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View of Natchez, Mississippi, 1823
John James Audubon (1785-1851)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
29 3/8 x 48 3/8 inches
Original Frame
Status: Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolina

RECORDED: Frick Art Reference Library Photo Archive, 117-6/a // Mississippi State Gazette

(Natchez), April 16, 1823, as “A Handsome View of the City of Natchez, on Canvass, taken from an eligible site, and by a distinguished Artist” // Natchez Daily Courier, March 7, 1856 // Natchez Daily Courier, March 8, 1856, p. 3 col. 1 // Lucy Green Audubon, ed., The Life of John James Audubon, the Naturalist (New York: G. P. Putnam & Sons, 1869), p. 93 // Natchez Tri-Weekly New-Era, March 14, 1881 // Stanley Clisby Arthur, Audubon: An Intimate Life of the American Woodsman (New Orleans: Harmanson, 1937), pp. 264–65, detail illus. opp. p. 48 // John William Rogers, “Rare Landscape by Famous Painter to be Exhibited Here,” The (Dallas) Daily Times Herald, October 28, 1938, p. 1 illus. // Donald Culross Peattie, ed., Audubon’s America: The Narratives and Experiences of John James Audubon (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1940), illus. in color opp. p. 152 // “Natchez—Where the State Was Born.” Natchez Democrat, Diamond Jubilee and Bridge Edition, 1940, p. 1 illus. // William H. Nicholas, “History Repeats in Old Natchez,” The National Geographic Magazine XCV(February 1949), p. 205 // City Art Museum of St. Louis, Missouri, Mississippi Panorama, exhib. cat. (1949), pp. 35, 52, colorpl. illus. // Elizabeth Dunbar Murray, Early Romances of Historic Natchez (Natchez, Mississippi: Natchez Printing & Stationery Co., 1950), p. 4 // Alice Ford, Audubon’s Butterflies, Moths, and Other Studies (New York: Studio Publications, Inc., and Thomas Y. Crowell, 1952), p. 43 / Maurice R. Scharff, “Collecting Views of Natchez,” Antiques LCV (March 1954), p. 219 illus. // “Sidewalk Superintendent of Historical Society,” The Natchez Democrat, September 23, 1962 // Alice Ford, John James Audubon (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964), p. 138, 434 no. 6 // Alice Ford, The 1826 Journal of John James Audubon (New York: Abbeville Press, 1967 [1987 reprint]), p. 271 n. 6 // Bern Keating, The Mighty Mississippi (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1971), p. 156–57 illus. in color // James W. Lambert, “Audubon Painting Hung in Natchez Years Ago,” The Natchez Democrat, September 17, 1972, p. 9C // Samuel Wilson, Jr., “Clifton—An Ill-Fated Natchez Mansion,” The Journal of Mississippi History XLVI (August 1984), pp. 179–80 // Carolyn Vance Smith, “Audubon Christmas Visitor,” The Natchez Democrat, December 26, 1984, illus. // Carolyn Vance Smith, “Celebrating Audubon’s Birthday,” The Natchez Democrat, April 28, 1985, p. 1 (Lifestyle section) // Alice Ford, John James Audubon: A Biography (New York: Abbeville Press, 1988), p. 142 // Patti Carr Black, Art in Mississippi, 1720–1980 (Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1998), pp. 49–50, 82–83 illus. in color, dimensions incorrectly given as 48 x 96 in. // Patti Carr Black, Of Home and Family: Art in Nineteenth Century Mississippi, exhib. cat. (Jackson: Mississippi Museum of Art, 1999), p. 13 // Jason T. Busch, “Furniture Patronage in Antebellum Natchez,” Antiques CLVII (May 2000), p. 806 illus. in color // Stephen E. Ambrose and Douglas Brinkley, The Mississippi and the Making of a Nation: From the Louisiana Purchase to Today (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2002), pp. 86 illus. in color, 90 // Richard Rhodes, John James Audubon: The Making of an American (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), p. 217

EXHIBITED: Dallas Museum of Art, Texas, 1938 (one-week exhibition) // Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota, 2005, Celebrating the Mississippi: Antebellum Art Along America’s Great River (not in cat.)

EX COLL.: painted on commission for Mrs. Griffith of Natchez, Mississippi, who died before the painting was completed; left by Audubon with Henry Postlethwaite (1778–1823) and Samuel Postlethwaite (1770–1825), Natchez, Mississippi, 1823–25; sold to Louis Emile Gustave Profilet (1801–1868), Natchez, Mississippi, 1825; sent by Profilet to his family in France until 1855, then returned to Natchez; by descent to his son, Louis Emile Profilet, 1868–77; sold to George Malin Davis (d. 1883), “Melrose,” Natchez, Mississippi, 1877–83, $45; by descent to his son-in-law, Dr. Stephen Kelly (1847–1922), Natchez, Mississippi, and New York; to his son, George Malin Davis Kelly (1877–1946), “Melrose,” Natchez, Mississippi; to his wife, Ethel Moore Kelly (1878–1975), “Melrose,” Natchez, Mississippi; to her daughter, Marian Kelly Ferry (Mrs. Dexter Ferry) (1910–2009), Grosse Pointe and Northport, Michigan; and by descent, until the present.

