Monday, November 21, 2016

This Strange Wilderness: the Life and Art of John James Audubon by Nancy Plain

Audubon was fortunate to live in a time when anyone could be a naturalist and no one thought it odd to combine art and science. Jean was born in Haiti but his father moved back to France before the island revolted. In France, despite being wealthy, the family survived the Reign of Terror unscathed. A poor student, the boy was always sneaking off to explore and watch birds. At eighteen, to keep him out of Napoleon's army, his father sent him to America. It was the year of the Louisiana Purchase and much of the US territory was still wilderness.

In America, Audubon changed Jean-Jaques into John James and tried to be respectable. He got married and opened stores in frontier towns, but the lure of the wilderness was too strong. So he set out to paint all the birds of America while his wife Lucy supported the family. Not only did Audubon paint more birds than anyone had before, he put them in scenes that told stories about their lives – where they lived, what they ate, and what ate them. However, many of the plants in the pictures were painted by a teenage apprentice, Joseph Mason

Like Audubon's paintings that illustrate it, This Strange Wilderness is a beautiful blend of art and fact. Paintings by earlier naturalists are shown for comparison, along with portraits of Audubon and his family. Even the paper quality of the book contributes to its enjoyment.

If you would like to know more about some of the other people mentioned, there is a biography of Carl Linnaeus: Father of Classification by Margaret J. Anderson and a 55 minute DVD about The Colonial Naturalist Mark Catesby. The picture-fantasy for young readers, A Nest for Celeste by Henry Cole, describes Audubon's stay on a Louisiana plantation through the eyes of Joseph Mason's pet mouse. For the Birds by Peggy Thomas is a picture biography of Roger Tory Peterson who illustrated many field guides and created new ways to identify birds.

Review by Carolyn Caywood, retired from VBPL

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