Audubon's Nude: The Enigma of the Fair Incognito

Audubon's Nude: The Enigma of the Fair Incognito
Published: Oct 29, 2023
In dealing with the story of the Fair Incognito, John James Audubon's biographers have always limited their discussions to the question of its factual truth. And since it fails to meet the requirements of historical narrative, they dismiss it as a fictional triviality. The present article assumes that the story is largely apocryphal, and asks whether there is meaning in this mysterious woman who makes a shocking proposition to a struggling artist. If so, can it show us the liberating influence of the imagination in the art of a great wildlife painter?

Audubon, Trumpeter Swan (inset),

Trumpeter Swan (inset), John James Audubon, 1838.


"There is no satisfaction in telling a story as it actually happened."
         — Jorge Luis Borges

She disappeared long ago and took her famous portrait with her, both of them vanishing into some obscure corner of time’s dark cellar. She exists now only in the detailed and lively account Audubon drew of her in a letter to his wife. But thanks to that account, the woman he called the Fair Incognito has achieved something of the legendary status of all those other literary creations who haunt the streets of New Orleans. She forms part of the spectral parade that includes William Faulkner’s failed writers, Tennessee Williams’ sexual misfits, Sidney Bechet’s Congo Square drummers, and John Kennedy O’Toole’s outlandish pretenders.
Of course she also resembles one of Audubon’s birds. In her beauty, in her wilfulness and pride, in the confident way she chose to reveal herself to him, the Fair Incognito resembles one of those exotic species Audubon pursued through the swamps of Florida and Louisiana. She’s a flamingo, a heron, an egret, or better yet, a nondescript, the term Audubon coined for a species as yet unknown to science. He used the same black chalk and outsized sheet of paper to draw her portrait in the nude that he used for all of his ornithological drawings. And once her portrait was finished, he set down a written account of her appearance and behaviour, just as he did for every one of his birds.


In that case, she says, come see me in thirty minutes. She gives him an address, then climbs into a waiting carriage and disappears.

Reading that account, we see her beautiful face, we hear her birdlike voice, and we drink in the vision of her unclothed body stretched full length on the luxurious couch in her living room. We can feel Audubon’s excitement, we sense the sexual tension that makes his hands shake as he attempts to transfer that living beauty to a blank sheet of paper. But when we’re finished reading, the inevitable question occurs: Why did the artist Audubon take the time and trouble to set this woman’s story down in words? Was his purpose trivial, or was it serious? Did he simply wish to boast to his wife about the ravishing girl who stripped herself naked for him day after day for more than a week? Or is it possible he was using her to explain something about the process involved in creating his art?
For the most part, Audubon’s biographers and critics have been silent on this point. Their reaction to the Fair Incognito has amounted to a collective shrug of the shoulders. For them, she seems to represent little more than a lurid anecdote in the life of an artist who was not above playing the buffoon and pulling off the odd practical joke. However, one topic Audubon never joked about was his art. So in the following pages, I shall attempt something that’s never been done before; I will dare to take the Fair Incognito seriously. And by showing her the respect she deserves, determine what she can tell us about the mystery that lies at the heart of Audubon’s creativity.
When she stops him on the rue Royale, she is wearing a dark veil that makes it impossible to see her face. Even so, he can tell she is “a femelle of a fine form.”1 She speaks to him in French because she knows it is his native tongue: Is he the man who draws the birds in black chalk?

Yes, he admits to working in that medium. In that case, she says, come see me in thirty minutes. She gives him an address, then climbs into a waiting carriage and disappears. He walks to a nearby bookstore, where he struggles to compose himself. Even in New Orleans, it’s unheard of for a respectable woman to speak to a strange man on the street. He’s overwhelmed by what he calls “a feeling of astonishment undescribable.”

udubon, portrait by John Syme, journal of

Not the kind of man the Fair Incognito might easily dismiss. Portrait of Audubon by the Scottish artist John Syme, 1826. The White House, Washington D.C. [o]

This is February of 1821. John James Audubon is thirty-five years old. He arrived in New Orleans (his second visit to that still very French city) two months earlier after coming down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers on a flatboat from Cincinnati where he’d left his wife and children. He spent his time on the river shooting game for the communal pot and drawing the birds that were everywhere around him. Now he lives in a houseboat near the French Market, which he describes in his journal as “the Dirtiest place in all the Cities of the United States.” On his second day in the city, he loses his wallet to a pickpocket while watching a parade to commemorate the Battle of New Orleans.2 
When the young woman stops him, Audubon is carrying a wooden portfolio case that contains his recent drawings. The case is lined with tin to keep out the rats that ruined several earlier works. He has lugged this unwieldy box all over the city, trying to drum up portrait commissions and other employment. Almost every cent he’s earned — more than $200 — has gone back to his wife in Cincinnati. He has been so busy drawing portraits and promoting himself that he hasn’t found time to buy new clothes or visit the barber. His appearance speaks so eloquently of need that some of his acquaintances have stopped speaking to him on the street. But now, “this extraordinary femelle” has sought him out and invited him home.
The address she has given him is in a new development, a suburb of New Orleans called the Faubourg Marigny. She lives, perhaps appropriately, on a street called rue d’Amour. When Audubon arrives at the appointed time, a servant shows him upstairs and into the room where the woman, still veiled, is waiting. Once they are alone, she rises from her chair, shuts the door, and secures it with a double lock. Only then does she lift the veil to show him her face, which he judges to be “one of the most beautifull” he has ever seen. The excitement he feels is so intense it frightens him. She asks if he is married and then notices he’s trembling. She offers him a drink. Curiously for a Frenchman of his time, Audubon has never been much of a drinker, but he downs the cordial she pours for him in a gulp.
The room where they are sitting is luxuriously furnished. She moves closer and stares at him. Does he think he can draw her face? If so, what will he charge? He stammers out a price, which she ignores. Will he … will he keep her name and address a secret between the two of them forever? When he agrees, she asks if he has ever drawn someone full figure, and then she asks, "Naked?"