View of Natchez is the only pure landscape painting known to exist by the American artist-naturalist, John James Audubon. It was painted in 1823, when Audubon was based in Natchez during a long excursion through Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, in search of bird specimens for his monument to ornithology, the four-volume, elephant-folio publication of The Birds of America. As an early, topographically accurate view of the economically ascendant city of Natchez, the painting is a historically significant document of life along the Mississippi frontier. In fact, View of Natchez is the earliest known landscape painted in Mississippi. Likewise, as one of the artist’s first forays into painting in oil, it occupies an equally important place in Audubon’s oeuvre, its impressive coloration and fidelity to detail foreshadowing the scientific and artistic masterwork of his Birds. View of Natchez is one of the most famous paintings of Mississippi. It has been reproduced in any number of surveys of Mississippi history, as well as in books and exhibition catalogues of Mississippi art. And yet for a work so famous, it has rarely been seen by the public. The Davis-Kelly-Ferry family that has owned the painting since 1877 had until recently a firm policy of never allowing it to be lent (outside of one exception of very short duration), meaning that only visitors to “Melrose,” the splendid Natchez estate in which the painting resided for nearly 100 years, have had a chance to see the painting in person.

Audubon came to Natchez not as a landscape painter, but as an ambitious young ornithologist who dreamed of securing fame at home and abroad by publishing his Birds of America in London. Audubon executed View of Natchez while trying to make ends meet in Natchez in pursuit of this goal. Audubon’s time in Natchez was a mostly frustrating one of straitened circumstances and fits and starts, with terminated commissions, aborted employment opportunities, promising leads that didn’t pan out, and petty squabbles all conspiring to halt Audubon’s progress on new ventures just as he was getting started. In all, Audubon spent about 19 months in Natchez, and even with his difficulties was able to sketch a number of birds for his project. Over thirty of the birds included in The Birds of America were sketched by Audubon in Natchez. That he was also able to paint such an impressive view of the city as View of Natchez during these trying times is testament not only to Audubon’s fidelity to scientific truth and accuracy, but also to his innate artistic abilities.

Natchez is one of the oldest and most historically important cities in the state of Mississippi. Taking its name from the Natchez Indians (pronounced “Nochi”), who occupied the area for centuries and established the site as a ceremonial village, Natchez sits high on a bluff overlooking the great Mississippi River. It was first settled by Europeans in the early eighteenth century, when French colonists built Fort Rosalie in 1716 as part of a chain of river outposts. Soon the French established settlements and plantations, which brought them into frequent conflict with the Natchez. In 1729, the Natchez joined with the Chickasaws and Yasous and launched what is now known as the Natchez Massacre, which wiped out the French colony. The French responded with a series of counterattacks over the next two years that resulted in the extinction of the Natchez tribe, with many of its people either killed, enslaved, or forced to flee and assimilate into other tribes. Subsequently the colony centered around Fort Rosalie changed hands between France, England, and Spain, and was ceded to the United States by Great Britain under the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, though the Spanish, who were not a party to that treaty, only relinquished their claim to the territory with the signing of the Treaty of San Lorenzo in 1795. In 1798, Natchez was made the capital of the newly formed Mississippi Territory, and the city served in that role until the capital was moved to Jackson in 1822, the year before Audubon painted the present painting.

Because of its ideal location along the river banks, Natchez was the state’s main economic engine throughout the early nineteenth century. Natchez’s economy throughout the antebellum period was centered on its port, which catered to the busy traffic of flatboats and steamboats that traveled 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 first visited Natchez in 1820. He came down the Ohio River from Cincinnati, where he had been working as a naturalist and taxidermist for a local museum, on flatboat in search of new specimens for his Birds of America project. Traveling in the company of his young assistant, Joseph Mason, who during this time did the background plants and vegetation for Audubon’s bird illustrations, Audubon arrived in Natchez on December 26, 1820. He recorded his first impressions in his journal:

