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He says in his Autobiography: “My drawings of birds, meanwhile, were not neglected. In this particular there seemed to hover around me almost a mania, and I would even give up doing a head (portrait), the profit of which would have supplied our wants for a week or more, to represent a little citizen of the feathered tribe. I thought, my dear son, that I now drew birds far better than I had ever done, before misfortune intensified, or at least developed, my abilities. I received an invitation to go to Cincinnati; I was presented to the president of the Cincinnati College, Dr. Drake; and immediately formed an agreement to stuff birds for the museum there, in concert with Mr. Robert Best, an Englishman of great talent. My salary was large, and I at once sent for your mother to come and bring you. I now established a large drawing school at Cincinnati, at which I attended thrice per week, and at good prices. The expedition of Major Long passed through the city soon after; and well do I recollect how he, and Messrs. T. Poole, Thomas Say and others, stared at my drawings of birds at that time. So industrious were we, Mr. Best and I, that in six months we had arranged and finished all we could do for the museum. I returned to iny portraits (paintings) and made a great number of them, without which we must have, once more, been in the starving line, as Mr. Best and I found, sadly to our fate, that the members of the College Museum were splendid promisers and very bad performers."
Speaking of the hard vicissitudes of his earlier life, he says: “One of the most extraordinary things among all these adverse circumstances was, I never, for a day, gave up listening to the songs of our birds, or watching their peculiar habits, or delineating them in the best way that I could. Nay, during my deepest troubles, I frequently would wrench myself from the persons around me and retire to some secluded part of our noble forests; and many a time, at the sound of the wood-thrush's melodies, have I fallen upon my knees, and there prayed earnestly to our God.”
What was it, we may ask, thus brought him to his knees in these deep forest wilds? It was the song of birds-as hymns offered in the joyfulness of their free and happy life, to their Great Creator, and in unison to which Audubon joined his prayers to the same Giver of all good things, the God who had inspired him with genius, and wisdom, and knowledge, and understanding-gifts which St. Paul tells us are from the self same Holy Spirit of God who inspired the Prophets of old and the Apostles of our Lord. This joining in fellowship of praise and prayer with the feathered citizens of God's world, as he calls them, this, he says, “never failed to bring me the most valuable thoughts, and always comfort ; and strange as it may seem to you, it was often necessary for me to exert my will and compel myself to return to my fellow beings."
This, no doubt, refers to some of those solitary wanderings in the wilds of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, among the Indian tribes of that time (the Choctaw and Cherokee nations), in pursuit of specimens, and to study the habits of our birds, thus for a while leaving civilization behind him and trusting to the friendship of the Indians, who called him the “Medicine Man" (for he was skillful in simple natural and botanical remedies). And thus these wild aborigines left him unmolested to pursue his way, with his mysterious airgun, which burnt no powder, but sent forth water bullets, which brought down the birds but did not injure their plumage.
My writing this recalls the fading memories of childhood, as to what I have heard among the family, of some of his wanderings away from home, and which, I believe, have never appeared in public print heretofore.
These temporary desertions of his family seem to show an inconstancy in his otherwise devotion to his wife. But she alone of his family relatives had faith and hope in some ultimate and substantial outcome of his talents, and encouraged him in the pursuit of that branch of natural history so congenial to him. And although not sure that it was so, there remains in my memory a dim recollection that Mrs. Audubon accompanied him in one of his excursions through the then wilds of our Southern forests.
I now come to speak of my residence with Mr. Audubon in England. In the year 1836, when I was between fourteen and fifteen, I was sent to England to be educated, and as companion to an only son, my cousin, William Alexander Gordon. The financial crisis of that year, extending through several years, compelled my uncle, Alexander Gordon, head of the mercantile house in London, to return to New Orleans to see after the affairs of his house here, Francisco De Lizardi & Co., and during his absence from London, and while I went to college, I resided with Mr. Audubon in London, who was then in England bringing out his great work, The Birds of America.
