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Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of The Birds of America Hardcover – June 16, 2004

4.8 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Renowned for his knowledge of the American wilderness, John James Audubon (1785–1851) was equally adept at the quintessential American activity of self-invention. Arriving in New York City in 1803, the 18-year-old native of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and illegitimate son of a French sea captain passed himself off as the Louisiana-born scion of a French admiral and claimed to have studied painting with the European master Jacques-Louis David. Audubon (even the name was false) came to the United States to manage a small estate his father co-owned near Philadelphia. Unsuccessful, he eventually tried his hand as a shopkeeper and a mill owner, but failed there, too. His passion for hunting—and for making life-size, realistically posed paintings of the animals he shot—led to the creation of his magnum opus, Birds of America, now one of the most admired works of American art. But this monumental venture was fraught with difficulties that sometimes brought the artist near the brink of despair. Audubon's work was initially scorned in the U.S.; he had to travel through Britain and France to arouse enough interest to fund the project. Even after its completion and its enthusiastic reception in Europe and the U.S., the work left the naturalist with only a modest income for a lifetime of effort. Souder (A Plague of Frogs) presents Audubon as a complex individual: a loving but distracted husband; a driven artist often plagued by doubts; a scrupulous observer of nature who thought nothing of fabricating some of his written material for dramatic effect. Sympathetic yet balanced, this account shows how much Audubon was shaped by the deep paradoxes of the time and place in which he lived. B&w illus. not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

John James Audubon is a legend in the worlds of both art and natural history, and, like many such iconographic figures, what we know of his life is a bare-bones outline. Audubon was born, illegitimately, in Haiti in 1785. Removed to France on the eve of Haiti's slave rebellion, he was adopted by his father and wife, and remained in France until sent to the U.S. to avoid conscription into Bonaparte's army. Filling in the details of Audubon's life in America, including his failures at business, his happy marriage, and his yearning to spend all of his time exploring the wilderness, Souder takes the reader into the heart of this enigmatic, self-made artist and naturalist. Audubon not only created the most famous depictions of birds that the world has ever seen, he also created himself and his mythology at the same time. Selling subscriptions to his bird paintings also involved selling himself, and Souder follows the tale of this driven man with insight and an almost fictional narrative. A highly readable biography. Nancy Bent
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: North Point Press; First Edition edition (June 16, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0865476713
  • ISBN-13: 978-0865476714
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,353,687 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Donald E. Zinter on January 22, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Like most everyone, I have been slightly familiar with Audubon's Birds of America-but I had no insight into the man or the world that produced his famous series of meticulous paintings. From the first page, William Souder's excellent book drew me into its engrossing narrative, making the carefully researched details come alive. Because of the detail and the direct writing style, the world Souder portrays seems close and immediate-almost like today-but in many ways it was light-years from today's modern world.

In detailing Audubon the man, Souder shows us a fascinating, infuriating character, obsessive in his hunting, exploring and collecting efforts, relentless in his painting, while often oblivious to his domestic responsibilities and economic situation. Reconstructing an immense amount of research materials, Souder describes Audubon's acclaim and success in Scotland and England, leading to the historic publication of the monumental Birds of America. While cutting a flamboyant, confident figure in Europe, we also see Audubon's private torments. His incompetent letters to his wife- addressing her as "dearest friend"- provokes an extended almost tragic transatlantic misunderstanding. Reading these passages should make us forever grateful for telephones!

Under a Wild Sky is full of wonderful rich description, and for this we can thank Audubon and others for having kept detailed journals and letters. But I was most impressed with Souder's ability to write in a familiar, personal style that weaves it all into a highly readable, intelligent and entertaining narrative that-as I said before-really makes the subject come alive. Highly recommended.
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Format: Paperback
I am pleased to give my unprejudiced review of Under A Wild Sky by William Souder, my son.

The author paints a picture, in words, of a 19th century complicated man, dedicated to giving his and future generations beautiful and accurate portraits of Birds Of America. This is a great book for all interested in learning about the life of the man and his work.
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Format: Paperback
It's been over a century since naturalist John James Audubon's death, but his fame is no less for it, and author William Souder's biography Under A Wild Sky: John James Audubon And The Making Of The Birds Of America provides both a well-researched biography and an inviting leisure read recreating Audubon's time and passion. Chapters tell of the lush abundance of species Audubon was called upon to catalog, and tells of his struggle to gain recognition for his work. A 'must' for any Audubon fan.
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Format: Paperback
This intimate biography of John James Audubon is also a gorgeously detailed narrative of nature in nineteenth century America, with its lush forests, rivers and wildlife, including “eclipses” of passenger pigeons and “roiling, deep green oceans” of Carolina parakeets. Bill Souder is a dogged biographer who unravels Audubon’s self-woven mythology and covers all sides of the story, which included much killing as Audubon worked obsessively to paint his life-sized portraits of America’s birds. Under a Wild Sky is a page-turning narrative of a rather wild man; Souder deftly portrays Audubon’s complexities as a naturalist, husband, father, struggling businessman, truth-stretcher, and most of all, an artist wracked by doubt. It is also an unforgettable submersion into life and nature in the nineteenth century, as Souder reminds us, “a lost, far-richer world.”
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I loved this book. It basically tells you most of what you need to know about him, positive and negative. He sacrificed many of his best years in order to produce his masterpiece and it will be cherished forever. One thing that really struck me was how quickly he aged in his later life. All those years of stress, struggle and living in the wilderness definitely took its toll. It's mentioned in the book that the toxicity of his paints may also have been a factor to his premature aging. Thank you John for what you have left us.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Somebody PLEASE adapt this for a mini-series! The whole deal with the publication of "The Birds of America" is so fascinating that this life-long ambition of JJA is certainly spellbinding enough to qualify for a dramatic series- be it biopic or dramatic treatment.
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Format: Hardcover
William Souder doesn't just describe Audubon's personality. Souder appears to be Aubudon's best friend who has been watching Audubon for years. Now, Souder is telling the reader how his best friend works and what drove his friend to make "Birds of America."
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Nice bio of a man obsessed with birds and art. Very complex relations with family, living apart in various countries for years but always focused on birds an his art. Appreciated first in Europe but eventually in the US. Sad at the end.
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