On a clear frosty morning in December, I arrived at Natchez, and found the levee lined with various boats full of western produce. The crowd was immense, and the market appeared to be a sort of fair. Scrambling up the cliffs on which the city is built, I found flocks of vultures flying along the ground with outspread wings in the pursuit of food. Large pines and superb magnolias crowned the bluff, and their evergreen foliage showed with magnificent effect. I was delighted with the spectacle of white-headed eagles pursuing fishing-hawks, and surveyed the river scenery sparkling in bright sunlight with a new pleasure. Far away across the stream the shores were lost in the primitive forests, and a mysterious unknown seemed to lie beyond me. I was impressed with the pretty houses of the upper town, built of painted brick or wood; and to complete my feeling of enjoyment, my relative, Mr. Berthoud, gave me letters from my wife and sons, received by the weekly mail which then brought letters to Natchez from all parts of the Union. The town owned three thousand inhabitants; was composed of an upper town and lower town, the latter chiefly built up of beached flat-boats, converted into cabins by a rascally and nondescript population. The planters’ houses in the upper town were models of luxury and comfort, but the church architecture prevalent rather detracted from the beauty of the place. I found the mocking-bird in abundance, and the pewee fly-catcher at home in its winter quarters. The old Spanish fort was still visible in ruins, and a rumor reached me that many houses had been buried in the river by a slip of the bank. (Audubon, in Lucy Green Audubon, ed., The Life of John James Audubon, the Naturalist [New York: G. P. Putnam & Sons, 1869], pp. 72–73).

In his clear prose, Audubon gives an almost taxonomic description of Natchez, intermixing observations about the town with detailed descriptions of the birds in the area. Audubon also made 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 trading center along the riverbanks that harbored a veritable demi-monde of drinking, gambling, and prostitution.

Audubon spent four months in Natchez before returning briefly to New Orleans, where he hoped to secure portrait commissions. As was frequently the case for the itinerant and generally impecunious artist, Audubon struggled to find sufficient work to support himself in New Orleans. He returned with Mason to Natchez in March 1822 on the steamer Eclat, his spirits bolstered by the “prospects of an engagement with Mr. Quaglass, a Portuguese gentleman who wished me to give lessons in drawing and music and French to his daughter, thirteen years of age” (ibid., p. 91). This unfortunately does not seem to have come to pass, but through a connection he made in Natchez, Audubon was appointed as a drawing instructor at the Elizabeth Female Academy in the town of Washington, Mississippi. At this fortunate juncture, Audubon’s wife, Lucy, sent their two sons from Kentucky to live with their father and attend school in Washington. But once they arrived Audubon soon felt that the strain of raising his sons in addition to the burden of teaching precluded his ability to focus on his ornithological pursuits. Compounding matters was a mid-summer bout with yellow fever, which forced Audubon to terminate his teaching position. As he recovered, Audubon began to look for other avenues of employment. On July 8, the despondent ornithologist wrote:

Constant exposure in the tropical climate, and the fatigue of my journeys to and from Washington, brought on fever and a renewal of a certain kind doctor’s attendance, who not only would accept no remuneration, but actually insisted on my taking his purse to pay for the expenses connected with the education of my sons. Shortly afterwards I made an engagement with Mr. Brevost to teach drawing in an academy just opened in Natchez by that gentleman. But 8 while work flowed upon me, the hope of completing my book upon the birds of America became less clear; and full of despair, I feared my hopes of becoming known to Europe as a naturalist were to be blasted. (ibid., pp. 91–92).

In December 1822, the itinerant artist John Stein arrived in Natchez. Little is known of this obscure artist, other than he was likely from Washington, Virginia, and that in 1820 he had given instruction to Thomas Cole in Steubenville, Ohio. Audubon met Stein soon after the latter’s arrival in Natchez, and the two formed a partnership in portrait painting. It was from Stein that Audubon received his first lessons in oil painting, while in return Audubon introduced Stein to the rudiments of both watercolor and pastel. (This crucial development in Audubon’s practice later paid dividends when he traveled to London, where demand for oil paintings far outstripped works on paper. Audubon executed few oils before he visited London in 1826, but took it up more frequently because of market demands. In fact, Lucy Audubon believed in 1822 that it was in oil that her husband would most distinguish himself, and urged him to go to Europe to further his education in this regard.)

Audubon and Stein purchased a wagon and set out to the countryside in pursuit of portrait commissions, with Natchez remaining their home base. However, as was usually the case, Audubon’s plans were dashed against the rocks of reality. He and Stein didn’t see eye-to-eye on their itinerary; Audubon was determined to stop frequently to hunt and sketch birds, much to Stein’s chagrin, who hoped to move more expeditiously from place to place to paint portraits. Audubon’s business arrangement with Stein soon broke down, and so Audubon was forced to regroup.