About midway through Les Miserables, Victor Hugo describes the moment when the crippled gardener Fauchelevant, Jean Valjean’s friend and accomplice, receives a piece of news that threatens to put both men in mortal danger. The announcement is so shocking it almost knocks the gardener off his feet. “If,” writes Hugo, “you somehow managed to survive a cannonball that hit you square in the chest, you’d probably look something like Fauchelevant at that moment.”3

Audubon, Eastern Phoebe,

This is the bird Audubon would take his fiancé to see as it built its nest and copulated in a cave on his Pennsylvania farm. John James Audubon, Eastern Phoebe. ca. 1825. Watercolor, graphite, pastel, black ink, and gouache with touches of glazing on paper, laid on card, 18 7/8 x 11 1/2 in. [o]

Shock, paralysis, cannonballs to the chest. Maybe this was just a thing with the war-weary French in the nineteenth century, the hyperbolic metaphor they used to express intense surprise. But according to Audubon, the word “naked,” as it fell from the lips of this beautiful woman, assumed the force of a “48 pounder” that tore through his heart and rendered him speechless. His nervousness becomes so apparent that it affects his companion, who stands up and begins to pace back and forth. Finally, she collects herself and sits beside him again.
“I want you to draw my Likeness,” she says, “and the whole of my form naked, but as I think you cannot work now, leave your Port Folio and return in one hour. Be silent.”
Audubon is so relieved to get out of the house that he feels “like a Bird that makes his escape from a strong Cage filled with sweet Meats.” Once sprung, he walks the streets for an hour trying to prepare himself for the unabashed display of what he calls “her sacred beauties.” On his return he finds her waiting impatiently in the upstairs room. She notices at once he is still trembling. “What a man you are,” she says. She hands him a box of fine chalks and pulls a sheet of high-quality paper from the drawer of an armoire. The paper is of a size known as “elephant folio,” the same size Audubon uses to draw his life-sized birds. With a piece of chalk in his hand and the familiar paper before him, Audubon composes himself. The woman disappears from view as she draws a curtain around a “superbly decorated” couch. He hears the rustle of clothing as she undresses. A moment of silence, then she bids him open the curtain. He sweeps it aside and stares at her unblemished flesh. “I drew the curtain and saw this Beauty.”
“Will I do so?” she says. Lying on the couch like Goya’s Naked Maja, her body glows in the afternoon light that slants through the room’s long windows. It occurs to Audubon that she has arranged everything, down to the finest detail, to make the strongest possible impression on the eye of the artist. He is so mesmerized by her nakedness that he drops his piece of chalk. “Shut up with a beautiful young woman as much a Stranger to me as I was to her, I could not well reconcile all the feelings that were necessary to draw well, without mingling with them some of a very different nature.”
He retrieves the chalk and sets to work. After an hour, his subject begins to feel “a little Chill” and asks him to draw the curtains so she can dress herself. Once clothed, it’s her turn to feel an excitement she can barely contain. “Is it like me?” she says, then repeats herself with a childish eagerness. “Will it be like me? I hope it will be a likeness.” She inspects what he’s done and immediately detects a minor flaw. She shows him how to correct the mistake, and this marks her first contribution to what will become a collaboration between the artist and his gifted model.

Audubon, Gyrfalcon, journal of

John James Audubon, Gyrfalcon. 1835–36. Watercolour, graphite, pastel, black chalk, gouache, black ink, laid on card. New York Historical Society. [o]

