One mid-February day in 1821, John James Audubonwas walking down Royal Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
Audubon had been in New Orleans for about a month, scrounging a living drawing portraits of whoever would pay him. Much as people still do today in Jackson Square in the city. He was thirty-six. It was not an easy time. His wife, Lucy, was in Louisville with their children. He had little money, if any. It was just a year earlier that he had made the great decision “to compleat a collection of the Birds of our country, from Nature, all of natural size.” He was in New Orleans and environs to seek out birds he had not yet found and painted.
That particular day, he was hauling his portfolio of drawings with him, when he was approached by “a female of fine form,” as he wrote later. She wore a veil that obscured her face. She asked him if he was the one who drew “the birds of America.” And if “you are he that draws likenesses in black chalk so remarkably strong.”
Yes, he said, he was.
She then, abruptly, asked him to come to her house at 26 rue Amour in thirty minutes.
“I will wait for you,” she said. Before walking away, she added, “Do not follow me now.”
Rue Amour is today’s Rampart Street, in a part of New Orleans called the Marigny. (The Marigny is where I lived for ten years.) It was a bit of a walk for Audubon. I wonder: what made him do this? Here was a woman he did not know, whose face he could not see, asking him to come to a house he’d never been in. This was 1821. The world was a tenuous place then.
Who knows what was waiting for him? But this was a man who thought nothing of going deep into a wild forest alone, staying there, unprotected against cold rain and biting insects for days, to get a glimpse of a bird he knew was there, somewhere. Besides, this might mean some desperately-needed money.
He went. At the house, the woman, still veiled, greeted him. She shut the door with a double lock. Audubon was “trembling like a leaf.” Then she threw back her veil and showed him, “one of the most beautiful faces I ever saw.”
“Will you keep my name if you discover it and my residence a secret?” she asked him.
“Have you ever drawn a full figure?” she asked.
Yes, replied Audubon, he had.
This was not one of the birds of America. “Had I been shot with a 48 pounder through the heart,” Audubon wrote, “my articulating powers could not have been more suddenly stopped.”
This is what she wanted. For him to draw “my likeness and the whole of my form naked.” She would compensate him, of course.
This was turning out to be a very interesting day. He agreed. Why not?
The young woman went behind a curtain and undressed. Then she asked Audubon to draw the curtain, and there she was, completely naked, lying on a couch. In a droll understatement, Audubon wrote, “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 drew her figure for an hour and then stopped for the day. The woman got dressed, insisted Audubon stay, and gave him something to drink and eat. They talked for two more hours. She asked him “a thousand questions about my family, residence, way of traveling and making a living.” Then he left.
At her bidding, he returned every day, at the same hour, for ten days. The visits followed the same routine. “I had the pleasure of this beautiful woman's company about one hour naked, and two talking on different subjects.”
Finally, he was finished. The woman was pleased with Audubon’s work. And what would she give him as payment? Not money, but a gun. “One who hunts so much needs a good gun,” she said. On the gun was engraved, “Don't refuse this gift of a friend who is in your debt—may it equal you in goodness.”
Fascinated and entranced, he returned to her house several times later to have one more look at the drawing to make sure it was as good as it could be, but each time he did, he was told by a servant that the woman wasn’t home. He never saw her again.
I imagine the woman wanted the portrait for her lover. I hope the drawing still exists somewhere—perhaps in one of the city’s second-hand stores, in a neglected bin. Or, even better, hanging on the wall of a New Orleans home now occupied by the descendants of the man who was her lover, looking down on them, beautiful, naked, still guarding the secret of who she really was.
What a great story, told so artfully.
I really enjoyed reading it and learning a bit about New Orleans history. Merci Richard !
What a wonderful story!!! Who was she, I wonder...