Audubon, Haiti and Cruel Fate

Now that Haiti is in the news daily, some publications are digging deep to come up with  news items (or pseudo-news items) that may be of interest to those looking for ways of understanding or connecting with Haiti. Some are absurd, but as we look into the coverage on Haiti, some little gems sparkle from the rubbish. My dear friend Judith Dollenmayer sent me this tidbit from the Wall Street Journal, which she reads “so she knows what the enemy is up to.” It chronicles Audubon’s  (yes, he of the birds)  childhood in pre-revolutionary, plantation-era Haiti. You can find a link to the full article below.

 Since their publication in the 19th century, the 435 bird pictures in John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America” have become an iconic piece of Americana. But their peculiar and sometimes elegiac sensibility, so alert to the fleeting nature of existence, has its origins in what is now Haiti. Although the human tragedy unfolding on the island today surpasses in scale anything Audubon observed there centuries ago, his art and life are a reminder that people of an earlier age lived closer to sudden death than we can now easily imagine.

Audubon was born in Saint-Domingue, which would later become Haiti, in 1785, and he spent his early childhood there. Audubon’s first recorded memory, one that biographer Richard Rhodes traces to Saint-Domingue, involved a life snuffed out so casually that it haunted Audubon well into adulthood.

The artist seemed fascinated by the precarious line that separates life from death, and how that line can vanish in a matter of seconds. That dark recognition started for him in what is now Haiti.

Audubon, who was born to French parents and spent his first few years on a sugar plantation, recalled a household that included several parrots and some monkeys. One morning, a monkey that regarded one of the parrots as a rival “showed his supremacy in strength over the denizen of the air, for, walking deliberately and uprightly toward the poor bird, he at once killed it, with unnatural composure,” Audubon wrote in an autobiographical sketch.

“The sensations of my infant heart at this cruel sight were agony to me,” Audubon told readers. “I prayed the servant to beat the monkey, but he, who for some reason preferred the monkey to the parrot, refused.”

The seeming injustice of life so quickly extinguished stuck with Audubon. He confessed to thinking of the incident “thousands of times,” and he said it was “as perfect in my memory as if it had occurred this very day.” Audubon also speculated that his memories of the experience might have helped spark his intense interest in bird art.

But as Mr. Rhodes has noted in his insightful “John James Audubon: The Making of an American,” Audubon also seemed to use his bird art to reflect on human mortality. Audubon’s natural mother died shortly after he was born, and he narrowly escaped a slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue by leaving for France, where he witnessed the bloody excesses of the French Revolution. Eventually settling in the U.S., Audubon lived and worked on an American frontier where friends and family members often died young. Audubon lost two daughters early in his marriage, and upon arriving in Louisiana in 1821 to pursue his bird pictures, he met a plantation mistress, Lucretia Pirrie, who had buried five children.

Sudden death was so commonplace in Audubon’s America, in fact, that he made part of his living as a deathbed artist—a portrait maker summoned to a grieving family to sketch a keepsake image of the recently departed. Audubon was so good at this macabre occupation, bringing the dead to life in his art, that a suffering father, eager to draw upon Audubon’s skill, had his dead child disinterred.

The same sleight of hand informs Audubon’s bird pictures, which are vividly lifelike although they usually used dead birds as their models. But for all their vitality, Audubon’s paintings resonate with loss as well as life—touched, in Audubon scholar Christoph Irmscher’s words, “by the experience of death, or at least impending death.”

Audubon seemed infinitely fascinated by the precarious line that separates life from death, and how that line can vanish in a matter of seconds. That dark recognition started for Audubon in what is now Haiti, and it gives his bird pictures an especially unsettling resonance as the people of his birthplace continue to mourn their dead.

You can access the original article by Danny Heitman at

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