She pulls a bell rope, and a maid wheels in a dolly loaded with cakes and wine. Audubon refreshes himself, then works for another two hours to complete his sketch. All this time, the woman peppers him with questions about his family, his drawings, his way of life. Audubon feels his admiration for this “well informed femelle” begin to expand beyond his first focus on her physical beauty. In her conversation, she always uses “the best expressions” and she possesses “the manners necessary to Insure Respect and wonder.”
This first day establishes the routine the two of them will follow over the next nine. The Fair Incognito lies naked on the couch for an hour while Audubon draws from life. Then she dresses herself and converses with him while he works on various details for another two hours. When Audubon leaves for the day, the drawing stays behind. When he returns the following day, he always finds that she has made improvements to his work over night. Audubon was rarely generous in his assessment of fellow-artists, whom he considered rivals for public esteem and financial rewards. Of the two established artists he met in New Orleans, John Wesley Jarvis and John Vanderlyn, he dismissed the former as “a cracked man” and the latter as a “dirty son-of-a-bitch.”4 So it’s all the more surprising for him to admit that the Fair Incognito possessed the talent to work “in a style much superior to mine.” In the end, her contributions to the drawing are so extensive that it might almost be called a self-portrait. On their last day together, she takes the initiative to sign the drawing for both of them. “She put her name at the foot of the drawing as if her own and mine in a dark Shadded part of Drapery.”
Much of the rest of Audubon’s account deals with the payment he received for the portrait. Despite his obvious poverty, the payment did not consist of cash but took the form of what the woman called un souvenir or keepsake. She decided what this souvenir would be. Her choice, odd as it might seem, would help to define her relationship with the artist. She chose to give him a gun.
“One who hunts so much needs a good Gun or Two. This afternoon see if there is one in the City & give this on a/c if you wish to please me to the last.” She hands him a five-dollar bill, which Audubon uses for a down payment on a shotgun he finds selling for $120. She insists on inscribing it with a dedication in French: Ne refuse pas ce don d’une amie qui t’est reconnaissante puisse t’il t’égaler en bonté. [Don’t refuse this gift from a friend who is grateful to you. May it equal you in goodness.]
When she says goodbye on the last day, she gives him “a delightful Kiss” and says, “Be happy. Think of me sometimes as you rest on your gun.” After he leaves, Audubon signs the gun for both of them. He carves his name under the ramrod, and “her name I Engraved on [the gun] where I do not believe it will ever be found.” His final words as he ends his narrative suggest his contentment: “The Lady was kind, the Gun is good.”

New Orleans, Mardi Gras, 19th century, journal of @2023

New Orleans, Mardi Gras, 19th century. [o]

Audubon included this account of the Fair Incognito in a letter to his wife dated May 24, 1821, about three months after the events described supposedly took place. In that letter, he portrays a complicated and intelligent young woman, one who is unafraid to contravene certain social conventions, but who insists that he keep her name a secret. She is proud of her beauty and aware of the effect it has on Audubon, but she also spends a considerable amount of time asking about his family and way of life. She is a highly skilled artist herself but makes a point of telling him that “she felt happy in mingling her talents with mine in a piece.” And she has nothing but praise for Audubon’s work on her portrait: The drawing “pleased her apparently very much…. She admired my work more every day, at least was pleased to say so.” They kiss on parting, and each seems happy with what they take away, the Fair Incognito with her portrait, and Audubon with his gun.
This picture of a relationship marked by mutual respect and affection is flatly contradicted by a brief entry Audubon made in his journal on February 21, 1821, the day before, according to him, he and the Fair Incognito parted forever.

I met this morning with one of those discouraging Incidents connected with the life of the artists; I had a Likeness spoken of in very rude terms by the Fair Lady it was made for, and perhaps will Loos my time and the reward expected for my Labours — Mrs André I here mention the name as I May speak more of the Likeness as the occasion Will require.5

Scholars believe that the “fair Lady” mentioned in the journal entry and the Fair Incognito described in the letter to Audubon’s wife are the same person. They also think that Mrs. André was probably a mistress of the flamboyant Creole millionaire, gambler, and politician, Bernard de Marigny, who developed New Orleans’ first suburb. He christened the streets in the Faubourg Marigny with whimsical names such as Poets, Piety, Music, Desire, and Elysian Fields. On the rue d’Amour, Marigny built a row of cottages where he housed his several mistresses. When his wife complained about them, he is supposed to have told her that he possessed “in the highest degree every vice of a gentleman.”6
Some writers have speculated that Bernard de Marigny may have encouraged his mistress to approach Audubon about drawing her portrait, and that he fronted her the money to pay for it. Audubon and Marigny were casual acquaintances. It’s not out of the question that the millionaire concocted a scheme to help the struggling artist. The truth is, we know nothing more of the mysterious Mrs. André than what Audubon has set down in his letter and journal. No other references have survived. It seems likely that Audubon’s brief journal entry was the more honest account of his relationship with this woman, and that at some point she complained so emphatically about his drawing that he feared he would lose the promised payment for it. Why, then, did he cover up this conflict in the letter to his wife? Why did he pretend that “The Lady was kind” and praised his work unstintingly, when in fact she was hostile to him and severely critical of his art?
Sadly, none of Audubon’s biographers have attempted to explain the discrepancies between his letter and the journal entry. One school dismisses the whole story as “make-believe,” while another accepts the story as fact, but a fact that amounts to nothing more than an amusing interlude in the life of the artist.7 But what if it is something more than that? Rather than being irrelevant to Audubon’s artistic development, what if the story is central to it?
There are two good reasons for taking the story of the Fair Incognito seriously. The first is the way it functions as a story, as a consciously created work of fiction that Audubon laboured over for three months before sending it off to his wife. The second is the uncanny nature of the relationship the story describes, that is, the exchange of identities that takes place between the artist and his model over the ten days that they associate with each other.


The world thus exists to the soul to satisfy the desire for beauty.

