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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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Robert McCracken Peck

A Celebration of Birds: The Life and Art of Louis Agassiz Fuertes

When C. Hart Merriam was charged with assembling the party of experts who would accompany Edward Harriman and his family on their expedition to Alaska in 1899, he wisely chose to include several artists. R. Swain Gifford and William Dellenbaugh were both well known figures in their day. Dellenbaugh had had previous expedition experience and was an accomplished topographical artist. Gifford, also a very experienced landscape painter, was a well-established figure in the American fine arts community. By contrast, Louis Agassiz Fuertes was a young, virtually unknown bird painter who had graduated from college (Cornell University) just two years before. Merriam's choice proved to be an inspired one, as Fuertes would create some of the most powerful and evocative paintings of the trip.


pomarine jaeger 1899

Head of Pomarine Jaeger by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, painted June 20, 1899 as reproduced in the Harriman Expedition report.
Click image for a larger view.

Born in Ithaca, New York in 1874, Fuertes was to become one of the greatest bird painters of all time. The Harriman expedition gave his career an important boost by allowing him to see parts of the country he might otherwise never have seen, and to associate with many of the most influential scientists of his day. The official narrative of the expedition, published by the Smithsonian Institution, featured twelve color plates by Fuertes, more plates than were provided by any other artist.


jaegers

Jaegers on the wing by Louis Agassiz Fuertes from the Harriman Expedition report.
Click image for a larger view.

Following the death of John James Audubon a half century before, wildlife painting in America had slipped into a period of decline. Fuertes burst onto the scene with a new style of painting that seemed to capture the vitality of his subjects, endowing each with an individual personality. His head study of a Pomarine Jaeger, for example, painted in Yakutat Bay on June 20, 1899 (page 58 in the original Harriman report) seems to scream from the page today with all of the exuberance the live bird must have shown at the time Fuertes painted it during the expedition. His plate of flying Long-tailed Jaegers (page 216 in the Harriman report) captures the explosive energy of an avian feeding frenzy in a remarkably visceral way. Such studies could have been made only by someone with the extraordinary powers of perception that Fuertes possessed. High-speed photography would not be developed for another fifty years, and even that could not convey the quality of life Fuertes was able to translate to paper.

In addition to his artistic ability, one of the great assets that Fuertes brought to the Harriman expedition was his contagious enthusiasm. Everyone aboard responded with affection to Fuertes' love of fun, mischievous humor, and genial personality. These character traits would serve Fuertes well, not only aboard the George W. Elder, but throughout his entire career.

The following brief selection from one of his many letters home suggests the wide-eyed wonder and love of nature that Fuertes brought to his time in Alaska. It was written to his family after a stop at Hall Island toward the end of his trip:

...We got there about 7, and having had dinner early, a lot of us went ashore at once. We had seen many sea birds around the island and found that the cliffs were densely populated with nine or ten species of sea birds: one of those wonderful sights that I had heard and read so much about. But all descriptions failed utterly to make the impression that the thing warranted, as it is truly the most wonderful sight I've ever seen. Thousands and thousands of birds -- tame to stupidity, seated on every little ledge or projection -- from the size of sandpipers up to a great white gull that spreads five feet -- all the time coming and going, screaming, croaking, peeping, chuckling, with constant moving of countless heads -- all where you can reach over the cliff and catch the birds from the top in your hands -- makes a wonderful sight, and one not soon to be forgotten...

Following the Harriman expedition, Fuertes went on to a distinguished career in natural history art, participating in numerous scientific expeditions to Central and South America and throughout the United States. He illustrated dozens of books, made plates for the National Geographic and other magazines, and helped to advance the cause of conservation through an extremely popular series of "collector cards" distributed in Arm and Hammer Baking Soda boxes throughout the 1920's and '30's.


Fuertes with snowy owl

Louis Agassiz Fuertes with a live Snowy Owl outside of his Ithaca, New York studio, circa 1920.
Click image for a larger view.

Fuertes final expedition was to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1926-27. During this trip, made on behalf of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Fuertes created some of his finest field studies. Tragically, less than three months after his return from Africa, Fuertes suffered a fatal automobile accident near his home in New York. He was 53.


Reference:

Robert McCracken Peck, A Celebration of Birds: The Life and Art of Louis Agassiz Fuertes, New York: Walker & Co., 1982.

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