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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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The 1899 Expedition
The 1899
Expedition


 

Original Participants
Original
Participants

Brief Chronology
Brief
Chronology

Science Aboard the Elder
Science
Aboard the
Elder

History of Exploration
Exploration &
Settlement

Development Along Alaska's Coast
Growth Along Alaska's Coast

Alaska Native Communities
Alaska
Natives

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Louis Agassiz Fuertes

1874-1927


Louis Fuertes

Louis Agassiz Fuertes, photographed in Ithaca, New York studio in 1926.
Source: California Academy of Sciences.
The artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes loved birds before he loved painting. Born in Ithaca, New York in 1874, he was fascinated by birds at an early age. His parents took little notice at first, but when they found a live owl tied by the leg to the kitchen table, they realized that their son's interest went very deep indeed. Fuertes' father, who had studied in his native Puerto Rico before taking a teaching job at Cornell, took little Louis to the local library to study Birds of America, the huge and beautifully rendered prints of birds made early in the century by John James Audubon. Young Louis began drawing birds. His parents, perceiving that it was unlikely that their son would support himself with art, encouraged him to pursue a regular course of study at Cornell. But Louis was not a brilliant student. At one time he was failing philosophy, mathematics and chemistry, but getting a perfect grade in drawing.

Fuertes' fortunes changed when Elliott Coues, the nation's leading ornithologist, took the young artist "under his wing." He introduced him to the academic world, and helped him get commissions for illustrations. In 1896, Coues arranged for him to meet C. Hart Merriam. Three years later, Merriam invited the twenty-five-year-old artist to join the Harriman Expedition. Fuertes didn't hesitate to accept. "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 Audubon before him, Fuertes worked from dead bird specimens, and on the expedition he went to great lengths to collect as many types of birds as he could. He sketched constantly, chased through woods and across glaciers to catch sight of rare species. He made quick images of birds on the wing, and retained aural memories of their calls. He shot and skinned hundreds of birds, and took copious notes on what he was seeing and learning. He simply couldn't get enough of Alaska. "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..."

Fuertes worked with a profound concentration. While he painted a bird he was oblivious to everything around him. His exquisite color drawings distinguished the published volumes from the trip.

After the expedition, Fuertes was asked to illustrate virtually every important bird book published in America. His ability to delineate details and to render the characteristic attitude and deportment of each species grew stronger as his career progressed. Fuertes died in a car accident in 1927, near his home in upstate New York. Even with this early end to his career, he remains one of the most respected wildlife artists in America.

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For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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