In regard to the story itself, not only did Audubon work on his account for three months; he took pains to shape it into a classically constructed short story, one with a beginning, middle, and end; a hook, a point of crisis, and a denouement. The story begins, like so many in the nineteenth century, by establishing its setting in time and place. “I was accosted on the day of x 1821, at the corner of … Street & … Street … by a femelle of a fine form but whose face [was so] thickly covered by a Veil that I could not then distinguish it.” In this opening sentence, the writer not only sets the scene but creates a mystery, the woman’s invisible face, and gives his reader a hint of sex, the finely shaped body. This is enough to propel the reader forward to the point when the sexual angle becomes even plainer as the woman commissions the narrator to draw her portrait in the nude.
The story’s climax comes not with the sex scene the reader may have anticipated, but at the moment of revelation when the narrator sweeps the curtain aside and finds the woman’s naked body displayed before him: “Yet I drew the curtain and saw this Beauty.” Here Audubon is telling his reader, as plainly as possible, that when he pushed the curtain aside, what he saw was Beauty on the couch before him, Beauty personified in a particular body, Beauty as a concrete object that inspired his wonder. In his essay on Nature, Emerson would say, “The world thus exists to the soul to satisfy the desire for beauty.”8 By placing beauty at the climax of his story, Audubon makes it clear that the whole narrative revolves around this fundamental desire. Beauty is both his theme as a writer and his inspiration as an artist.
The denouement flows naturally from the intensity of this vision. The story’s resolution lies in the completion of the portrait the artist has been commissioned to draw. The difficulty of such a task should not be underestimated. Audubon had to find a way to transfer this living being’s incandescent beauty to a blank piece of paper. What alchemical process must take place in the psyche of the artist to effect such a transformation?  
The second provocative aspect of the story is the weird exchange of identities that occurs between Audubon and the Fair Incognito as she takes on his role of the hunter-artist, while he assumes hers of the passive model. To better understand this role reversal, it would help to outline the four-stage process Audubon developed for drawing his birds. First came the hunt. This could involve pursuing the bird for days and learning everything possible about its habits and preferred habitats. Second came the shot. Audubon always killed the birds he drew so he could have them in hand to study the details of their plumage and structure. Third was the posing. Audubon developed his own form of taxidermy, passing wires through the dead bird’s body to arrange it in a lifelike attitude, then fixing it to a board divided into equal squares. This helped him deal with matters of perspective and proportion. Fourth was the drawing itself. Audubon used colored chalks to draw the bird life-sized on a large sheet of paper known as elephant folio.
In reading Audubon’s account of the Fair Incognito, it’s evident that she took charge of each of these steps. By doing so, she pushed the narrator into the background of his own story. The hunt: she employed one of her servants to follow Audubon. “For several nights this servant had remained very late to see if I absented from the Boat and that in fact She knew every Step I had taken since the day She had resolved on employing me.” The shot: when the Fair Incognito pronounces the word “naked,” Audubon feels as if he’s taken a cannonball to the chest: “had I been shot with a 48 pounder through the Heart my articulating powers could not have been more suddenly stopped.” The posing: Audubon does not tell the woman how to lie on her couch. Rather, she arranges herself, and he says only that he could see “at once that the Position, the light and all had been carefully Studied before.” The drawing: Audubon uses the same materials to draw the Fair Incognito that he employs with his birds. But every night after he leaves, she takes possession of these materials to improve the work he has done. She thus assumes the role of the master craftsman who corrects the work of her apprentice. In the end, says Audubon, “I finished my Drawing, or rather she did, for when I returned every day I always found the work much advanced.”
Keeping these two aspects of the story in mind — its short-story format and the role reversal that takes place between artist and model — it  should be possible to make the following three statements. First, that the story’s theme is the vision of beauty that inspires an artist to create a work of art. Second, that the story’s narrative deals with the act of creation itself, with the artist’s struggle to transfer a living beauty onto a lifeless medium. Third, that over the course of that struggle, the artist himself seems almost to disappear as his subject becomes all consuming. 

Audubon, Eastern Phoebe, journal of
Alexander Wilson, Mockingbird, from American Ornithology (1829). [o]

