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Meeting the man behind the legend. AUDUBON

WHO exactly was John James Audubon? The name is familiar, all right, but it seems only ornithologists and rare-print dealers know much about the man and his work. The observance of the bicentennial of John James Audubon's birth on April 26, 1785, will no doubt change all that.

Perhaps it's no wonder Audubon is a mystery man. It took him 35 years to get his act together, and it has taken 150 years more to assess it properly.

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Now a timely book, ``The Bicentennial of John James Audubon,'' by Alton A. Lindsey and five other authors (Indiana University Press, Bloomington), takes a good look at the artist from a modern perspective. These Audubon enthusiasts are fairly nonpartisan in their evaluations, clearing up confusions and controversies.

Just who was this man who, at age 36, began to produce the comprehensive and beautifully illustrated catalogs of the birds and animals of North America that were unrivaled until Louis Agassiz Fuertes's work a century later?

Audubon was the illegitimate son of a French sea captain; understandably in later life he was vague about his origins. Some of his descendants let it be assumed he was the missing Dauphin of France, a myth finally dispelled only recently. Audubon was a ne'er-do-well who played the role of French dancing master and itinerant portrait painter. He was a self-taught artist and naturalist whose passion was birds.

Audubon observed and recorded, both in drawings and writings, details of birds' appearance and behavior, drawings which are still consulted as an authority. Yet at the same time he told tall tales about nearly everything else in his world. Even some of his true reporting was fiercely challenged by the scientific community, though often later vindicated [see ``Controversial pictures'' below].

A bankrupt businessman, he eventually managed to provide for his family to live securely in comfort, after two decades of almost superhuman effort on his monumental ``Birds of America.''

Now the patron saint of the conservation movement, he was not a conservationist himself. But the communication of his keen awareness of the natural world sparked the choice of his name in 1896 for a society formed to prevent the extinction of the white egret because of demand for its feathers on women's hats. The Massachusetts Audubon Society succeeded in its first mission, and other Audubon societies followed.

Audubon has a number of firsts to his credit. He was the first to band a bird to keep track of its migratory movements. He was the first to portray birds and mammals in natural poses and in their natural environment. He was the first to portray all the birds of eastern North America, observed and described in exhaustive detail of structure and behavior. He discovered 40 new species.

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On the other hand, he sometimes presented as a new species what has since been determined to be a subspecies or a then-known species. It's not entirely his fault, as the authors of the bicentennial book point out. The discussions and revisions of taxonomy are constant.

Other problems caused controversy over Audubon's accuracy. He may have recorded a bird when it was en route between its winter feeding ground and its summer nesting area. Midway through his massive project of producing the ``Double Elephant Folio of Birds of America'' and its accompanying ``Ornithological Biography,'' he began to rely heavily on assistants and collaborators to produce the pictures, because he was tied up in promotion, fund raising, and writing.

The engravers in London, Robert Havell Sr. and Jr., who printed all but 10 of the plates for ``Birds of America,'' often had to produce an image by working from Audubon's watercolor drawings of birds and his assistants' landscapes, plants, and insects, all of which may have been painted at different times. The combination could go wrong, although it usually worked well.

Audubon never had the time to penetrate westward, and for his book on mammals, ``The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America,'' he had to rely on specimens sent to him, often without sufficient information, from that half of the continent. He relied on scientific experts for information he could not provide himself. John Bachman, a leading authority on mammals at the time, wrote the text for ``The Viviparous Quadrupeds.''

Other collaborators included Audubon's son, John Woodhouse Audubon, who did about half of the paintings for that book, because his father was either away attending to the publication part of the business or, in the end, became unable to carry on after decades of exhaustive labors. Another son, Victor Gifford Audubon, had by that time taken over the management of the operation.

Audubon's wife, Lucy, had for many years kept the family fed, housed, and clothed by teaching school to supplement the meager income her husband had provided.

Ecologist Alton Lindsey and his five colleagues have, among them, put forward in their book some nice evaluations of Audubon's achievements, difficulties, strengths, and weaknesses.

He may not have been the Dauphin, but he became king of ornithology.

The Western gray squirrel (Plate 43 from ``The Viviparous Quadrupeds''), shown at the left on a hickory branch, inhabits Western oak and pine forests, where there are no hickory trees, and is a slightly different species from the Eastern gray squirrel, which may indeed be found in a hickory. Audubon would have painted the squirrel from a preserved specimen or skin sent to him from a correspondent in the West, and might not have known its proper range.

The gray (Canada) jay (Engraving 20 from ``Birds of America'') is shown at the right in a white oak, yet the bird's range would scarcely bring it far enough south to land in such a tree. Another plate, 224, on the raven, shows the bird in what is now an improbable habitat -- a shagbark hickory -- but which was a likely habitat in Audubon's day.

Habitats have disappeared, and birds' ranges have shortened or lengthened in the intervening years.

In America, Audubon was the European dandy, in Europe the American backwoodsman, playing both roles to the hilt for whatever they were worth. He was collector, naturalist, artist, writer, producer, salesman, promoter, and businessman all rolled into one. He was also a master raconteur and practical joker. On his first promotion and fund-raising trip to Britain he was an instant hit in Liverpool and Edinburgh with his exotic garb and lifelike pictures of birds. His Scottish engraver saw to it that Audubon sat for a portrait in his wolfskin coat and long, bear-greased hair, realizing that the likeness would be a great promotional aid. But in England reception was mixed, and Audubon had to work much harder to get patrons.

