- Maria Martin's World: Art and Science, Faith and Family in Audubon's America by Debra J. Lindsay
In Creation (, pp. 198, 199), Katherine Govier's novel about John James Audubon's 1833 trip to Labrador, the famous artist/ornithologist spends an agonizing evening in the hold of his ship, "maddened to be reminded of Maria again.… The upright carriage, the small breasts. … her neck tilted and inclined lightly over her drawing." As Govier imagines Audubon's longing, she asks, "Who is this woman who haunts him from south to north, she who waits in hot Charleston painting butterflies and flowers?"
The answer is Maria Martin, but in Debra J. Lindsay's nonfiction account, she is hardly the sort of siren who lends herself to lustful thoughts. Instead, the Martin who emerges in Maria Martin's World: Art and Science, Faith and Family in Audubon's America is a dutiful, pious, quiet, and humble helpmeet, someone who lived to serve others—always her family and, for more than a decade, Audubon. She was also an artist, first as a self-taught background [End Page 155] painter for some of Audubon's enormous avian images, and eventually, as Lindsay convincingly argues, a scientific illustrator who deserves recognition in her own right. Martin certainly gets that treatment in this book.
Born in 1796 in Charleston, South Carolina, Martin grew up in a reasonably prosperous (and slave-owning) household headed by an ambitious mother and deserted by a philandering father. As a young woman, she moved into another Charleston household, that of her older sister Harriet and the Lutheran pastor John Bachman, serving as surrogate mother for the Bachman children as her sister became increasingly weakened from repeated pregnancies and other physical ailments. In 1848, not quite two years after Harriet died, Martin married Bachman, her widowed brother-in-law, and thus "simply became the mistress of a household she had managed by proxy for more than twenty years" (p. 45).
During the early 1830s, while Martin managed the Bachman household by proxy, Audubon took it by storm. John Bachman invited Audubon into his home several times for extended visits, and each time, Audubon transformed the well-ordered domestic scene into a bustling center for art and science, taking over interior space for painting and taxidermy. Audubon's greatest transformation, however, was of Martin herself. Like most middle-class white women of her day, she had done some amateur artwork—such as small paintings and needlework—but with Audubon's enthusiastic encouragement, she quickly became skilled in painting plants, insects, and even birds. One of the great merits of Lindsay's book, in fact, is the detailed and generally appreciative treatment of Martin's art, combining textual description and visual representation—including fourteen pages of insect paintings. (The University of Alabama Press also deserves considerable commendation for the production value of this volume, with more than fifty color images, high-quality paper, and generous spacing of the text.)
One of the challenges of writing about Martin, Lindsay admits at the outset, is that she left few letters or other personal writings, and the resulting "documentary deficit" has meant that Lindsay often fills the silence with supposition—for example, "if Maria had qualms about [Bachman's] extravagant language, she was discreet enough to keep them to herself" (pp. xix, 114). Lindsay never loses sight of Martin, however, even when the main narrative revolves around the more dramatic doings of Audubon, Bachman, and the two Audubon sons who married Bachman daughters. Moreover, Lindsay does not shy away from Martin's engagement with slavery, as so many Audubon biographers have done by suggesting that Audubon was simply a man of his time. Martin was clearly a woman of her time, too, and Lindsay makes clear the benefits Martin found in other people's bondage: "Slave labor allowed her to develop her artistic talents" (p. 197).
In the end, though, those artistic talents define the focus of...