Yet simply making these observations is not enough. If the story is to be taken seriously rather than dismissed as a trifle, it should also be possible to apply these observations to Audubon’s life work on the birds he drew. If it is, then it follows that Audubon had a high purpose in writing his story, that the Fair Incognito represents, in fact, a serious and sincere attempt to elucidate the theory behind his art.
One way of exploring the Fair Incognito’s relevance to Audubon’s art would be to examine the contest that played out between Audubon and his only serious rival as an illustrator of American birds in the nineteenth century. Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) was a Scottish immigrant and itinerant schoolteacher who, over the last ten years of his life, transformed himself into a well-respected ornithologist and artist.9 He was the first to publish an illustrated study of North American birds. American Ornithology appeared in nine volumes from 1808 to 1814. Audubon did not begin to publish his multi-volume Birds of America until 1827. But one must ask why, 200 years later, Audubon’s art is still capable of inspiring wonder while Wilson’s has largely been forgotten. Great art often appears cloaked in mystery, but could there be something in the story of the Fair Incognito that might help to explain why Audubon succeeded and Wilson failed?
Audubon and Wilson met just once, in 1810, when Audubon was living in Kentucky and Wilson had already published the first two volumes of his magnum opus. A kind of Mexican standoff developed when Wilson showed Audubon his books, and Audubon showed Wilson some of his as-yet-unpublished drawings. Both men could see they had the exact same aim in life, and neither was inclined to assist the other. The coolness between them was aggravated when Audubon refused to subscribe to Wilson’s serial publication.
Years later, when Audubon went to Philadelphia to find a publisher for his drawings, he found every door shut against him. Wilson was dead by then, but his friends in the ornithological community were united in their determination to rebuff Audubon. Alexander Lawson, who had engraved Wilson’s drawings for publication, criticized Audubon as a clumsy draftsman whose birds were “ill drawn, not true to nature, and anatomically incorrect.”10 George Ord, one of Wilson’s closest friends, worked behind the scenes to ensure that the Academy of Natural Sciences would reject Audubon’s application for membership. It was not until he travelled to England in 1826 that Audubon found an engraver and publisher willing to work with him.
It would not be inaccurate to call Alexander Wilson the Roger Tory Peterson or David Sibley of his day. Like those illustrators, Wilson drew his birds at rest and in profile to display their field marks and serve as aids to identification. There may have been something heroic in Wilson’s status as a pioneer and his devotion to the cause. His death at 37 was probably hastened by overwork and the dysentery he contracted on his last birding expedition. But as an artist, he had talent without genius. His drawings possessed a good deal of charm but they lacked any hint of liveliness.
One need only compare Wilson’s illustration of a Northern Mockingbird with Audubon’s to understand the difference in ambition and skill between the two artists. Wilson’s drawing shows the bird in profile, with all its field marks on display. The pattern of the plumage in grey, white, and black is accurate in every respect. As well, the artist has captured the Mockingbird in a typical posture, with its head slightly raised and long bill pointed upward. But the bird’s eye looks like a piece of polished glass rather than a living organ, and the figure as a whole gives the impression of something stuffed and mounted; or, as the American writer William Souder said of another of Wilson’s drawings, it appears “as though the bird had been pressed onto the paper like a flower preserved between the pages of a book.”11

Laocoon and his sons, journal of

Laocoön and his sons. Marble sculpture, copy after a Hellenistic original from ca. 200 B.C. Found in the Baths of Trajan, 1506. The Vatican Museums. [o]

On the other hand, Audubon’s illustration shows four Mockingbirds in action, desperately trying to protect the eggs in their nest from an attack by a rattlesnake. Not only are the colours of the plumage more vivid than in Wilson’s drawing, but the birds are manifestly alive, their bodies contorted in a mortal struggle with a predator they cannot hope to defeat. The monumental and heroic character of the drawing is confirmed by Audubon’s decision to base its composition on the classical sculpture, now in the Vatican, of Laocöon and his sons caught in the coils of gigantic sea serpents.
Note the way that in both the sculpture and Audubon’s drawing, the eye feels pulled upward from the wide-open fangs of the serpent at the knotted base, all the way up to the rightward-leaning curve at the top. In the sculpture, it is Laocöon himself whose body and head form a serpentine twist to the right, while in Audubon’s drawing, the topmost Mockingbird serves as an extension of the snake’s upthrust rattle.
It’s no exaggeration to say that, before Audubon, nobody had even thought of portraying birds in such a dramatic fashion.12 To the Philadelphia cliques, such drama seemed absurd, while to Audubon it appeared natural, inevitable, and necessary. He was convinced that birds, rather than acting purely on instinct, shared the human capacity to experience a variety of emotions. As Scott Russell Sanders noted in his introduction to a collection of Audubon’s prose, “The birds are … granted the full range of human feeling. In Audubon’s eyes, they betrayed courage and cowardice, innocence and guilt, hope and despair; when courting, they seemed to him coy or jealous, pompous or pugnacious.”13 Audubon would even go so far as to state, in his essay on the Wild Turkey, that birds possess at least a rudimentary ability to think in a rational fashion.14
So, one aspect that distinguished Audubon’s art from Wilson’s was his belief that birds were not simply artifacts of the natural world completely different from himself, but that they shared and participated in many of the qualities that made him human. In other words, Audubon identified so closely with the birds he drew that he could see himself in them; the trait that sparked this recognition was the same that drove him to write the story of the Fair Incognito: beauty in all its seductive force.
Audubon’s critics, both those who rejected him during his life and many who write about him today, have accused him of anthropomorphizing the birds he drew, of endowing them with human qualities they don’t really possess. What these critics fail to understand is that when Audubon lost himself in the creative act of bringing a bird to life on paper, the result was something more profound than anthropomorphism or personification. Instead, it pointed to a unity that runs through the entire chain of being from top to bottom, that suggests there is no top, no bottom, but a parallel existence in which everything is one. In his book on the haiku of spring, R. H. Blyth observed that, “Personification is not a so-called ‘figure of speech,’ but a realization that all things are personal, are mind, that mind is material.”15 For Audubon, it was the beauty he saw in birds that allowed him to understand that he and the mockingbird he wanted to draw were essentially identical.