After having alienated the Philadelphia establishment by unwise comments and behavior, however, he had learned to be more circumspect, if not less entertaining, and eventually managed to charm even King George IV into subscribing for ``Birds of America.'' Audubon had to contend with economic difficulties of his subscribers, as well as his own, because of wars, embargoes, taxes, and other financial complications.

The failed businessman who had gone bankrupt earlier in his life became a successful entrepreneur after all.

BETWEEN 1826 and 1838, the original sets of 435 prints (each measuring 391/2 by 26 inches) for ``Double Elephant Folio of Birds of America'' were delivered five at a time in a wooden box to subscribers who paid $1,000. Now, a single print may cost from $1,000 to $30,800, depending on its condition and the popularity of the image. Sotheby's recently sold a full set for $1,716,066. Octavo-size lithographs produced in Audubon's lifetime are a bit less expensive than the engravings. Other, later, reproductions by more modern methods and in various sizes have lower values. Even original lithographed octavo-size mammal prints are a bargain at $50 to $85. Audubon's letters, seldom available, command four figures.

April 18-July 21: ``John James Audubon: Science Into Art.'' Paintings, prints, memorabilia, at the American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street, New York. April 18-Sept. 14: ``Audubon's Birds of North America: The Original Watercolors.'' New York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, New York. Throughout year. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Contact curator Carlotta J. Owens to see prints from now-closed exhibition, ``John James Audubon: The Birds of America.'' April 23, 11 a.m.: New 22-cent Audubon postage stamp issue. First-day cover by National Audubon Society, c/o Fleetwood, Cheyenne, Wyo. 82008-0001. (Audubon commemorative stamps are also being issued by Palau and Marshall Islands, the Commonwealth Dominica, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Greneda-Grenadines, Antiqua and Barbuda, and Sierra Leone.) April 24, 8 p.m. (E.S.T.), on Arts & Entertainment cable TV network (check local listings): ``Audubon,'' film by David Attenborough. April 25, 4-8 p.m.: Massachusetts Audubon Society Gala Celebration of John James Audubon's Two Hundredth Birthday, at the State House, Boston. April 26-May 6: Massachusetts Audubon Society programs at sanctuaries throughout the state. April 26: Opening of US Postal Service substation, issuing first-day cachet in Millbrook, Pa. April 26-28: Three-day ceremonies in Millbrook, Pa., where Audubon's first home in the United States was ``Mill Grove.'' April 26: Audubon family reunion in Henderson, Ky., another Audubon home. Beginning June 1: ``Audubon: The Charleston Connection.'' The Charleston Museum, Charleston, S.C. PUBLICATIONS April issue of Massachusetts Audubon Society's Sanctuary magazine devoted to Audubon. May issue of National Audubon Society magazine, Audubon, devoted to the artist. August: Focus Outdoors, a Massachusetts Audubon Society long-weekend program devoted to Audubon. August: Publication of Vol. 1 of a new full-size ``Double Elephant Folio of Birds of America,'' by Abbeville Press, which plans to issue 350 sets at $15,000 each. August: Publication of six engravings from ``Birds of America,'' printed from the original copper plates in an edition of 125 sets, by the American Museum of Natural History in New York and Alecto Historical Editions in London. Subscription price of $30,000 will go to endow a fund for natural history in Audubon's name at the American Museum of Natural History. SUGGESTED READING ``The Bicentennial of John James Audubon,'' by Alton A. Lindsey. Indiana University Press. 1985. ``Audubon,'' by John Chancellor. New York: Viking Press. 1978. ``John James Audubon,'' by Alexander B. Adams. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. 1966. ``Audubon the Naturalist,'' by Francis Hobart Herrick. New York: Dover. 1968 (reprint of Appleton Century, 1938). ``Audubon and His Journals,'' by Maria R. Audubon. New York: Dover. 1960 (reprint of 1897 edition published by Charles Scribner's, New York). ``The Bird Biographies of John James Audubon,'' edited by Alice Elizabeth Ford. New York: Macmillan. 1957. ``Audubon's Butterflies, Moths, and Other Studies,'' by Alice Elizabeth Ford. New York: Studio Publications in association with Crowell. 1952. ``The Imperial Collection of Audubon Animals: The Quadrupeds of North America,'' original text by John James Audubon, F. R. S., and the Rev. John Bachman. Edited and with new text by Victor H. Cahalane. Foreword by Fairfield Osborne. Illustrated by John James Audubon and John Woodhouse Audubon. Maplewood, N.J.: Hammond Inc. 1967. ``The Double Elephant Folio: The Story of Audubon's Birds of America,'' by Waldemar H. Fries. Chicago: American Library Association. 1973. ``The Audubon Society's Baby Elephant Folio: Audubon's Birds of America,'' text by Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia Marie Peterson. New York: Abbeville Press. 1981. ``Lucy Audubon: a Biography,'' by Carolyn E. Delatte. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 1982. ``On the Road With John James Audubon,'' by Mary B. Durant and Michael Harwood. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 1980. ----30------{et

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