Birds of a feather work well together

While it is the artwork of Fuertes that steals the spotlight for the exhibit, ‘Birds of New York: Th

As far as Nancy Kelley can tell, there was never a harsh word said between Elon Howard Eaton and Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

Collaborators on “Birds of New York,” one of the most prolific and exhaustive projects in the history of the New York State Museum, the author and illustrator blended together perfectly to produce a book that ornithologists today still hold in high esteem 100 years after it was first published.

Cooperative effort

“Eaton and Fuertes obviously became friends and worked very well together,” said Kelley, the exhibit planner for “Birds of New York: The Paintings of Louis Agassiz Fuertes,” which opened last week at the museum and will remain on display through Sept. 6. “Eaton did a lot of the heavy lifting. He was the one with the burden of authorship, but Fuertes also did a tremendous amount of work. It was a huge undertaking.”

Overseeing the project was state museum director John Mason Clarke, and when he got a little impatient about making the publication date, Eaton would stand firm, wanting to make sure everything was accurate, and Fuertes would back him up.

“We do have a lot of wonderful correspondence between the three men, with all kinds of wonderful quotes that we use in the exhibit,” said Kelley.

“Clarke once wrote to Eaton, telling him that the book ‘would never be perfect, and sooner or later you have to publish.’ But Eaton insisted that everything be as accurate as possible, and Fuertes always backed him up. He wrote to Clarke, who sometimes wrote to Fuertes complaining about Eaton, that Eaton ‘worked with perfection in mind.’ To his credit, Fuertes always defended Eaton.”

Scholarly contribution

While it is the artwork of Fuertes that steals the spotlight as for as this exhibit is concerned, it’s impossible not to also appreciate Eaton’s contribution to the book.

‘Birds of New York: The Paintings of Louis Agassiz Fuertes’

WHERE: New York State Museum, Empire State Plaza

WHEN: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., daily, through Sept. 6


MORE INFO: 474-5877 or

“It is an excellent work of scholarship and was a real leap forward for its day in terms of what we knew about the birds of New York,” said Jeremy Kirchman, curator of ornithology at the state museum. “I’m an ornithologist, so to me it’s Eaton’s book. But it’s also wonderful artwork. People who have seen the book but haven’t seen the original paintings we have on display are going to be surprised. When you look at the original watercolors, they’re two or three times the size of what you see in the book. They’ve been well-cared for and they’re not at all faded. They’re absolutely beautiful.”

Fuertes was born in 1874 and lived much of his life in and around Ithaca. A graduate of Cornell University, he wasn’t just a wonderful artist who happened to paint birds. His knowledge of the subject and the accuracy of his paintings drew praise from the likes of Roger Tory Peterson, who said his own series of field guides that came out a half century later were inspired by Fuertes’ work.

“People respected Fuertes’ art, and he had always been interested in birds and had an extensive knowledge of them,” said Kelley. “This was his first major project, so it was really the beginning of his career. But he was still well known enough that when Clarke and Eaton had convinced him to join the project, it gave the book a certain instant status. They knew that with Fuertes involved, the book would be very well-received.”

Pioneer artist

Fuertes, who tragically was killed in an automobile/train collision in 1927, is generally recognized as the first artist to make a living painting exclusively birds. John James Audubon, whose “Birds of America” was published in 1840, also drew mammals.

“He was the first to make a lot of field drawings of birds in their native habitat and natural postures,” said Kirchman. “Before that artists typically just used specimens to paint by. But he really captured how the bird would look in the wild, and there were very few inaccuracies. Any changes in the book were not due to error, but mostly due to the actual change in the distribution and abundance of birds. What he and Eaton did was take a great snapshot of the New York bird community at that time.”

Eaton was born in Springville on Long Island but called Western New York his home for much of his life. He graduated from the University of Rochester in 1890 and initially started working as a vice-principal and science teacher in Canandaigua. In 1908, three years after he started working on “Birds of New York,” Eaton began teaching at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, and remained affiliated with those schools up until his death in 1934.

“It took a lot longer to produce the book than the museum had thought,” said Kelley, “but Eaton was a very well-known ornithologist throughout New York, he had something like 300 correspondents throughout the state, and compiling all the data took time. But he was determined to make it as accurate as possible.”

Putting together the exhibit to commemorate the book and the work of Eaton and Fuertes was something Kelley had been looking forward to for quite some time.

Time is right

“We’ve been talking about this collection of paintings for a while now, and this definitely seemed like the right time for an exhibit,” said Kelley.

“The paintings are beautiful, and we have all this wonderful correspondence between the people involved. Fuertes was working in Ithaca, Eaton was in Geneva, and they would visit back and forth quite a lot, and then they would come to Albany to meet with Clarke.”

One of Kelley’s goals was to give the former director of the state museum his due.

“Clarke was like the benevolent curmudgeon,” she said. “He pushed hard for this book and convinced the commissioner of education that it was a great idea. When deadlines were missed and things ran over, he pushed hard for Eaton to get it done.”

The book actually came out in two volumes (1910 and 1914), and included in the museum collection are 106 plates used in publication of the book, as well as 118 original paintings by Fuertes. One of the 5,000 first edition copies of the book printed in 1910 will also be on display.

Categories: Life and Arts

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