The “American Woodsman”


He played his part without difficulty. In his letters home he started referring to himself as the “American woodsman,” at first a bit self-consciously, then habitually, ready enough to see himself as others chose to see him. He was not unduly hampered by modesty. “My hairs are now as beautifully long and curly as ever,” he wrote Lucy from Scotland, “and I assure thee do as much for me as my Talent for Painting.”


Yet, he was guided less by vanity than by his towering determination to call attention to his project, and for this his theatrical appearance was good public relations. In responsible intellectual circles the quality and interest of his work were immediately recognized. He was quickly elected to a half-dozen learned societies, whose meetings he was asked to address and to whose journals he was asked to contribute. One critic pointed out, when the drawings were publicly exhibited, that these were more than ornithological studies executed on a brave new scale; they gave old Europe a fresh poetic vision of America that, like the man himself, fired the imagination. “Who would have expected such things from the woods of America?” exclaimed the fashionable Parisian artist François Gérard.

For all the adulation and recognition, no one rushed forward to sponsor publication. Indeed, some of Audubon’s best-qualified counselors advised against any such hopeless undertaking. Yet everything that had been accomplished up to now was only a beginning. All his records—his drawings, his notes, and his storedup observations—were of small value to the world until they were cast in adequately published form. So, with sublime temerity, Audubon commissioned a London engraver to start work and, without a publisher, an agent, or a single subscriber, issued a prospectus committing him to at least twelve years of hard work and roughly one hundred thousand dollars in costs.

Those next twelve years were years of the most extraordinary accomplishment. At the start he needed money desperately to get his enterprise off the ground—in order to subsist, for that matter. “I do anything for money now a days,” he wrote Lucy five months after the prospectus was issued. He drew trifles for the album of a Scotch lady, and he turned out careful copies of his drawings, which he peddled among the picture dealers along the Strand or to such individual customers as he could attract. (Where have all those pictures gone, he later wondered, as indeed do we today.) At one point, when he had borrowed five pounds to keep himself in supplies and the engraver called for sixty more to meet his payroll, Sir Thomas Lawrence brought some friends to Audubon’s studio, and their purchases may well have preserved him at the last moment from the awful reality of the debtors’ prison.

In the meantime, armed with letters of introduction, he scoured the countryside for subscribers. Nine months after issuing the prospectus he had more than a hundred names on his list, and when these started paying upon delivery of the finished reproductions, his financial problems eased somewhat. Soon, at least, he could write Lucy that she need no longer send him money. But only by constant attention could he keep his less dedicated patrons from canceling their expensive subscriptions. At one point Audubon estimated that during the four years it had taken him to produce his first volume, fifty subscribers, representing lost payments of some fifty-six thousand dollars, had reneged.


On the other hand, if he neglected close supervision of the engravings of the plates and the hand coloring of the reproductions, the work might go awry. In April, 1828, he complained of the daubing of one of the colorists, and the whole crew quit on the spot and had to be replaced. Time and again on his travels he came across defective copies and returned them for redoing. In June, 1830, he wrote his engraver, “Should I find the same complaints as I proceed from one large town to another through out England as I am now determined to do—I must candidly tell you that I will abandon the Publication and return to my own Woods until I leave this World for a better one.” However, Robert Havell, the engraver entrusted with most of the work, was on the whole a superb and conscientious craftsman and an artist in his own right. In the end, it is his scrupulously finished aquatints that are generally celebrated as “Audubon originals,” although most of the drawings from which they were derived may still be seen at the New-York Historical Society.

As the work progressed, Audubon’s standards rose, and he became increasingly aware of his limitations as an ornithologist. He realized too that he had barely half enough drawings to cover his subject, and of these many were simply not good enough. Three times before the job was completed he returned to America to replenish his portfolio, in spite of the cost in lost subscriptions while he was away. In passing he would gather subscriptions in his own country (his fame had crossed the Atlantic), and then resell the English delinquents when he returned. “If I could be spared from Drawing Birds and from going to England for 12 months after my next Voyage,” he wrote from America in 1833, “I could procure in that time and in our own Country too, ONE HUNDRED additional Subscribers.” Five months later he left America with sixty-two subscribers and a hundred new drawings.