Touched twice by a master's brush
How I came to have not one but two surprise encounters with the handiwork of one of the 20th century’s most revered and infuential wildlife artists
Published: August 26, 2011
|Our benefactor was a woman in her sixties, I judged, and she was gone. |
The box of books she’d left was on the library table. I searched for the form that normally accompanies such donations to the Cape May Bird Observatory. It would note the name and contact information for the donor, but it wasn’t there.
Little did I know how unfortunate the information gap was destined to be, because one of the books wasn’t just valuable; it was singular: the bound pre-publication proof plates from The Birds of New York, illustrated by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, the celebrated bird artist.
Another time, another brush
He said his name was John Langsdorf, the public-relations officer for Church & Dwight. “Church & Dwight,” he repeated. “Arm & Hammer Baking Soda.”
“Oh, right,” I intoned. “The bird-card people.”
If you made the cognitive leap between baking soda and bird cards, then you, my friend, are either very erudite, a collector of bird curios, or older than younger. It’s been a long time since the firm tucked collector-grade cards in the yellow boxes of its baking soda. The company mounted the campaign to encourage sales and continued it for decades.
I invite you to go online and see for yourself. You will discover a number of different themes, including dogs, dairy animals, Mother Goose, fish... and birds, the perennial favorite. Nine of the sixteen series commissioned between 1888 and 1938 used birds as their theme. Three were painted by Fuertes.
The artist died in 1927, but his name is still spoken in reverential tones, and his paintings live in the hearts and minds of artists and birders alike. David Sibley, Lars Jonsson, and other painters account Fuertes an inspiration for their work.
So what was the connection between the call from John Langsdorf and the famous painter?
“For our 100th anniversary, we reprinted the raptor card series,” he advised. “We have a few hundred left over, and we’d like to donate them to your organization. And take you to lunch.”
“The raptor series,” I mused, “the one never released as a card series.” I knew a little about its history. Fuertes followed his songbird and gamebird series with a 30-card series featuring birds of prey. The artist took a bit more license than the folks at Church & Dwight felt comfortable with — that is, he portrayed some of his subjects clutching prey.
Concerned about how impressionable young minds (and product-buying parents) might regard such images, the company decided not to distribute the raptor art as cards. Instead, at some point, the originals were donated to Cornell, Fuertes’ alma mater.
Offset litho reprints, of course, aren’t worth even a shadow of a sliver of a fraction of the value of a Fuertes original. Yet when opportunity knocks...
And besides, Mr. Langsdorf had mentioned lunch. So I met him for an enjoyable meal. Then he and I drove to a warehouse, where he promised that we would find the prints. “As well as some originals,” he added.
I’ll admit I was interested. But I wasn’t prepared for what followed.
“I’m really sorry this is taking so long,” he said from a distance. The warehouse was one of those riveted, metal-sided affairs. Light shining through a single, grime-covered window illuminated the room that held the art. Langsdorf had set off in search of the light-control panel, leaving me alone.
It took a few moments before my eyes adjusted to the gloom, a few to realize that stretched canvases were stacked all around me, and a few more to realize that I was surrounded by the original art from many and perhaps most of the card series.
Two stacks of watercolors on a metal shelf caught my eye. The paintings were separated by sheets of waxed paper; otherwise, they were open to the elements. I lifted the covering sheet and found myself face to face with birding’s roots. There, beneath my fully dropped jaw, were the 60 originals from Fuertes’ songbird and gamebird series: a Blackburnian Warbler with throat aflame, a Horned Lark, a Bohemian Waxwing, a Tree Swallow whose plumage glistened like a living bird.
It was like going into the attic of a departed aunt and finding an original copy of the Declaration of Independence. I felt like I’d just drawn a bath and discovered the Spanish galleon Atocha.
I fairly screamed at Langsdorf when he returned to the alcove: “Do you have any idea what this is?”
Replied the calm public-relations person: “Uh, yes, well, I would guess those must be some of the original...”
“This is my heritage!” I asserted.
