Audubon: On the Wings of the World

Audubon: On the Wings of the World

Audubon: On the Wings of the World — written by Fabien Grolleau and illustrated by Jérémie Royer — is a handsome historical hardcover that gives a stunning portrait of the American wilderness in the early 1800s. It also reminds us what artists may suffer when driven by creativity, as well as the sacrifices of those around them.

John James Audubon is still known today for his gorgeous paintings of the birds of North America. Instead of the stiff scientific art of his time, he struggled to show the wide variety of types and species as though they had only momentarily paused in their actions (although all his models were dead, often shot by him and then posed with wire and other tools). Although he wanted to be accepted as a scientist of natural history, his work was criticized for being too expressive and sentimental.

Translated from the French, this is (as the author puts it) “a more ‘romanticised’ version of Audubon’s life” based on his writings, which could be “embellished”. Many of the images here are captioned by excerpts from his journals or letters. Royer’s willingness to show the art of an acclaimed painter is admirable, as it can be difficult to convey the skill of someone known for their art, but he does a lovely job.

Audubon: On the Wings of the World

Audubon was also French, originally Jean-Jacques when he went to jail for business debts. Shortly after, he left on a great pilgrimage through the wilderness, leaving behind a wife and children to survive somehow while he followed his muse. He was driven by the idea that the natural areas he so wanted to see were vanishing as civilization expanded and the frontier was cut down.

He seemed compelled on this mission, keen on natural observation and with the patience of a hunter, willing to wait for hours or days for a chance at the right shot. As he and his assistants voyaged through the forests near the Mississippi River, giant flocks flew overhead, one filling the skies for three days. They were threatened by a bear or a perilous storm or thieves. Audubon prioritized his art over his life (and his assistants’ lives), but he’s seen as often with a gun in his hand as a brush in this story.

What sticks with the reader is the portrait of a wild America, with new species to discover around every bend and true natural wilderness, where the creatures outnumber the people. It’s a rough-hewn view of the country that’s been forgotten, perhaps idealized as it could only be by authors from another land. Audubon’s goal, to paint all the abundant birds of America, is considered madness by some, eventually driving him to self-neglect and out of the country: Only in Great Britain could the right printing be found to reproduce his works in the color he worked so hard to achieve, capturing his vision of life on paper.

A few of Audubon’s prints are reproduced in the back of the book, along with a one-page text biography. (The publisher provided a review copy. Review originally posted at Good Comics for Kids.)

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