JOHN JAMES AUDUBON 1785-1851
Fox and Goose, c. 1835
Oil on canvas, 21 1/2 X 33" (54.61 x 83.82 cm.)
Signed, lower right
Gift of Mrs. Arthur McGraw, 940-0-101
Fox and Goose was painted in England, where collectors increasingly urged John James Audubon to convert his ornithological drawings into the more lush medium of oil. This life and death drama set in the American backwoods reveals an artist who was at once a diligent natural scientist and a wilderness poet.
Audubon could have stepped out of a novel. Born in Santo Domingo, the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and a Creole chambermaid, he grew up in Nantes during the bloody Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution. He studied briefly in Jacques-Louis David's atelier before fleeing to the United States in 1802 to avoid conscription in Napoleon's army. By 1808, Audubon was married and running a general store in Louisville, Kentucky, a business that went bankrupt probably because he spent most of his time observing and drawing birds in the Ohio Valley region. In time the avocation became a passion. In 1820, he set out down the Mississippi River on a flatboat to study migratory birds; with its vast swamps and marshlands, the Mississippi Valley was a Garden of Allah for the birds and for Audubon. Showing the tenacity of a conquistador, he slogged his way through the tortuous terrain, determined to learn everything he could about the wild turkey, great white heron, Canada goose, and other birds. He read natural history texts, spied on birds from his hiding places, hunted and trapped species, tried domesticating those he caught, and even picked up rudiments of the taxidermist's craft.
Until the late 1820s, Audubon made New Orleans his base of operations for the drawings and watercolors he was preparing for publication. American book firms did not show interest, but in 1830 the skilled English engravers Robert Howell Sr. and Jr. reproduced Audubon's watercolors on copper plates; the engravings were then hand-colored and published in a double elephant folio titled, The Birds of America. Subsequent volumes of ornithological writings and watercolors, reproduced as lithographs, secured Audubon's reputation as the premier natural history artist of the nineteenth century. His highest acclaim came in Victorian England where, in the 1840s, he was elected to the Royal Society and enjoyed the life of a social lion.
By the time Fox and Goose was painted, Audubon's art radiated with vigor and confidence. He may or may not have witnessed this mammal-bird struggle. He rarely rendered or wrote about the North American Fox, although he must have known it was a major menace to nesting birds. Canada Geese, on the other hand, were among Audubon's special interests. He spent long periods studying their migratory and breeding habits; he watched them in the wild, trapped them, and tried occasionally to raise them like barnyard fowl. At times he shot them out of the sky or purchased them to set up in his studio as a nature morte.
Fox and Goose is a drama made taut by the extreme close-up vantage point which places the spectator on eye level with the combatants in a tightly-wedged space. Audubon's Oriental-like design with its alternating cadences of light and dark notes and its crisply drawn, decisive forms hovering against a sparse, abstract setting, exercises a spell on the viewer not unlike that of Winslow Homer's powerfully designed landscapes of the 1890s. Audubon laminates a Neo-Classical regard for the rational and empirical to his Romanticist love of instinct and the exotic. His meticulous natural history renderings cross the threshold into visual theater. His legacy is an imaginative art linked to that of the nature poets of his era such as Frederic E. Church and Martin Johnson Heade.