Fuertes, Louis Agassiz

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Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874–1927) was one of the most talented illustrators of birds in history. His evocative works remain an influential storehouse of knowledge about avian species.

The Birth of a Great Naturalist

Born in Ithaca, a small upstate New York town, on February 7, 1874, Louis Agassiz Fuertes was named after Louis Agassiz, a renowned 19th-century Harvard naturalist whom his parents admired. His parents were Estevan Antonio Fuertes, a Puerto Rican-born professor of civil engineering at nearby Cornell University, and the former Mary Stone Perry, of Troy, New York. The youngest of six children all educated in the local public schools, Fuertes showed an extraordinary interest in birds at an early age. His parents were finally forced to address their son's growing preoccupation when they found a live owl tied by its leg to the kitchen table. Mr. Fuertes reportedly took his son, then about eight years old, to the Ithaca Public Library and introduced him to John James Audubon's Birds of America, which then was regarded as the world's finest compilation of bird illustrations.

Fuertes was strongly influenced by this first exposure to Audubon's works and began drawing birds in earnest. However, perhaps regretting their indulgence of his interest, Fuertes's parents began to discourage their son's passion for illustrating the dozens of birds he killed and brought home to study, believing that he would never be able to support himself as an artist. In 1892, Fuertes went with his parents to Europe, where he attended a preparatory school in Zurich, Switzerland. Upon returning to the United States in 1893, Fuertes was persuaded to enroll at Cornell and take regular courses at the College of Architecture there. However, he did this only to fail virtually all of the classes he entered. A notable exception was a drawing class, in which he excelled.

Fate Took a Hand

Just as it seemed Fuertes might have to consider a future as an engineer, he seized a chance to show his growing portfolio of illustrations to Elliott Coues, who was on the staff of the Smithsonian Institution and then one of the country's top ornithologists, during a school trip to the nation's capital in 1894. Impressed by the young man's talent, Coues made Fuertes his prodigy, convinced him that he could support himself as an artist, introduced him to the world of academia, and showed him how to obtain commissions for his work. In fact, it was Coues who gave Fuertes his first formal commission.

Thus Fuertes launched his career as an artist during college, taking such jobs as doing a series of pen-and-ink drawing's for Florence A. Merriam's A-Birding on a Bronco in 1896; four illustrations for The Osprey, a new birding magazine in 1897; and more than 100 drawings for Coues's Citizen Bird between 1896 and 1897.

The artist did manage to graduate from Cornell in 1897, but certainly not with any degree of distinction. Fuertes remained busy with illustration jobs throughout this period, doing 18 drawings for the 1897 book Song Birds and Water Fowl; a series of illustrations for the American Ornithologists' Union official magazine, The Auk; and a color picture for the front of On the Birds' Highway (1899). From 1897 to 1898, Fuertes also had his first formal art training with artist Abbott H. Thayer, who had developed theories on the optical characteristics of light and color, and worked toward his artistic goal of depicting live birds authentically. He studied at the artist's summer cottage in New Hampshire and later, in 1898, went on a brief expedition to Florida with Thayer and his son.

Through Coues, Fuertes made the acquaintance of C. Hart Merriman, who in 1899 invited the young artist to accompany him on the Harriman Expedition to Alaska. This was quite an honor, since the other people asked to join the expedition, including landscape painters Frederick Dellenbaugh and Robert Swain Gifford, photographer Edward Curtis, and scientists John Muir and John Burroughs, were older and more accomplished.

Nevertheless, Fuertes was soon in his element in the wilds of Alaska and went with the expedition as far north as Plover Bay in Siberia. There he continued to refine the methods of scientific recording that he had been developing for years. Working almost always with a bird he had shot and sometimes skinned, Fuertes also learned to make rapid sketches of barely glimpsed birds and to retain their songs in his memory until he could add them to his copious field notes back at camp. Friends and associates recall that Fuertes was completely oblivious to everything around him when he was working on an illustration. He was also reportedly a popular member of the expedition, with his never-ending enthusiasm, mischievous sense of humor, and outgoing personality. In a letter to his family written during his travels in Alaska, Fuertes's excitement at coming upon a huge colony of sea birds is apparent when he exclaimed (as quoted on The Public Broadcasting System website), "Thousands and thousands of birds—tame to stupidity, seated on every little ledge or projection …—all the time coming and going, screaming, croaking, peeping, chuckling, with constant moving of countless heads … makes a wonderful sight, and one not soon to be forgotten.…"

