Cover image for Under a wild sky : John James Audubon and the making of the Birds of America
Under a wild sky : John James Audubon and the making of the Birds of America
Souder, William, 1949-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : North Point Press, [2004]

Physical Description:
367 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QL31.A9 S68 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
QL31.A9 S68 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



The life and times of a complex genius and the masterpiece he created In the century and a half since Audubon's death, his name has become synonymous with wildlife conservation and natural history. But few people know what a complicated figure he was--or the dramatic story behind The Birds of America. Before Audubon, ornithological illustrations depicted scaled-down birds perched in static poses. Wheeling beneath storm-wracked skies or ripping flesh from freshly killed prey, Audubon's life-size birds looked as if they might fly screeching off the page. The wildness in the images matched the untamed spirit in Audubon--a self-taught painter and self-anointed aristocrat who, with his buckskins and long hair, wanted to be seen as both a hardened frontiersman and a cultured man of science. In truth, neither his friends nor his detractors ever knew exactly who Audubon was or where he came from. Tormented by a fog of ambiguities surrounding his birth, he reinvented himself ceaselessly, creating a life as dramatic as his fictionalizations of it. But when he came east at thirty-eight--broke and desperate to find a publisher for his Birds--he ran squarely into a scientific establishment still wedded to convention and suspicious of the brash newcomer and his grandiose claims. It took Audubon fifteen years to prevail in both his project and his vision. How he triumphed and what drove him is the subject of this gripping narrative.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

John James Audubon is a legend in the worlds of both art and natural history, and, like many such iconographic figures, what we know of his life is a bare-bones outline. Audubon was born, illegitimately, in Haiti in 1785. Removed to France on the eve of Haiti's slave rebellion, he was adopted by his father and wife, and remained in France until sent to the U.S. to avoid conscription into Bonaparte's army. Filling in the details of Audubon's life in America, including his failures at business, his happy marriage, and his yearning to spend all of his time exploring the wilderness, Souder takes the reader into the heart of this enigmatic, self-made artist and naturalist. Audubon not only created the most famous depictions of birds that the world has ever seen, he also created himself and his mythology at the same time. Selling subscriptions to his bird paintings also involved selling himself, and Souder follows the tale of this driven man with insight and an almost fictional narrative. A highly readable biography. --Nancy Bent Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Renowned for his knowledge of the American wilderness, John James Audubon (1785-1851) was equally adept at the quintessential American activity of self-invention. Arriving in New York City in 1803, the 18-year-old native of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and illegitimate son of a French sea captain passed himself off as the Louisiana-born scion of a French admiral and claimed to have studied painting with the European master Jacques-Louis David. Audubon (even the name was false) came to the United States to manage a small estate his father co-owned near Philadelphia. Unsuccessful, he eventually tried his hand as a shopkeeper and a mill owner, but failed there, too. His passion for hunting-and for making life-size, realistically posed paintings of the animals he shot-led to the creation of his magnum opus, Birds of America, now one of the most admired works of American art. But this monumental venture was fraught with difficulties that sometimes brought the artist near the brink of despair. Audubon's work was initially scorned in the U.S.; he had to travel through Britain and France to arouse enough interest to fund the project. Even after its completion and its enthusiastic reception in Europe and the U.S., the work left the naturalist with only a modest income for a lifetime of effort. Souder (A Plague of Frogs) presents Audubon as a complex individual: a loving but distracted husband; a driven artist often plagued by doubts; a scrupulous observer of nature who thought nothing of fabricating some of his written material for dramatic effect. Sympathetic yet balanced, this account shows how much Audubon was shaped by the deep paradoxes of the time and place in which he lived. B&w illus. not seen by PW. Agent, Christy Fletcher. (June) Forecasts: This volume will compete with the recently published and wonderfully illustrated Audubon's Elephant by Duff Hart-Davis. However, Under a Wild Sky gives a fuller account of Audubon's life and more context, and therefore the two will more than likely complement each other. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The epic odyssey of John James Audubon to make and market his folio of 435 ornithological prints, The Birds of America (1827-38), continues to attract great interest. While the ranking study remains Waldemar H. Fries's The Double Elephant Folio (1973. o.p.), these two books provide valuable biographical details that enrich the story of Birds. Science writer Souder (A Plague of Frogs) covers not only Audubon's professional life but his personal life as well, which was characterized by severe economic and physical hardship. Souder focuses on Audubon's experiences in America. Journalist Hart-Davis also covers Audubon's time in America but is more concerned with his British and French sojourns, which were indispensable for the success of Audubon's magnum opus. Throughout, he intersperses quotations from Audubon's journals and from his contemporaries. Both titles deserve a place in large or academic libraries, but while Souder's is longer and better documented, Hart-Davis's is more heavily illustrated and will probably find more use owing to its more attractive design. [Coming in October from Knopf is Richard Rhodes's John James Audubon: The Making of an American. Ed.] Henry T. Armistead, Free Lib. of Philadelphia (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Part I Audubon and Wilson
1 Philadelphiap. 3
2 Coming Acrossp. 18
3 A Name for Every Living Thingp. 29
4 Lessonsp. 45
5 A Beautiful Plantationp. 65
6 The Foresterp. 80
7 The Exquisite Riverp. 87
8 Mr. Wilson's Decadep. 104
Part II The Birds of America
9 At the Red Banksp. 121
10 Kentucky Homep. 132
11 Legions of the Airp. 146
12 Ever Since a Boyp. 163
13 Edinburghp. 195
14 Dearest Friendp. 227
15 My Great Workp. 246
16 Afterp. 286
Acknowledgmentsp. 293
Notesp. 297
Bibliographyp. 349