Monday, February 02, 2009


John Audubon (1785 - 1851) lived in the wilderness during the early years of the United States. He camped and hunted along the frontier as he studied birds for his illustrated masterpiece, The Birds of America. He kept a remarkable journal of his adventures along the Mississippi and down the Ohio River to western Kentucky.

After a year traveling along the Ohio river, Audubon came to New Orleans in 1821 and paused there to earn money teaching art.

One evening Audubon was approached on the street by a woman wearing a veil that hid her face. He wrote: "[She] addressed me quickly ... 'Pray sir... you are he that draws likenesses in black chalk so remarkably strong?'" When Audubon said yes, she replied that she had a task for him. He began to walk alongside her, but the woman became alarmed, saying "Do not follow me now." She wrote down her address and instructed him to wait 30 minutes before arriving. Audubon wrote:

I arrived and as I walked upstairs I saw her apparently waiting. "I am glad you have come, walk in quickly." My feeling became so agitated that I trembled like a leaf. This she perceived, shut the door with a double lock and throwing back her veil shewed me one of the most beautiful faces I ever saw.....

"Your name is Audubon?"

"Yes madam."

"Set down and be easy....I will not hurt you."

I felt such a blush and deathness through me that I could not answer...

"Will you keep my name, if you discover it, and my residence a secret?"

"If you require it."

"I do. You must promise that to me, keep it forever sacred....Have you ever drawn a full figure?"



Had I been shot with a 48-pounder through the heart my articulating powers could not have been more suddenly stopped.... She raised, walked the room a few times and sitting again said, "I want you to draw my likeness and the whole of my form naked.... The drawing will be completed in this room...."

She drew the curtains and I heard her undress.... I eyed her, but dropped my black lead pencil....
Thus began what John Updike called "the first known nude American portrait done from life." Audubon was amazed that the veiled woman seemed "not at all afraid to disclose to my eyes her sacred beauties." Such a brazen act was unthinkable in the America of the 1820s and Audubon had to struggle to apply himself to his work. He made clumsy mistakes but she smiled and favored him with patience and eventually the picture was completed: "She gazed at [my drawing] for some moments and assured me her wish was at last gratified...."

The veiled lady and her nude portrait are lost to history. She swore him to secrecy, paid him and sent him on his way. Audubon tried to return several times to see her, but servants always told him she wasn't home.

In addition to being a cool story, the psychodrama that took place between artist and model in that candle-lit parlour long ago reminds us how much of the picture-making process is psychological.

Audubon bravely faced death in the wilderness, yet he "trembled like a leaf" at the astonishing sight of the woman unveiled before him. He could draw under the harshest physical conditions, but in the comfort of civilization, emotion and adrenalin clouded his senses and confused his fingers. He was skilled at rendering the shapes of nature, but when he tried to transfer those skills from drawing the curve of a wing to drawing the shapes of a woman, he became flustered. Clearly, all geometric shapes are not equal.

The veiled lady was of course an active partner in the psychological exchange. Audubon was bold when he left civilization behind for uncharted territory, but she was equally bold when she defied society's rules of decency to do something so unforgivable. Audubon's bird subjects came without psychological baggage. This meant they were not hindered by human feelings of guilt or shame, but at the same time they weren't motivated by the human desire to be seen-- to be known completely through the eyes and neurons of another.

So much of this blog is dedicated to the physical mark left by the point of a pencil on the surface of the paper-- and there is certainly a lifetime's worth of discussion to be found in such marks. But every once in a while it makes sense to step back and acknowledge the psychology of art which, like undetectable dark matter in the universe, accounts for far more of the total weight of art than the physical object.


Kim said...

This is a WONDERFUL story and commentary, David. It also has the flavor of Arthur Conan Doyle about it!
I must pursue further the life and work of Audubon; it's always attracted me.

Anonymous said...

That's such an interesting story. Thanks so much for posting it.

ces said...

I bought Audobon's bird book (even though I am not a bird watcher) because the birds were (a) so beautiful, and (b) meticulously rendered.

Posing nude for someone is always enlightening - I've done it - I'm glad to see you acknowledging the effects on both the poser & the artist. One tends to forget that not only the artist is affected.

spacejack said...

Fantastic story to share. I even loved the dark matter comparison.

Anonymous said...

Exquisite. Throughout story and reflection.

And as always on this site.

Thank you for this and for your previous post.

Best regards,
Glenda Rogers

slinberg said...

Thanks again for another great post, David. I always look forward to your updates.

Off-topic entirely, though, may I just let you know that your white-text-on-black color scheme almost makes me go blind when I read? I actually have some browser-side code to force a background of #CCC (light gray) and a text color of #333 (dark gray), which is much easier on the eyes. Any chance you'd be willing to consider something like that, a less contrast-y color scheme?

