Birds of New York Opens At New York State Museum

Birds of New York and the Paintings of Louis Agassiz Fuertes opened at the New York State Museum on Saturday, showcasing the original watercolors painted a century ago by one of America’s foremost science artists. The exhibition, in the Museum’s Crossroads Gallery, will run through September 6th. It will feature 40 of more than 100 paintings that Fuertes created to illustrate Birds of New York, a monumental book that combined beautiful art and scientific scholarship. The first edition of the book will be on display, along with a print portfolio and specimens from the Museum’s ornithology collection.

The first volume of Birds of New York – Water Birds and Game Birds – was published to much acclaim in 1910. Volume Two – Land Birds – followed four years later. Birds of New York was collaboration between Fuertes and author Elon Howard Eaton and served as a model for ornithology books that followed. Fuertes’ watercolors celebrated the beauty of wild birds, while Eaton advocated for the stewardship and conservation of birds and their habitats. Produced by the State Museum and published by the University of the State of New York, the book inspired the citizens of New York to observe and care for the state’s birds.

The book was commissioned by former State Museum Director John Mason Clarke, who served from 1904 to 1925. When he began his tenure it had been 60 years since the last book on the state’s birds had been published, and he wanted a new study that would update scientific knowledge. He commissioned Eaton, a biology teacher in Rochester, to research and write the book. Eaton enlisted Fuertes, a famous bird artist from Ithaca, to provide the illustrations.

Clarke’s written correspondence with Eaton and Fuertes, preserved in the New York State Archives, reveals that Clarke was a guiding force in producing the book, sometimes attending to even small details.

Named for the naturalist Louis Agassiz, Fuertes’ interest in the natural world was encouraged and he began to draw birds at an early age. He attended Cornell University in Ithaca. While still a student, Fuertes met a prominent Smithsonian ornithologist who recognized and promoted his artistic talent. This helped launch an active career and, soon, he was considered to be the leading bird artist of his day.

Just as John James Audubon inspired bird painters in the early 1800s, Fuertes influenced artists a century later by skillfully capturing the lifelike poses and natural settings of birds. Roger Tory Peterson, an avian artist and author of well-known field guides, wrote that while Audubon was famous for his dramatic compositions Fuertes “caught more of the character of the bird itself.”

Eaton also was a lifelong student of natural history. As a young man he prepared bird mounts and studied skins after enrolling in a taxidermy course. He established the Department of Biology at Hobart College in Geneva, where he taught from 1908 until his death in 1934. In 1901 he became known statewide when the Rochester Academy of Science published a paper he had written on the birds of western New York.

The lasting scientific importance of Birds of New York stems from Eaton’s authoritative compilation of original research that is included in the book, such as distribution maps, migration surveys and detailed observations of nests, eggs, songs and behaviors. The book continues to be cited by ornithologists studying changes in bird abundance and distribution since that time.

It also has strengthened interest in the study and protection of birds, and spurred the formation of local birding clubs and bird sanctuaries. Sixteen thousand copies of a print portfolio, including all of the color illustrations in the book, were widely distributed and inspired “Bird Day” celebrations across the state.

The State Museum will sponsor a free program in connection with the exhibition. Creative Art Day will be held Sunday, March 28 from 1 to 3 p.m. Families will be invited to participate in artful activities based on the exhibition. More information is available by calling 518-473-7154 or e-mailing psteinba@mail.nysed.gov.

The Birds of New York book is available online through the New York State Library’s digital collections at http://www.nysl.nysed.gov. A video tour of the Museum’s biology range, that includes its bird collection, is available at http://www.youtube.com/nysmuseum.

The New York State Museum is a program of the New York State Education Department’s Office of Cultural Education. Founded in 1836, the museum has the longest continuously operating state natural history research and collection survey in the U.S. Located on Madison Avenue in Albany, the Museum is open daily from 9:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Further information can be obtained by calling (518) 474-5877 or visiting the museum website at www.nysm.nysed.gov.

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