A Passion Became a Profession

Soon after returning from Alaska, the incredibly detailed, full-color drawings Fuertes had done on the expedition were published. Their reception by the scientific community was such that he was asked to illustrate almost every important bird book published in the country from that point forward. Fuertes's work was distinguished not only by the minute detail of each illustration but by his ability to capture each species' way of acting and holding itself. Every bird he painted seemed to have its own unique and vital personality. This skill, as well as his astounding ability to remember whatever he saw, would grow even stronger as he aged. In fact, many bird lovers who grew up studying the drawings of Fuertes saw birds more as the artist had painted them, rather than as they actually appeared in life.

Fuertes had finally realized his dream of making a living as a bird artist, dedicating himself to preserving on paper what he extolled as "the singular beauty of birds." In 1901, he accepted an invitation from the United States Biological Survey to visit western Texas and New Mexico, and in 1902 he began a long series of trips with the curator of birds at the American Museum in New York City, Dr. Frank M. Chapman. Meanwhile, in 1904 Fuertes married Margaret Sumner, whom he took on another expedition to Jamaica for their honeymoon. (They would later have two children.) Over the next decade, he and Chapman combed the wilds of the Bahamas (1902), Saskatchewan, the Pacific coast of the United States, Florida's Cuthbert Rookery, the Canadian Rockies, eastern Mexico and the Yucatan (1910), and Colombia (1911 and 1913). Fuertes also traveled to the Magdalen Islands and Bird Rock in 1909 with another scientist, adding to the thousands of sketches and drawings he had accumulated.

Some of Fuertes' best-known illustrations appeared in the beautiful Birds of New York (1910) and, from 1913 to 1920, National Geographic magazine. In addition, in about 1920, the Arm and Hammer Baking Soda Company hired Fuertes to create a large series of bird "collector cards" that were inserted in the boxes of the product and collected by children everywhere throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The cards were widely credited with helping to popularize birdwatching and advance the relatively new concept of conservation. Another of the artist's most critically acclaimed series of illustrations appeared in the lavish, three-volume Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States in 1925.

Having since his late teens spent a good part of every year away from home on birdwatching expeditions, Fuertes began to stay closer to home in the 1920s. In 1923, he accepted a position as a lecturer on ornithology at Cornell and taught such aspiring artists as George Miksch Sutton, who would later be regarded as one of the best bird illustrators in the United States. Fuertes took a leave of absence from his lecturing position to go on what would be his final expedition. In 1926, he accompanied Dr. Wilfred H. Osgood of Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). During this trip, he created some of his finest field studies, having honed his talent to the point at which he could render a stunningly lifelike sketch of a bird from just a brief glimpse. Even years after seeing a certain bird, he could reportedly draw the individual in all its complexity without hesitation.

Died in Hometown

Three months after returning home from Abyssinia, Fuertes died on August 22, 1927, in an automobile accident near his home in Ithaca. He was 53 years old. He left behind a collection of 3,500 expertly prepared bird skins and about 1,000 studio and field sketches of more than 400 species of birds from all over the world. At the artist's funeral, according to American National Biography, his old friend Dr. Chapman said of Fuertes, "… as much as he loved birds, he loved man more. No one could resist the charm of his enthusiasm, his ready wit and whole-souled genuineness… If the birds of the world had met to select a human being who could best express to mankind the beauty and charm of their forms … they would unquestionably have chosen Louis Fuertes."


Garraty, John A., ed., American National Biography, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Johnson, Allen, ed., Dictionary of American Biography, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1977.


"Biography for the Artist Fuertes, Louis Agassiz," AskART.com website,http://www.askart.com (December 9, 2003).

"Guide to the Louis Agassiz Fuertes Papers, 1892–1954," The Cornell Institute for Digital Collections website,http://www.cidc.library.cornell.edu (December 9, 2003).

"Harriman: Louis Agassiz Fuertes," The Public Broadcasting System website,http://www.pbs.org (December 9, 2003).

"Louis Agassiz Fuertes," The Raptor Education Foundation website,http://www.usaref.org (December 9, 2003).

"Paintings by Louis Agassiz Fuertes," The New York State Museum website,http://www.nysm.nysed.gov (December 9, 2003).

"Robert McCracken Peck: A Celebration of Birds: The Life and Art of Louis Agassiz Fuertes," The Public Broadcasting System website,http://www.pbs.org (December 9, 2003).

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