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Natchez, Part II: Holy Grail

As illustration to the sorry remarks I delivered on my first visit to Natchez, I had requested a slide of John James Audubon’s early iconic view of that city. At the time of the work’s execution, the peripatetic artist-naturalist was struggling for a living no matter where he went, relying on the instruction of drawing, dancing, and language, as well as the occasional portrait commission, to make ends meet. The contract to paint Natchez, for the tidy sum of three hundred dollars, offered hope for solvency—and the financial footing to continue his ornithological mission. I showed the slide to an audience already quite familiar with the image and its import, affronting them with my wholly inadequate comprehension and explanation of it all.

Though my understanding of the painting was meager at the time, I did know enough to realize how significant the work was to the particular history of Natchez and to the larger field of Southern art. The painting’s stature as a critical early view of this gateway to the Old South remained with me. In an effort to expand my familiarity with the work, I initiated correspondence with the owner. My opening letter was answered politely enough, but all subsequent attempts to learn more simply went unanswered.

I carried the image in my mental inventory of the masterworks of Southern art, and, in time, it became something of a standard against which others were judged. It had hung at Melrose until 1975, so though I did not miss it by much, I must admit to not actually seeing it in person until 2009. Early that year, I got a call from a good friend at one of the major galleries in New York. The gallery was on the verge of finalizing the consignment of the Audubon in question, and I was asked to represent them in the sale of it. So pleased to have been invited to this negotiation, I couldn’t help but think of the ground covered and lessons learned in the twenty-eight years since that pitiful Forum presentation. In that time, View of Natchez, Mississippi had become something of a holy grail for me and is surely one of the most important works relating to the American South to pass through my hands. 

View of Natchez is the only pure landscape painting known to exist by Audubon. It was painted in 1823, when the artist was based in Natchez during a long excursion through Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida in search of specimens for his lifework, Birds of America. The earliest known landscape painted in the state, it is a topographically accurate and historically valuable document of life along the Mississippi frontier. And, as one of Audubon’s first forays into painting in oil, it occupies an equally critical place in the artist’s oeuvre, its impressive coloration and fidelity to detail foreshadowing the scientific and artistic brilliance of his ornithological works.

Because of its ideal location along the river’s bank, Natchez was the state’s main economic engine throughout the early nineteenth century. Natchez’s antebellum economy was centered on its port, which catered to the busy traffic of flatboats and steamboats traveling the Mississippi. Local plantation owners offloaded their cotton for transport downriver to New Orleans or occasionally upriver to the burgeoning cities of St. Louis and Cincinnati. Audubon had first visited the city in 1820 and recorded his first impressions in a journal, making plain the dichotomy between the town of Natchez up on the bluff, where rich planters built their stately mansions, and “Natchez-Under-the-Hill,” the bustling trade center along the riverbanks that harbored drinking, gambling, and prostitution.

Audubon returned to Natchez in 1822, lured by the promise—ultimately broken—of a tutoring position. The months that followed were frustrating, marked by fits and starts, strained circumstances, unfulfilled leads, terminated commissions, and sporadic employment. It was late in the year when Audubon began to paint this cityscape. Done on commission from a “Mrs. Griffith” at a price of three hundred dollars, View of Natchez offered Audubon the promise of financial independence and the ability to focus on his pet project.

View of Natchez describes the Natchez that Audubon liked best: the stately frontier town situated on high on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Not surprisingly, the painting omits the rougher side of town, which is situated out of view below the bluff’s ridge. Taken from this vantage point, several of the town’s buildings lining the distant edge of the bluff are identifiable, including Samuel Postlethwaite’s imposing “Clifton,” Parker’s Hotel, and the Presbyterian, Catholic, and Episcopal churches. The widespread use of brick in Natchez’s architecture is made evident by Audubon’s use of bright orange-red, the inclusion of brick kilns seen at right-center, and clear signs of quarrying activity in the foreground.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the painting is the group of figures at center. Here, Audubon depicts himself being approached by two men on horseback while he and a companion (probably his son, Victor, who was with him in Natchez at this juncture) sketch the scenery; another group of visitors stands to the left of a sparsely leafed tree. The depiction of the artist sketching in a landscape was a common European and Anglo-American motif in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that took on added meaning in American art, where artists were exhorted to refer to nature as one’s first school. Surely this idea resonated with Audubon, who had made the precise study of nature his greatest calling.

Unfortunately for Audubon, the potential that View of Natchez represented to his career went unrealized. Mrs. Griffith evidently died before he completed the painting, and her heirs refused to honor the terms of the commission. In the face of this latest setback, Audubon renewed his commitment to Birds of America. “I had finally determined to break through all bonds, and pursue my ornithological pursuits. My best friends solemnly regarded me as a madman, and my wife and family alone gave encouragement. My wife determined that my genius should prevail, and that my final success as an ornithologist should be triumphant.” Audubon left the city in May 1823, the ambitious landscape view still unsold. He was never to return to Natchez. 