Audubon "Mocking Bird" journal of ©2023

John James Audubon, 'Mockingbird,' from The Birds of America.

We have seen this same sense of identification at work in Audubon’s story of the Fair Incognito. There he described a process in which he identified so closely with his subject that they actually exchanged identities with each other. Over the course of their ten-day relationship, identity became such a fluid concept that she could assume his role of the hunter-artist while he took on hers of the passive model. Suddenly, the strange image Audubon used to describe his state of mind on leaving her house that first day makes sense. He felt “like a bird that makes his escape from a strong Cage.” Once he committed to drawing her portrait, Audubon was transformed into the very thing he usually drew. It was not until the creative act had been accomplished, not until the portrait was finished and in its frame, that the Fair Incognito restored Audubon to himself by giving him the gun. In this sense, the gun really did function as un souvenir, since it helped Audubon to remember himself and to re-assume his identity as artist.
The question to ask is this: By what means does the artist manage to identify so closely with his subject matter that he obliterates his ego in the act of creation? Is there some faculty of the mind that allows him to accomplish this feat? And was this idea original to Audubon, or was it part of the critical framework popular during his time?
In Europe and North America, Romanticism was the dominant literary and artistic movement during the first half of the 19th century, during the years when Audubon was actively engaged in creating his art. We know that he had a passionate interest in several of the English Romantic writers, that, for example, he idolized Sir Walter Scott and met him twice during his visit to Scotland.16 On his 1826 voyage from New Orleans to Liverpool, Audubon’s reading material consisted of James Thomson’s The Seasons (“I felt all the powerful effect of his Genius operating on Me as a Cathartic”)17 and two volumes of Lord Byron’s collected poems (“I have read Byron’s ‘Corsair’ with much enjoyment”).18 Also, he must have been familiar with the poetry of John Keats, if only because he was involved in a failed business venture with George Keats, John’s younger brother.19
Audubon may have been drawn to the Romantics by their belief that strong emotion served as the starting point for artistic inspiration, and by their focus on the beauty of nature as the proper subject matter of poets and painters. Byron’s tribute in his epic poem Don Juan to the frontiersman Daniel Boone, whom he saluted as a true “child of Nature,” probably influenced Audubon’s presentation of himself as the “American Woodsman” to his English patrons.20 If he was looking for a critical framework to support the ideas that preoccupied him as an artist, he could not have done better than to consult his contemporary, the prolific critic and journalist William Hazlitt (1788-1830).21


The imagination, by means of which alone I can anticipate future objects, or be interested in them, must carry me out of myself into the feelings of others...

Hazlitt’s broad reading in philosophy and his training as a painter, coupled with his slashing eloquence and impatience with cant, made him a formidable arbiter of taste. One of his aims as critic was to keep the English Romantic poets, most of whom he knew personally, on the straight path of expression that avoided cramped formalism on one side and solipsism on the other. But it was his work on the imagination that may offer a key to finally resolving the enigma of the Fair Incognito.
In his twenties, Hazlitt published a philosophical treatise that identified the imagination as the mental faculty that makes it possible for human beings to act in an unselfish manner. In An Essay on the Principles of Human Action, he stated that the imagination permits people not only to think about what might happen to them in the future, but also to compare their own experience with that of others, and, in this way, to understand and sympathize with them: "The imagination, by means of which alone I can anticipate future objects, or be interested in them, must carry me out of myself into the feelings of others by one and the same process by which I am thrown forward as it were into my future being, and interested in it. I could not love myself, if I were not capable of loving others."22

In his critical writings, Hazlitt extended this moral argument to the aesthetic sphere by observing that the greatest artists — Chaucer, Shakespeare, Titian, Rembrandt — inevitably lost themselves in the imaginative contemplation of the characters they created.23 By exercising their imagination, these artists identified so closely with their creations that they forgot about themselves. Shakespeare was the greatest of English poets partly because he was “the least of an egotist that it was possible to be…. He had only to think of anything to become that thing, with all the circumstances belonging to it.”24
What Hazlitt called the “sympathetic imagination” quickly became a popular concept among the Romantic poets. Keats used it as the basis for his idea of “negative capability,” the ability to suspend judgment about something in order to understand it better.25 “A poet,” Keats wrote in one of his letters, “is the most unpoetical of anything in existence because he has no Identity; he is continually in for and filling some other Body.”26 And Coleridge, in his essay on “Shakespeare as a Poet Generally,” would salute the imagination as “that sublime faculty by which a great mind becomes that on which it meditates.”27
In a late essay on the English conspirator Guy Fawkes, Hazlitt wrote: “To play the hero, it is only necessary to be wound up to such an unavoidable interest in anything as reflection, prudence, natural instinct, have no power over. To be a hero, is, in other words, to lose the sense of our personal identity in some object dearer to us than ourselves.”28 This is precisely what Audubon believed he did in creating a work of art. He became so immersed in his subject matter, whether it was the Fair Incognito or the Northern Mockingbird, that, through the power of the imagination, he was carried out of himself. He assumed, at least temporarily, the identity of the thing that fascinated him.