He was away from London much of the time, on his business, getting subscriptions—the price was $1000. But when he was at home, and it became his turn to entertain the members of the scientific, literary and art clubs to which he belonged, there was a grand dinner at his house. We two boys, young Gordon and myself, were privileged to be present in the dining room after dinner, while the guests were sipping their wine. At the table were assembled some of the great men of that day, men of science, literature and art. Their conversation was of the highest type; to which we two boys would listen with open mouth and ears, wondering if we should ever attain to such wisdom and knowledge as was poured forth through the lips of the celebrities of that day. Audubon was a prominent speaker at these gatherings; and his narratives of his adventures and experiences, in parts of the world then little known in England, even to these wise natives, were of absorbing interest to them, as to us two boys.
Being a typical Kentucky American boy-full of life and health, and Western ways and speech, a rare bird in England in those early days, before ocean steam navigation-Audubon and his son John proposed to paint my portrait, before I went to Elizabeth College, in the Island of Guernsey; and for which purpose I sat for several days. Mr. John painted the body of the picture, Audubon coming in from time to time, when required, to catch and fix the likeness, for which he had an extraordinary faculty, with a few strokes of his brush. So that the head is from Audubon's brush and the body of the picture from his son John's. This portrait of your humble servant hangs to-day in Newcomb Art Gallery, in Washington Avenue, in this city, and is the only oil painting from the Audubons' hands, so far as I know, in Louisiana. It is as fresh in color, after so many years have passed away, as if painted only yesterday, but by no means foreshadows the old, delapidated “critter" who stands before you to-night.
I saw no more of Mr. Audubon until I returned to the United States, in 1839, and stayed some days with him and his family at his place, called “Minnie's Land,” in the suburbs of New York City. There he was settled with his family, the ambition of his life attained, his fame established as one of the great naturalists of the world. The same loving and lovely character he had ever been, with some of his earlier peculiarities.
After his spirit had passed away, his son John gave me the violin on which he had played for over forty years. It was said at the earlier periods of his life, when Audubon was thought to be only an ornament to society, that if it were not for that fiddle, giving dancing lessons, he would starve to death. I regret that I have lost that valuable violin of the great Audubon. I unfortunately loaned it to a young man in this city, who got into a scrape other than that of his bow, and had to decamp to parts unknown, and carried the Audubon violin with him.
Let me now, before I close, recur further and briefly to his personality and character, as I recall them to memory. He was tall, well proportioned in bodily frame, of robust health, with manly, handsome features, large, flashing eagle eyes, and flowing hair, which gave him the air of an artist : and altogether a most attractive personality, which, had he permitted it, would have made him the pet of the petticoats, but he was a most faithful husband and never lost his first and ardent love for his wife. In fact, with his religious instincts, he was one of the purest of God's creations, with a hidden saintliness about him which only shone forth, from time to time, as occasion arose. In his declining years, as already mentioned, he was the same loving and lovely character he had ever been, with all his earlier eccentricities mellowed by a gracious old age. There was yet the remains of the manly beauty of his personal charms—the same elegance of manners and amiability of disposition.
He had lived so much as in the presence and in communion with the God of nature, while in pursuit of his calling, that there was an air of sanctity about him ; for he had always been strictly moral, and instinctively religious, loving next to his God his fellow men and the feathered tribe, of which he has given to the world portraits of natural size, with descriptions of their habits, which have never yet been equaled. No wonder we are proud of him, and that his memory is revered by all. Unknown as are the particulars of Audubon's life and works to many, there seems to be, even to such, a vague charm attached to his very name, as there was to his person, which makes his name a familiar one, for park, place, club, hotel, stores, etc., and even for our children, and this among the highest and humblest of our citizens. Why, there is even an Audubon shoe shop here.
Such is the honor now paid to this man's world-wide fame and memory. A man whose work was for so long hid, as it were, under a bushel, until the discovery of his great talents, even to himself, and opportunity came to show them forth to the world.