A beautiful selection of original watercolor paintings by renowned artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes has recently entered our collection. Stunning representations of 20th-century natural history art, Fuertes’ work was instrumental in defining the landscape of modern ornithological illustration. His watercolor “bird portraits” relay the animation and detail unique to the depicted species, and capture the essential character of the species. As an avid observer of nature, Fuertes developed an intimate understanding of birds that allowed him to render them with authority. As a result, Fuertes was, as Wilfred Osgood observed, uniquely able to "spread the charm and beauty of birds, not merely by accuracy of line and color, but in the expression of subtle intangible qualities approaching spirituality" (Fuertes & Osgood, 1936).
Born in 1874 in Ithaca, New York, Fuertes demonstrated a noticeable talent for art and an interest in birds from a young age. Inspired by the works of Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon, who Fuertes describes as having “the most potent influence that was ever exerted upon my youthful longing to do justice to the singular beauty of birds,” Fuertes enjoyed a prolific career as an artist, lecturer of ornithology at Cornell University, and an early supporter of the budding conservationist movement in America (McCracken Peck, 1982).
Upon observing Fuertes’ early paintings executed while he was still a student at Cornell, the distinguished ornithologist, Elliott Coues, observed: “There is now no one who can draw and paint birds as well as Mr. Fuertes, and I do not forget Audubon himself when I add that America has not before produced an ornithological artist of equal possibilities” (McCracken Peck, 1982). Many shared Coues's admiration and Fuertes received numerous commissions from notable publications including National Geographic and Bird-Lore, as well as from independent ornithologists and naturalists who hired him to illustrate their publications.
Fuertes’ approach to his artwork often began with the dedicated observation of the living creature in its native habitat. This process enabled him to understand the bird’s form in relation to its movement and the surrounding environment. He would then collect, skin, and mount specimens for subsequent reference in his studio. As a result, his fieldwork and hands-on collecting process enhanced Fuertes’ tactile understanding of the bird.
After his initial observations of the bird, Fuertes would typically produce a number of sketches, often in graphite, to analyze and clarify the underlying structure of the bird's form. He would then move on to producing the finalized artwork, often in oil paint or watercolor. Sometimes he reworked the same image several times as is the case with this Black Duck (Left Facing) and Black Duck (Study). Here the duck is captured as it ascends from the pond, glistening droplets of water clinging to its tail feathers and gently beading down towards the disrupted pond surface. Small compositional changes between the watercolor study and the finalized work of art indicate Fuertes' creative process and perspective as he developed the configuration.
Similarly, the Black Duck (Right Facing) acts as a counterpart to the previous watercolor by capturing the bird in mid-descent towards a glassy, cat-tail-encircled pond. The posture of the duck is immediately recognizable and the viewer can easily imagine the subsequent movements of the bird as it breaks the surface of the water in a successful landing. Fuertes’ watercolors of the Black Duck demonstrate his artistic acumen and intimate understanding of the texture and patterning of the bird’s plumage. With incredible attention to detail, his brush relays the unique characteristics of the species and attests to his ability to deftly capture the essential characteristics of a bird in its habitat without the environmental context overwhelming the bird itself.
Black-bellied Plover (Summer Plumage) - Fuertes original watercolor
Willet - Fuertes original watercolor
Another handsome pairing is Fuertes’ Black-bellied Plover (Summer Plumage) and Willet. The monochrome compositions capture the shorebirds as they tentatively wade into the water, doubtlessly in search of insects, worms, crustaceans, or bivalves. On the left, the Black-bellied Plover (Summer Plumage) appears alert as it calmly wades through the shallow water, causing ripples to emanate as it goes. On the right, a pair of willets are depicted similarly stalking the shoreline. One of the birds lifts its shapely wings to reveal the distinct patterning of the species.
These watercolor paintings come from the earlier years of Fuertes’ prolific career, which was tragically cut short by his untimely death in 1927 when a train collided with his car. Throughout his life, Fuertes produced “illustrations for more than thirty-five books and approximately fifty educational leaflets, handbooks, and bulletins” (McCracken Peck, 1982). Today, his artwork can be found in major institutional and private collections throughout the world.
To learn more about Fuertes’ artwork, please visit the links below.
Fuertes, Louis Agassiz & W. H. Osgood. 1936. Artist and Naturalist in Ethiopia. New York:
Doubleday, Doran & Co.
Peck, Robert McCracken. 1983. A Celebration of Birds: The Life and Art of Louis Agassiz Fuertes. New York: Walker and Company.