockingbirds fighting a rattlesnake in a tree—that Audubon is not guilty of “tabloid sensationalism,” he also imagines his doing television in “the swashbuckling style of a TV nature documentary.” It is given to us to imagine whether he would be David Attenborough or Steve Irwin.
A Summer of Birds is a fine portrait of the artist as a man in motion, a young man rather than an icon. “From the upper gallery of Oakley, this world once walked by Audubon can seem as comfortably self-contained as a snow globe. But the Audubon legacy memorialized at Oakley isn’t the snapped ribbon of a finish line, but a baton in an ongoing race.”
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