Audubon's nude (portrait), Ed O'Connor

Audubon the Naturalist. The artist by his sons, John Woodhouse Audubon and Victor Gifford Audubon, 1848. Oil on canvas. American Museum of Natural History Library. [o]

What is this like? It is like J.M.W. Turner at the age of 64 binding himself to the mast of a ship to experience the full fury of a storm at sea. Over the course of the next four hours, he and the storm became one. The work he painted after this experience, Snow Storm — Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, scandalized his contemporaries by blurring the lines between ship and storm, but it would serve as a precursor to the abstract art of the 20th century.29 Or, in a less spectacular fashion, it is like Thoreau spying a new species of fish in the “glaucous water” of Walden Pond and resolving to “poise my thought there by its side and try to think like a bream for a moment.”30 It is even like St. Francis of Assisi meditating on the sufferings of Christ until he succeeded in engraving his body with the wounds of the crucifixion. In this sense, the stigmata serves as an emblem of the unifying power of the imagination.31 One might say that for the artist, the imagination functions as the philosopher’s stone that enables him to turn the dross of reality into the gold of art.
It is my contention that Audubon wrote the story of the Fair Incognito to explain to his wife (and through her, posterity) the unifying role the imagination played in creating his art. I believe he wanted his reader to understand that every one of his drawings involved an imaginative act in which his subject assumed such importance that he lost the sense of his own identity in bringing it to life on paper. Through his imagination, Audubon identified so closely with the Fair Incognito, that in a very real sense, he and she became one person.
Of course, this reeks of sex, yet isn’t that exactly why the Fair Incognito serves as the perfect vehicle to explain Audubon’s theory of art? The picture he created of this beautiful woman lying naked on the couch before him is so vivid and beguiling that it forms an indelible image in the mind of the reader. And the way they “mingled their talents” to draw her portrait suggests the alchemical transformation that takes place during the creative act, when the artist assumes his subject’s identity to produce something miraculous—a successful work of art. ≈ç


1.     In this article, all the quotations from Audubon’s account of the Fair Incognito come from the unedited version of the story available in an extensive footnote to his “Mississippi River Journal” in John James Audubon, Writings and Drawings (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1999), pp. 886-889. Even though English was not Audubon’s first language, he expressed himself with vigour and precision when writing it. His unedited letters and journals are full of colourful and colloquial expressions that have largely disappeared from the edited versions. For a cleaned up and rather anemic version of the Fair Incognito story, see Richard Rhodes, The Audubon Reader (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), pp. 120-126.
2.     For biographical details from this period of Audubon’s life, see Richard Rhodes, John James Audubon (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), pp. 157-185; and William Souder, Under a Wild Sky (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2014), pp. 163-194.
3.     Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, Bibliotheque de la Pleiade (Paris: Gallimard, 2018), p. 542: “Si l’on survivait à un boulet de canon en pleine poitrine, on ferait la figure que fit Fauchelevant.” [“If we survived a cannonball to the chest, we would look like Fauchelevant.”]
4.     See Rhodes, John James Audubon, p. 176; p. 186.
5.     John Jame Audubon: Writings and Drawings, p. 82. The quotation comes from Audubon’s “Mississippi River Journal.” 
6.     Mary Durant and Michael Harwood, On the Road with John James Audubon (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1984), p. 271.
7.     Durant & Harwood dismiss the story as “make-believe;” and Alice Ford, in John James Audubon (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964), p. 121, calls it an “apocryphal composition.” Richard Rhodes and William Souder both believe the story to be based on an incident that actually took place. Rhodes does not speculate on the significance of the Fair Incognito, either to Audubon’s personal life or to his development as an artist. Souder argues that Audubon told his wife about the Fair Incognito as “a kind of pre-emptive confession,” in other words, to relieve a guilty conscience (Souder, p. 183).
8.     Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures, edited by Joel Porte (New York: Viking Press, 1983), p. 19.
9.     For a good account of Wilson’s life and development as an artist, see Souder, Under a Wild Sky, pp. 3-104.
10.  Rhodes, John James Audubon, p. 222.
11.  Souder, Under a Wild Sky, pp. 46-47.
12.  The Mockingbird is not the only one of his drawings that Audubon based on an earlier work of art that celebrated human heroism in some form. For example, he modelled his drawing of the Golden Eagle on the painting by Jacques-Louis David, Bonaparte Crossing the Saint Bernard (1801, Chateau de Malmaison). The resemblance between the two paintings was first noted by the art historian Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., in the catalogue for an Audubon exhibition that opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. in 1993. See Rhodes, John James Audubon, p. 376.
13.  Scott Russell Saunders, Audubon Reader, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), pp. 12-13.
14.  Audubon, Writings and Drawings, p. 210. The essay on the Wild Turkey is well worth reading in its entirety, but especially for the passage when Audubon speaks of his pet turkey, who escaped the yard and then recognized Audubon’s dog several days later and refused to flush. “Pray, reader, by what word will you designate the recognition made by my favorite Turkey of a dog which had been long associated with it in the yard and grounds? Was it the result of instinct, or of reason,—an unconsciously revived impression, or the act of an intelligent mind?”
15.  R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press, 1981), p. 145. Blyth is discussing a haiku by Teishitsu in which the poet personifies the elements of ice and water by calling them “friends.”
16.  For Audubon’s meetings with Sir Walter Scott, see Duff Hart-Davis, Audubon’s Elephant (London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 2003), pp. 106-108; and Rhodes, John James Audubon, pp. 282-284.
17.  The 1826 Journal of John James Audubon, edited by Alice Ford (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967), pp. 22-23.
18.  Maria R. Audubon, Audubon and His Journals, vol. 1 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897), p. 88.
19.  Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), pp. 575-576.
20.  For Lord Byron’s homage to the American pioneer Daniel Boone, see Don Juan, Canto 8, Stanzas LXI ff.
21.  The Harvard critic Walter Jackson Bate provides a perceptive analysis of Hazlitt’s influence on the English Romantic poets in Criticism: The Major Texts, pp. 281-292; and on one of those poets in particular in John Keats, pp. 239f., 244f., and 254-259.
22.  William Hazlitt, An Essay on the Principles of Human Action (London: Forgotten Books, 2018), p. 3.
23.  In his essay “On Gusto,” Hazlitt compares the painters Titian (who he thinks has gusto) and Van Dyke (who does not). One could make the same sort of comparison between Audubon (gusto) and Wilson (not) and for many of the same reasons, especially in regard to their use of line and color. “On Gusto” is one of several of Hazlitt’s essays included in Bate, Criticism, pp. 301-303.
24.  “On Shakespeare and Milton” in Bate, Criticism, p. 307. This essay originally formed Lecture III in Hazlitt’s Lectures on the English Poets (1818).
25.  See the discussion of negative capability and of Hazlitt’s influence on Keats’s development of the idea in Bate, John Keats, pp. 242-261.
26.  Selected Letters of John Keats, edited by Grant F. Scott (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 195. The quotation comes from a letter Keats wrote to his friend Richard Woodhouse on October 27, 1818.  
27.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Shakespeare as a Poet Generally,” included in Bate, Criticism, p. 388.
28.  Hazlitt, “Guy Faux,” originally published in The Examiner on November 11, 1821 (the same year Audubon encountered the Fair Incognito). The essay can now be found in The Collected Works of William Hazlitt (London: J. M. Dent, 1904), volume 11, Fugitive Writings, pp. 317ff.
29.  See Meryle Secrest, “Turner’s Perfect Storm,” ARTnews, December 30, 2014. The article can be viewed online at
30.  Henry David Thoreau, Journal, in 14 volumes, edited by Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen (New York: Dover Publications, 1962). The citation comes from Thoreau’s entry for November 30, 1858, which appears in vol. 11, pp. 358-359.
31.  See, for example, Montaigne’s essay “Of the Power of the Imagination,” where he notes that “Some attribute to the power of imagination the scars of King Dagobert and of Saint Francis,” in Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Works, translated by Donald M. Frame (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), p. 83.



