It’s said that the artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes loved birds before he loved painting. He was certainly demonstrably crazy about them.
Dr. Frank M. Chapman, eminent ornothologist, Senior Curator of Mammals & Birds at the American Museum of Natural History & writer of field guides totally understood the mania of Fuertes.
“That instinctive, inexplicable passion for birds which arouses an uncontrollable desire to know them intimately in their haunts and to make them part of our lives, and which overcomes every obstacle until, in a measure at least, this longing is gratified,” said Chapman, “is the heritage of the elect; and few have been more richly endowed than Louis Fuertes”
So, there’s little doubt that Louis Agassiz Fuertes was a man with a deep love for all things bird. Yet at the same time he tormented and killed multitudes of the birds he loved. Bird genocide. For art.
This began at an early age and initially, his parents took little notice. Perhaps it was on the day they found a live owl tied by its leg to their kitchen table that they realised their son’s ornithological interests ran extremely deep. Fuertes’ father, a teacher from Puerto Rico, took his son to the local library and showed him the seminal bird book, Birds of America by John James Audubon. Full of huge, colourful and beautifully rendered prints of birds made early in the century, the book changed Louis. He began to draw birds as well as tormenting them.
At 14 Fuertes drew his first bird from life. A male Red Crossbill. He watched birds obsessively, kept meticulous records of their appearance, habits and what he called their “voices”.
His parents, thinking it unlikely their son would support himself with bird pictures, encouraged him to pursue a regular course of study at Cornell. But Louis was far from a brilliant student. He failed in philosophy, mathematics and chemistry, but received perfect grades in drawing. In his memoirs, his elder brother James recalled a brother that lacked any passion for geometry or mathematics and would often fall asleep when being coached. During one lecture, Louis climbed out from a classroom window and up a tree. He sat completely still up there in that tree said James, listening to a strange bird call he’d not heard before.
Fuertes got his lucky break when Elliott Coues, the country’s leading ornithologist, took the young artist under his wing (had to be said). Coues introduced him to world of academia which helped him get commissions.
Then, in 1886, Coues introduced Fuertes to Clinton Hart Merriam. Merriam was a zoologist, mammalogist, ornithologist, entomologist, ecologist, ethnographer, geographer, and a naturalist. An all round, polymath naturalist and founder of National Geographic. For Fuertes, this was the big leagues. Three years later his association with Merriam would off.
In 1899, Merriam invited the 25 year old Fuertes to join the Harriman Expedition to Alaska. Fuertes jumped at the chance, couldn’t wait.
“You know that I was born with the itching foot,” he wrote a friend, “and the sight of a map, or even a time-table is enough to stir me all up inside.”
Like his hero Audubon of local library book fame, Fuertes painted using dead bird specimens as his reference. On the expedition he went to great lengths to spot as many types of bird as he could, and kill them. He sketched his dead birds constantly. His breath steaming in the Alaskan air, he stalked through woods and across glaciers to catch sight of rare species. He made quick sketches of birds on the wing, took copious notes and retained memories of the sounds their calls. Louis got to know their voices. He shot and skinned hundreds of birds. He loved Alaska, didn’t want the expedition to end and wished he could stay on longer.
“We shall probably be here a day or two more,” he wrote from Mt. Fairweather, “I’d like to make it a week or ten days…”
When Fuertes painted a bird he was oblivious to everything around him, lost in an intense reverie of concentration. He produced exquisite colour drawings which distinguished the volumes published from the trip.
After the expedition, Fuertes was commissioned to illustrate virtually every important bird book published in America. He became a bird whisperer, a man with an extraordinary ability to render detail and the indiosyncratic attitudes particular to each and every bird he drew. His bird drawing superpowers grew stronger as his career progressed and the bird slaughter was monumental.
Then came the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History’s 7-month expedition to Ethiopia (Abyssinia) in 1926–27. In the forward to Fuertes book, Album of Abyssinian Birds and Reptiles, Wilfred Osgood, Curator of Zoology at Chicago’s Field Museum observed Fuertes in action.
“The total number of paintings made by Fuertes un Abussinia is 108, including a few of mammals and a few mere sketches of birds, scarcely more than records of the fugitive colours of soft and unfeathered parts which are altered in the preserved specimen,” exalts Osgood before lamenting, “the number may have been much greater, but his passion for the living bird was so intense and his loyalty to the expedition and to the Museum so marked that his time was spent largely in hunting, observing, and preparing specimens. Since the painting required daylight, it would be done at the expense of the skinning which was then accomplished by candlelight far into the night hours.”
“The painting was in almost all cases done in the tent,“ says Osgood, “the artist sitting on his sleeping cot and his materials and specimens scattered about him.”
So here he have him: Fuertes at the height of his bird whispering powers, sitting on a canvas camping cot in a tent in Ethiopia, surrounded by dead wildlife; eagles, hawks, vultures, buzzards; and he’s painting. It has to be said that much of Fuertes’ work before Abyssinia is a tad twee, a little chocolate boxey. Unless bird art is your thing it’s wallpaper. His Abyssinian paintings however, are different. More primal, evocative and accessible. The Museum gave Fuertes freedom in Abyssinia and Fuertes, said Osgood, “was under no irksome compulsions, and the pictures he painted were of his own choosing with no regard to whether or not they might ever be sold or put to any definite use.” This freedom made a difference and, as a result Osgood observed that “from beginning to end, he was like a boy let out of school. His enjoyment of every feature of the expedition, scientific, practical, social, was intense and exhuberant.”
The subject matter helps. No ducks, elegant herons or colourful birds, small and pretty, hanging on branches. In his foreward for Fuertes’ Abyssinian album Osgood notes, “the proportion of raptorial species is rather large, these being the artist’s favourites.” So, predators then. His favourite. Eagle, vulture, hawk, with some mammal, wolf & baboon, thrown in for good measure.
The Abyssinian Expediation began on September 7, 1926 and finished on May 20, 1927. Barely 3 months later, on August 22, 1927, Fuertes and his wife Margaret took his Abyssinian paintings (below) to show to his friend, the ornitologist Dr. Frank M. Chapman. Driving home, a large hay bale obscured Fuertes view at a railroad crossing and he sailed on through. A train ploughed into his car and he was killed. Margaret was seriously injured but survived.
Every single Abyssinian painting in the smashed car survived, completely unscathed.