Louis Agassiz Fuertes

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

An exploration of the life and works of one of America's eminent ornithologists and artists

Louis Agassiz Fuertes
b. 7 February, 1874. Ithaca, New YorkFuertes’s parents were Estevan Antonio Fuertes, a professor of civil engineering at Cornell University, and Mary Stone Perry. Fuertes was named for Louis Agassiz, a renowned 19th-century Harvard naturalist whom his parents admired.
Early Life and Education
From a young age, Fuertes had a fascination with birds and a noticeable talent for art. In 1893, Agassiz enrolled in Cornell where his parents hoped he would become a successful architect. Although he showed an aptitude for the draftsmanship needed to excel in architectural design, his interests stayed firmly rooted in the natural world.
Elliott Coues
In 1894, Fuertes first encountered Elliott Coues, then President of the American Ornithologists' Union. Coues noticed the immense talent of the young Fuertes and supplied the artist with a number of opportunities to launch his career. Coues helped to first exhibit Fuertes’s work at the 1895 (12th) annual meeting of of the American Ornithologists' Union in New York.
Abbott Henderson Thayer
In 1895, Fuertes began working with Abbott Henderson Thayer, an acclaimed painter, and with Thayer’s guidance, Fuertes was challenged to develop his abilities beyond their already impressive status. However, Thayer also encouraged Fuertes to emphasize the birds’ specifically evolved modes of camouflage, a concept that countered what most publishers desired: a clear composition spotlighting a bird specimen.
Early Career
Fuertes’s style is self-defined as “bird portraiture”: rather than just presenting an image of the bird’s form, in his paintings, Fuertes captures a sense of stare and personality found in the faces of living and active avians. Fuertes also succeeded in capturing the softer texture of birds’ feathers, a style that differed from that of his predecessor, John James Audubon. In order to deal with color and printing expenses, Fuertes also needed to compose his images in a way that included a variety of bird specimens in a single frame. This resulted in paintings showing variations within a single species of bird captured within one picture frame.
Expeditions
After his initial trip to Florida with the Thayer family in 1898, Fuertes began participating in a number of field expeditions in such places places as Alaska, western Canada, Mexico, Colombia, and the American West. On these trips, Fuertes collected and painted specimens, taking copious notes on the visual attributes and behavioral observations he made of his subjects. Fuertes’s final expedition, financed by The Chicago Daily News and hosted in conjunction with the Chicago Field Museum, was to Abyssinia in 1926.
Teaching at Cornell
In addition to spending time in the field, Fuertes also served as a lecturer of ornithology at Cornell University, his alma mater. He took the position in 1923, though he took a leave of absence in 1926 for his final expedition to Abyssinia. Fuertes’s students described his teaching style as inspiring: he excelled at captivating the minds of his students when speaking informally about his passion and work. Without the pretense of formal lecturing, Fuertes had the ability to paint stories just as vividly as the bird artworks that inspired them.
Fuertes’s Death
Within three months of returning from his Abyssinian expedition, Louis Agassiz Fuertes passed away on August 22, 1927 at the age of 53. He died in an automobile collision with a train, an event that not only took the artist’s life, but severely injured his wife, Margaret Sumner. Miraculously, however, the package of paintings from his recent trip to Africa were thrust from the vehicle, with little to no damage to the artwork.
Fuertes’s Legacy
The total number of works produced over the course of Fuertes’ life exceed the thousands: he created, and he created often. Of his “most important works”, Frank Chapman compiled “at least 400 monochrome illustrations (about half appearing in Coues' Key to North American Birds) and at least 700 color plates, with the largest number (250) appearing in the National Geographic's Book of Birds (1918), and a lesser number (106) in E. H. Eaton's Birds of New York (1910-1914). There were also 68 plates in E. H. Forbush's three-volume Birds of Massachusetts (1925-1929), which are generally considered to be Fuertes' best illustrations, given the limitations of crowding several species on a single plate. A total of 35 color plates and 35 halftones appeared in The Bird Life of Texas by H. C. Oberholser (1974), nearly 50 years after Fuertes' death.”
Fuertes’s Legacy (Continued)
In addition to leaving behind an extensive collection of artwork, Fuertes also left a lasting impression on the next generation of wildlife artists. While teaching at Cornell, Fuertes began working with George Miksch Sutton, an artist who would continue on to have a prolific career. Sutton also demonstrated similar technical approaches to his work as his tutor, developing in his work the same soft, feather-like texture for which Fuertes was known. Additionally, Fuertes’s passion help spur on the inception of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a leading center for ornithological studies. The Lab was founded in 1915. 
How the FWS Continues to Support Ornithology and the Arts
For the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ornithology and natural science illustration have become a cornerstone for one of the Service’s most visible programs: the Duck Stamp. Founded in 1934, the purchase of the Stamp counts as a permit to hunt waterfowl in the nation’s wildlife refuges. 98% of the money accrued from each purchase goes towards the conservation and protection of the water, flora, and fauna of U.S. wildlife refuges. Starting in 1949, the Duck Stamp’s artwork is determined through an annual competition open to any artist.In 1989, the United States introduced the Junior Duck Stamp, an educational program and competition open to students in kindergarten through 12th grade. After learning about wildlife conservation, students are encouraged to submit artwork to the competition, with the winner’s piece adorning the $5 stamp. The proceeds of the Junior Duck Stamp help fund the conservation education program.
Where is the Fuertes Collection today?
After purchasing a number of Louis Agassiz Fuertes’ works, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lent its collection to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. These works will rejoin the Fish and Wildlife Service’s main collections at the end of 2027.
Credits: Story

Chapman, Frank M. "In Memoriam: Louis Agassiz Fuertes 1874-1927." The Auk 45.1 (1928): 1-26. JSTOR. Web. 7 Aug. 2017.

"Fuertes, Louis Agassiz." Encyclopedia of World Biography. Encyclopedia.com. 7 Aug. 2017.


"History of the Federal Duck Stamp." U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - Department of the Interior. N.p., 9 Feb. 2017. Web. 07 Aug. 2017.

"About Us." Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Exploring and Conserving Nature. Cornell University, n.d. Web. 07 Aug. 2017.

Johnsgard, Paul A., "The Art and Artistic Legacy of Louis Agassiz Fuertes" (2006). Nebraska Bird Review. 83.


"U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Natural History Art Collection 1834-ca. 1936." Ewell Sale Stewart Library, Academy of Natural Sciences. Academy of Natural Sciences, n.d. Web. 7 Aug. 2017.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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