I wish that portrait hadn't been lost. Maybe it's better left to our imaginations after a story like this, though.

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Kim and Anonymous. I appreciate it.

ces, I would guess that not many of my readers know what it's like on both sides of the artist / model dichotomy.

David Apatoff said...

Spacejack, I'm glad you like Audubon's story. Many people today think of him as dull just because of his subject matter, but his diary is really quite extraordinary.

Glenda, it's good to hear from you. Thank you for writing.

Slinberg, I have heard that comment from a couple of others before. I set the background color at black to show off the art (which, after all, is the most important part of the blog) but I will look for a better solution.

peter wassink said...

I love this story, thanks for posting

Slinberg has a good point, under black and white images a grey background is more neutral then a black one. And though not 50% grey, #CCC (RGB 204,204,204) is visually the most neutral.

I chose the #CCC value as my website BG-color for this reason

Anonymous said...

Psychology / dark matter? How nice!
And next week Mr Apatoff will reveal to us what, in art, is the equivalent of dark ENERGY, of which there is so much more, which, "in the standard model of cosmology, (...) currently accounts for 74% of the total mass-energy of the universe." (
Hopefully he will...

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, the distinction between dark matter and dark energy is pretty well spelled out in the original wikipedia link in my post, but I'm always happy to have readers chime in with an additional reference or two. See if you can figure out why I picked "matter" for my analogy rather than "energy."

Rob Howard said...

How delightful! Once again, I come away from this forum with something new.

On another matter, have you considered a review of the work of Antonio. He was an illustrator of unrivaled inventiveness. If one had to compare him, for sheer talent and crativity (as well as stealing anything not nailed down) the similarity to Picasso is inevitable.

Antonio was one of the more influential illustrators during illustration's heyday in the late 60's through the seventies.

I would be interested in your take on this master.

kenmeyerjr said...

Hope David doesn't mind, I am trying to get the initial word out on my blog at , only have one entry so far, some art for sale, etc, but hope to update weekly and make it as interesting as possible...most likely not as interesting and thread-producing as David's, but I will give it a shot.

Ken Meyer Jr.

Rob Howard said...

Ken, it's all about taste...classy actions versus tacky actions. I am sure that many of the correspondents to this blog have something to sell but they resist hawking their wares here.

If you wish to have people visit your site you might have to undertake some of the more arduous methods of arousing awareness. This method is like someone walking into the middle of a movie theatre , going row to row handing out flyers to visit the local nail salon.

Matthew Adams said...

Audubon's story is quite interesting. His illustrations are quite clever as well, some good problem solving happening i.e. showing the whole swan even though it's bottom half is submerged in water.

I remember my first time going to a life drawing class at collage. I had no idea what life drawing was, and rocked up 5 minutes late. I think I stood in the doorway absolutely gob smacked, staring for the next few minutes at a rather patient nude model. None of the mystique and romance that Audubon seemed to have experienced.

kenmeyerjr said...

Well, Rob, it's not so much I am hawking the art to sell, but the blog as a blog and I figured another blog that I frequent might be a good place to start.

Bandito said...

Looking at Audobon's work it seems clear to me that he is more interested in forms pattern and colour than making a realistic picture of a particular bird.
So in a sense he was an abstractionist, maybe this was why he struggled with a realistic rendering...or maybe he was a bit ,er, distracted.
I like the black background.

Andrew R. Wright said...

What a great story! I laughed for quite some time at the line: "Clearly, all geometric shapes are not equal."

Where did you find the information for the story? Is there a published book of his diary writings? This post put me over the edge to research him. The enormous original book is awesome! I have only seen photos, but still quite amazing. I mean, it comes with its own table. How cool is that?!

David Apatoff said...

Andrew, Audubon kept a fascinating diary of his travels. He also wrote many descriptive letters. They have been collected and published and are available at your local library. The episode with the veiled lady is unique (you'll find it buried in his letters from 1821). Most of his stories are about adventures in the wilderness, but very worth reading.

Tulip Press said...

Great post!

I just posted some amazing illustrations documenting butterfly species on my blog.

I think you might enjoy them.

All the best,

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Senka. I enjoyed the butterfly wings on your blog. I must say, you have quite an eclectic combination of offerings there.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I am new to this, but a friend of mine just hung the flamingo print in her house. We were at dinner when one guest, clearly not an Audubon enthusiast said "That's a very beautiful nude that you've added." The rest of us were surprised, but eventually we were led to see the double image. I have been googling this and find no commentary on it. Any information?