Langsdorf certainly recognized the importance of the art (although my vehemence probably took him by surprise). As I leafed through the watercolors, each more beautiful than the last, I listened to his sad admission that the originals for many card series had been lost or damaged in relocations of the company headquarters.
But the Fuertes art, at least, seemed undamaged and intact.
We left the warehouse with the promised raptor prints and a mutual resolve to ensure that the two original sets would be given the recognition and care they were due.
Artist of influence
Between 1896 and 1927, Louis Agassiz Fuertes illustrated much more than bird cards.
His art appeared in most major books on birds, including Elliott Coues’s Key to North American Birds and Edward Howe Forbush’s Birds of Massachusetts. Fuertes contributed to National Geographic and Bird-Lore and designed two covers for The Auk. He painted reliefs for a hotel in Miami Beach and backgrounds for habitat groups at the American Museum of Natural History.
“When we consider the number of illustrations that he made for publication and attempt to multiply them by the number of times that each one was printed,” wrote ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, “we gain some idea of the influence he exerted on bird art and bird study by this widespread diffusion of authentic information concerning the appearance of birds in nature.”
Little red book
I wasn’t thinking of that day in the warehouse as I pawed through the books left by the unidentified woman. Why would I? Who could ever imagine being so fortunate as to be touched by Fuertes’ brush not once but twice?
The cloth-bound book immediately drew my eye and hand. It had no title, just a faded inscription on the spine that read, “BIRDS.” The book was old and not professionally bound.
I’m one of those people who start reading in the middle, so I opened it and looked at the plates. Fuertes plates. Not originals but proofs on glossy cardboard. No text. “Odd,” I thought.
Except for the hand-printed numbers on each plate — ink on the art side, pencil on the back — there seemed to be no printed legends at all, no hint to the proofs’ purpose. Nevertheless, after a dozen or so I was pretty sure I recognized the source.
When I hit Plate 91, showing vireos, my guess was confirmed. It and the next several plates were bracketed by print. On the top it read, “Birds of New York.” At the bottom were the common and Latin names for the species depicted: Warbling, Red-eyed, Yellow-throated, White-eyed, Philadelphia, and Blue-headed.
OK, so these were the plates from The Birds of New York, published in two volumes in 1910 and 1914 by Elon Howard Eaton with illustrations by Fuertes. But why would somebody remove and bind the plates? And why were the illustrations printed on such hard backing? Certainly, the plates in the book were on the same paper as the text?
Finally, I flipped to the front of the book and discovered, with as much consternation as surprise, that the index, too, was hand-written — in fountain-pen ink on lined paper. And then I looked at the inside front cover. Unadorned except for a hand-written signature: Louis Agassiz Fuertes — complete with a period after his name, an affection that the artist employed throughout his life.
In my hands, it seemed, was a handmade, working layout for the plates for The Birds of New York, assembled and probably bound by Fuertes. At least that was my speculation, and it seems I was half-right.
On April 13, 2011, the curator of art and artifacts and senior fellow of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (and a Fuertes authority) examined the book and noted with no small amount of excitement that the volume “appears to be a set of proof plates from The Birds of New York, many pulled prior to lettering, that were assembled by the artist, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, for his own use.”
But only the plates from Volume II. If there is a similarly bound companion set, it is elsewhere — perhaps still waiting to be discovered.
This book? It’s still in the hands of CMBO. Be assured it will be given its archival due.
And the card art found in the warehouse? I’m happy to say that the originals were framed and now grace the walls of Church & Dwight Co., Inc., in Princeton, New Jersey.
As for me, I’m just astonished that I could have been touched not once, but twice, by Fuertes’ brush...
And if the woman who dropped off a box of books at CMBO about three years ago is reading this, please, by any possible means, get in touch with me. There’s a certain book I’d like to discuss with you.
Pete Dunne is vice president for natural history information for the New Jersey Audubon Society, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, and the author of
Prairie Spring: A Journey into the Heart of a Season (2009);
Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds (2006);
Feather Quest: A North American Birder's Year (1999); and other books about birds and birdwatching.
Read more by Pete Dunne.