As 2017 begins I’m inspired by a book I received as a Christmas gift, “The Singular Beauty of Birds”, about the life and work of Louis Agassiz Fuertes. Born in 1874, Fuertes was one of the leading ornithologists and bird artists of his day. He remains a favorite of mine and many others who follow in his footsteps. His paintings strike a balance between scientific accuracy and true artistry, a feat I find challenging as one who appreciates the scientific study of birds but who also has a background in fine art.
At 17 Fuertes was inducted into the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) as the youngest associate member ever. In the following years he traveled as an illustrator on many expeditions alongside scientists and researchers to the Bahamas, Jamaica, Alaska, Mexico and Ethiopia.
Fuertes had a close relationship with the artist Abbott Handerson Thayer, who is most well known for his stunning paintings of angels. Thayer was also a scientific thinker and formulated a controversial theory on counter-shading camouflage among animals (You can find an interesting article here). Thayer’s wildlife portraits usually depicted this fascination with animal camouflage in a dramatic way:
It’s said that Fuertes was occasionally reprimanded by his friend for having his birds stand out too much from their environment. On the other hand, his employers were often returning his work and instructing him to make the birds stand out even more.
While I appreciate the skill required in a finished and fully rendered painting, sketches and unfinished work are often my favorite. A sketch is where mastery can most readily be seen. Maintaining accuracy and finesse while working speedily testifies of an artists’s skill. Fuertes displayed that finesse in his sketches, depicting his birds expertly while maintaining a freshness to the watercolor medium.
“The Singular Beauty of Birds” is now out of print, but I would recommend picking up a used copy wherever you can find it. Louis Agassiz Fuertes has given us a standard to aspire to, and this book is as good as a college course for any bird artist.