Context is an important thing. This, the first documented landscape painted in Mississippi, has no comparables from the hand of John James Audubon. It does, however, have comparables in the larger world of American art. I had long ago been told by a museum curator in Cincinnati that my view of that city by Edward Beyer did not fit the context of their museum collection. Thankfully, the folks in Dayton were of a different mind. Surely, I thought, the Ogden and Morris museums—and certainly Greenville County—understood the importance of Audubon’s work in the broader scope of the region, if not the country.

I believe Audubon’s Natchez view could comfortably enjoy the company of Frederic Edwin Church’s Cotopaxi, which I have seen in Detroit and marveled at, and Thomas Cole’s The Oxbow. Nancy Rivard Shaw, Curator Emeritus at the Detroit Institute of Art, presented Cotopaxi to that institution’s trustees as a must-have acquisition, and, in 1976, the board agreed to pay $450,000 for it. In their research on View of Natchez, Hirschl & Adler’s Zachary Ross determined that Audubon learned to work in oil paints from the itinerant portrait painter and educator John Stein in 1822. Coincidentally, Mr. Stein also instructed Thomas Cole. The Audubon view, dating to 1823, predates the aforementioned examples by both Cole and Church and makes strong the case for this early—arguably earlier than the Hudson River School of landscapes—painting. Thomas Addison Richards had it right when he deemed the Southern landscape every bit as captivating and canvas-worthy as Messrs. Church and Cole’s stomping grounds.

So what of context? And what of the thoughts of Tom Styron and Randy Delehanty in defining Southern art in terms deep and wide? Had there been, in recent years, a Southern example more deserving of expanded public awareness and a place on the large American stage? With Jason Busch’s 2004 landmark exhibition Currents of Change, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts had validated the mighty Mississippi—on the banks of which the Lambdins domiciled—as an American art force by including the work of Joseph Rusling Meeker in their canon. With that catalogue’s preamble as cue, I would argue that Audubon’s Natchez and, indeed, many other well acquitted paintings hold their own against the works of the contemporaries of Cole and Church. And I firmly believe that the concept only carries forward. Hello, Kelly Fitzpatrick.

There was an obvious first choice for the offering of the Audubon and that was Tom Styron at the Greenville County Museum of Art. That institution had, you see, already placed a premium on context. At any given time, I might say that this person or that museum is my “best” client, a revolving appellation based on changing interests, fortunes, and levels of commitment. As of this writing, however, we have had the privilege of working with Tom Styron for some twenty-five years, and his commitment to adding the best of our wares to his institution’s collection has made it, quite simply, the stellar representation of my bread and butter: paintings which relate to the American South.

Tom had put context in place, most recently, with his acquisition of five circa 1818 to 1820 paintings depicting the Southern landscape by Joshua Shaw. These works were intended to be published as aquatints in the continuation of Shaw’s series, Picturesque Views of American Scenery. That publication never materialized, though, and the oils languished in a trunk in Portugal until they—in some mysterious way—found Howard Godel in New York. They then returned South, through us, to Greenville.

John Izard Middleton’s circa 1825 watercolor of travelers on the Via Valeria and the Tomb of Plautii turned up at a small auction house in Iowa; records were shattered as we made that purchase for Greenville. The list of eminent, context-building acquisitions goes on: Henry Benbridge’s portrait of a child of South Carolina’s Flagg family, circa 1775; Ralph Earl’s landscape of Tennessee’s Cumberland River near Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, circa 1828; and Ferdinand Richardt’s Echo River and the Mammoth Cave from 1859.

Eric Baumgartner at Hirschl & Adler apprised me of their negotiations to acquire the Audubon, a work more familiar to me than to my New York colleagues at the time, and their hook in me was set. I had promised discretion and so could only hint to Tom that there was something out there—something in the wind that could anchor his museum’s collection on the early end of things, much like their holdings by Jasper Johns and Andrew Wyeth do in twentieth century material.

Eric called in early July to say that the painting had come through a sensitive conservation, a period frame had been added, and that their employment of Lowy’s skills had rendered the whole simply glorious. When could I come? The call came in on a Thursday, and as I was off to West Virginia anyway, I drove through Greenville for lunch with Tom and the tipping of my hand.

The reaction was sublime. Monday morning found me on East 70th Street in the presence of this magnificent painting. I could only grin and, in my animated state, identify to Eric and Stuart Feld, the gallery’s president, the Natchez buildings still standing and familiar to me now after years of Forums and friendly visits. A quick call to Tom, and we were both back in New York within the week.

In the trying economic times of 2009—to use an overworked phrase—one has to be resourceful. Tom Styron is nothing but. The painting was delivered to the Greenville County Museum of Art in September and made, as anticipated, a tremendous first impression on the powers that be; by late October the deal was done. Though now farther from its birthplace than perhaps Mrs. Griffith or certain Mississippians might like, View from Natchez is appropriately and appreciatively placed. At Greenville County, Audubon’s master landscape has found context and the Museum has broadened theirs. And in the context of my career, a Holy Grail quest is satisfied.

John James Audubon (1785-1851)
View of Natchez, Mississippi (1823)
Oil on canvas
29 3/8 x 48 3/8 inches
Owner: Collection of the Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolina
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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