It was around this time that Audubon began to paint this landscape view of Natchez. 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 Birds of America project. Audubon had already been at work sketching views of the city as early as November, the month before Stein arrived. He records in his journal that on November 3, he was “engaged in sketching a view of Natchez” when he was introduced to a naturalist named Leacock, who admired his drawings and encouraged him to take them to England. This fortuitous concurrence of events must have at first sent Audubon’s spirits soaring, but “when [Leacock] said I should probably have to spend several years to perfect them, and to make myself known, I closed my drawings and turned my mind from the thought” (ibid., p. 93). When the commission for the present painting came along, it must have given Audubon a new cause for optimism.

View of Natchez describes the town of 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 rough-and-tumble Natchez-Under-the-Hill, which is situated out of view down below the bluff’s ridge.

With this painting, Audubon provides a visual counterpoint to his textual observation of Natchez made in his journal in 1820. View of Natchez is taken from a vantage point above the city looking across the plain to the north, with the town’s modest line of buildings lining the edge of the bluff in the distance. A number of them are identifiable. The stately white house with large galleries just left of the center of the painting is the house known as “Clifton,” the house of Samuel Postlethwaite that was among the most magnificent houses in Natchez. Audubon’s painting is the only depiction of Clifton anywhere, as the house was razed by Federal forces toward the end of the Civil War to make room for the new Fort McPherson (see Samuel Wilson, Jr., “Clifton—An Ill-Fated Natchez Mansion,” The Journal of Mississippi History XLVI [August 1984], pp. 179). Just to the right of Clifton is Parker’s Hotel, a handsome, three-story brick edifice that was the largest building in town and was destroyed when a tornado hit Natchez in 1840. Moving still to the right of the line of buildings one can see the brick court house, a square building with a cupola, and the Presbyterian Church with its clock tower directly next to it. Still further to the right is the tall spire of the Catholic Church, while all the way toward the righthand side of the composition is the domed Old Episcopal Church, another brick building. Indeed brick was a major architectural material in Natchez, and Audubon’s use of bright orange-red makes the brick brilliantly stand out in the painting. Evidence of the continued growth of the town is accentuated by the inclusion of the brick kilns seen at right-center. And the plain separating the town from the party of spectators in the foreground shows clear evidence of quarrying the rich Mississippi delta clay, which was a primary material of the brickworks.

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 at this juncture) sketch the scenery, while another group of visitors stands on the other side of the vertical form of the sparsely leafed tree. Audubon harks to his journal entry of November 1822, when he noted he was “engaged in sketching a view of Natchez.” The image of the artist sketching in a landscape was a European and Anglo-American motif in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (see Edward J. Nygren, Views and Visions: American Landscape before 1830, exhib. cat. [Washington, D.C.: The Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1986], p. 58). The motif 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 promise that View of Natchez represented to his career dissolved summarily. Mrs. Griffith evidently died before he had 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 the Birds of America project once again. “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, in Lucy Audubon, pp. 93–94). Thus determined to resolutely follow his calling, Audubon left Natchez in May 1823, the ambitious landscape view of Natchez still unsold. He was never to return to Natchez.

Audubon left the painting with the brothers Henry Postlethwaite (1778–1823) and Samuel Postlethwaite (1770–1825), who ran a general store in Natchez. (Samuel Postlethwaite’s home, “Clifton,” is depicted in the canvas.) The next month, the Postlethwaites ran an ad in the Mississippi State Gazette advertising the sale of the painting as “A Handsome View of the City of Natchez, on Canvass, taken from an eligible site, and by a distinguished Artist” (Mississippi State Gazette [Natchez], April 16, 1823). The picture did not sell, however, and remained with the two brothers until about 1825, when it was sold to the French silversmith Louis Emile Gustave Profilet (1801–1868), a diamond merchant and jeweler who had come to Natchez from France in the early 1800s. Henry Postlethwaite died in 1823, and Samuel died just two years later; it may be that Audubon’s painting was sold from Samuel Postlethwaite’s estate. Also Audubon apparently lived in the back of Profilet’s jewelry store, so Profilet likely had the opportunity to see the painting from its inception to completion first-hand.

Profilet took the painting to France to show his relatives there what his home in America looked like. The painting remained in France until 1855, when Profilet returned it to Natchez. Profilet died in 1868, and the painting passed to his son, Louis Emile Profilet, who in 1877 sold the painting to George Malin Davis of Natchez (copy of receipt in Hirschl & Adler archives). The painting descended to Davis’s son-in-law, Dr. Stephen Kelly, and it has descended within the Kelly family until the present day.

View of Natchez hung for many years in the dining room of “Melrose,” the Natchez home of George Malin Davis. Melrose was built by John T. McMurran in the early 1840s on his Natchez estate. George Malin Davis bought the Melrose estate from the McMurran family in 1865. View of Natchez remained in Melrose until 1975, when the house was sold to another family. (Today Melrose is a historic site administered under the National Park Service.)


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