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EDWARD O'CONNOR is an editor and writer who has published stories and critical pieces in magazines and newspapers across Canada, including the Globe and Mail, Quill and Quire, Grain, The Fiddlehead, Canadian Notes and Queries, and The Journey Prize Anthology. He is also the author of the novel Astral Projection. He lives in Toronto. View Edward's website.




What a fine, well researched and provocative essay. I particularly enjoyed the connections between Hazlitt and the Romantics Keats and Coleridge. I find it so hard to remember that negative capability is a gift rather than a problem. It's one of those terms that never settles comfortably. In fact, it is similar to sympathetic imagination, in the sense that one needs to suspend judgment in order to inhabit the shoes of the Other. And then there is the most powerful idea (perhaps these are a trio of core romantic ideas) — the understanding that poetic faith, the ability to enter into the poesis of a work of art, requires the 'willing suspension of disbelief.' One wonders what French thinkers influenced Audubon, since he was educated in France; I guess that is in the biographies. Certainly along with Hazlitt, the English Romantics were deeply influence by the German Romantics, particularly via Coleridge who spoke and read German, travelled in Germany and other countries. See Andra Wulf's most recent book, Magnificent Rebels. Thank you, Edward O'Connor! — Chris Lowry

Fri, 11/10/2023 - 16:53

Many thanks for your comments and for the reference to Andra Wulf’s Magnificent Rebels, a book I intend to read. Audubon’s biographers all seem to agree that his early education was rudimentary. What they haven’t provided is much analysis of the reading that sustained him in his maturity. And the Romantics, aside from Scott, get short shrift. R. Rhodes, for example, accuses the English Romantic poets of pretending that the natural world was a sort of “suburban idyll.” It’s a grave error, I think, to treat the Romantics as intellectual lightweights. Consider Elizabeth Cook’s magnificent introduction to the Oxford Poetry Library edition of John Keats, which opens thus: “Keats conceived of history as a process of realization. Collectively as well as individually the human task is to know, and bring to light by knowing, all that is latent and implicit within the creation.” And Harold Bloom has written a provocative introduction to Shelley’s thought in the Signet edition of his selected poetry and prose. — Edward O'Connor

Tue, 11/14/2023 - 21:08

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