In truth, by the standards of his time Audubon was something of a progressive and sentimentalist. After taking part in the killing of 50 trumpeter swans, he remarked that it seemed a pity to shoot such beautiful creatures simply so that their plumes could adorn the hats of fashionable ladies. He seldom initiated the animal-torture entertainments, and he sometimes even made remarks about the "poor" victims.
Now and then he had precocious—if, by our lights, primitive—ecological insights. It occurred to him after taking part in passenger pigeon and buffalo hunts that excessive slaughter and the destruction of forest and prairie habitats might someday greatly reduce these species, which others viewed as being inexhaustible resources.
Later, when he had become a social lion in drawing rooms and galleries on both sides of the Atlantic, Audubon came on strong as an explorer and survivor of the howling Western wilderness. He made much of his meetings with the venerable Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark, implying that he and these rustic luminaries had great rapport because of their shared experiences in the virgin lands. In polite, impressionable society, he dressed in fringed buckskins and swished his long Indian-fighter-style hair. He often introduced and signed himself as "The American Woodsman." Technically this claim may have been correct, for the Mississippi Valley was still rather heavily forested in the early 19th century. However, by the time Audubon came to live there, it was thoroughly settled. He wandered around between small villages, farms and plantations. Sometimes in the course of his travels he would take detours back into the bush. But Audubon was never on the true frontier, and it is unlikely he even spent a single night more than a day's journey from some settlement. Audubon the Trailblazer was another movie, but not one that should be too quickly or greatly scorned. It sold his art and added much to the pleasure of those who admired it.
The most constant and genuine characteristic of Audubon was his interest in birds. From boyhood well into his middle years, this was essentially a recreation, but he tended to apply himself more seriously to this avocation than he did to his various vocations. He was not by training or temperament a scientific ornithologist, but he was a keen, diligent field observer. Only occasionally—as, for example, when he insisted that the immature bald eagle was a new species and wanted to call it the Washington Sea Eagle to honor the father of his adopted country—did his romantic impulses skew his avian judgment.
An obvious reason for his careful, realistic study of birds was his lifelong desire to portray them not as stiff, stuffed specimens, which was then the style, but to draw them so as to suggest the beauty of their vitality. This was not as easy an ambition to satisfy in the early 19th century as it would become later when such aids as spotting scopes and high-speed cameras became available. So Audubon did what other naturalists of the time had to do: He shot specimens for study and as models. However, limp cadavers did not adequately serve his purposes either. While still a teenager in Pennsylvania, Audubon devised a method for overcoming this artistic handicap. It involved making a kind of puppet from the body of a recently dispatched bird by skewering its carcass with sharp, stiffish wires, so that it could be manipulated into lifelike poses. His first successful experiment with this technique involved a kingfisher he had bagged on his father's Pennsylvania farm. Rushing back home with the defunct creature, he ran it through with wires, arranged it on a table as he remembered seeing it and then began to draw. "I outlined the bird, colored it, finished it, without a thought of hunger.... This is what I shall call my first drawing actually from nature," he wrote.
Audubon did a lot of birding and sketching in the Ohio Valley. This indulgence must certainly have compounded the commercial troubles he had there. However, he and others regarded this enthusiasm as nothing more than a gentleman's pastime. After he was imprisoned as a debtor and declared bankrupt, Audubon could not find even a job as a clerk, much less anyone who wanted to invest money with him. It was then, with absolutely no other prospects, that he turned to natural history as a business. In 1819 he was employed temporarily by Dr. Daniel Drake as a taxidermist at a museum in Cincinnati. It was Drake who first showed Audubon a copy of the seven-volume American Ornithology, a book of bird paintings and text published by Alexander Wilson in Philadelphia during the previous decade. While trying to find subscribers to fund this work, Wilson had visited Louisville and met Audubon, who was then keeping his store there—sometimes. The exchanges between the two apparently were fairly testy. Audubon later claimed that he did not sign up to back Wilson's book because his partner, Rozier, commented that Audubon knew more about birds and drew them better than did Wilson. Audubon, of course, was of the same general opinion.
Drake told Audubon that while Wilson's Ornithology was the best work in the field to date, the author had not included many Western species. He suggested that Audubon should give some thought to preparing a more comprehensive work. This was the spark from which The Birds of America flamed. Audubon and Lucy, having never before considered that his natural history interests might be exploitable, suddenly and naively became convinced that if Wilson had published a book, he must have become rich, and that if Audubon were to do a bigger, better book, he could become even richer. So inspired, Audubon left Cincinnati in 1820 and traveled toward the mouth of the Mississippi looking for new birds to paint. He doggedly stayed with the project for the next four years.
Ironically, this was a period in which Audubon actually lived heroically but imagined himself quite differently—usually as a wretched failure. He was poverty-stricken, ashamed of how he looked, humiliated by the things he had to do to keep body and soul together. Sometimes he was forced to earn his way as a music or dancing master, as a painter of stage scenery or, as we've seen, as a portrait painter.
Late in 1821 Lucy brought the children to Louisiana and found a position as a private tutor, a job that at least chased the wolf from their doorstep. When and where he could, Audubon continued finding and drawing birds. He was producing, it now seems, much of his finest work—despite, or perhaps because of, his personal miseries.
By being painfully and, for them, unaccustomedly frugal, John and Lucy were able to set aside a little money so that Audubon could travel East to look for a publisher. He went to Philadelphia and New York in 1824 and was rejected. This was partly because he had some very derogatory things to say about the artistry of Wilson, who in the ornithological establishment was still regarded as the premier bird painter. Defeated, he returned to Louisiana and during the next year scraped together passage money to England. He arrived there in 1826 with portfolio in hand.