Sunday, October 15, 2023

Art Eyewitness Essay: Illuminating Birds, Imagining Nature


Illuminating Birds: Drawing as a Way of Knowing

The Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel, Philadelphia
May to October 2023

Reviewed by Ed Voves 

Original photography by Anne Lloyd

Autumn is the time for harvest – of flowers and fruit, crops of ripened wheat – and ideas. The year is coming into its final flourish. The time to gather in the thoughts and insights which have arisen from the hard work and ingenuity of countless people is now.

In the case of Art Eyewitness, this means acknowledging the museum curators whose efforts I commented upon in our 10th anniversary essay. In fact, the bounty of wonderful exhibitions is so great that we cannot always schedule a visit in timely fashion to all the special exhibitions we would like to see.

Occasionally Nature – notice the capital N – gives me a nudge, a pointed reminder not to let slip an opportunity to review of an important exhibition. Illuminating Birds: Drawing as a Way of Knowing, at the Academy of the Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, is one such exhibit which had to be acknowledged - and applauded.

Illuminating Birds, now in its final days, is devoted to the artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who pioneered the realistic study of avian species around the world. Drawing from the collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences, which was founded in 1812, the curators of the Academy spotlighted the achievements of leading artists from John James Audubon to Roger Tory Peterson. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
Gallery view of the Illuminating Birds exhibition, showing a 
first edition copy of John James Audubon's Birds of America

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
A detail of John James Audubon's Birds of America,
showing Audubon's depiction of the Black Throated Diver

The exhibition announcements sounded fantastic, but with so many art shows to review, the summer months slipped by - and no chance for a review. With the deluge of autumn/winter exhibits looming and a very full fall book list in the works, Illuminating Birds seemed destined to elude the grasp of Art Eyewitness.

Not far from where we live in Philadelphia is a small garden cared for by a devoted community activist. Anne and I refer to this idyllic spot as the "Iris Garden" because  these beautiful perennials are a special highlight of the year.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021)
Iris blossoms, Philadelphia, spring 2021

Spring is gone and the iris petals are long since withered. Recently, Anne and I decided to check the garden to investigate the status of its mums, another highlight. We were too early for the mums but to our astonishment we caught sight of a hummingbird.


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
Hummingbird, Philadelphia, Summer 2023

Hummingbirds are drawn to purple flowers, Delphinium, Penstemon (Beardstongue) and Trumpet Flower. I'm not a flower expert but I think the hummingbird we chanced upon was savoring Salvia, a variety of sage.

It was a magical moment, an all too rare encounter of twenty-first century city folk and a winged-denizen of the natural world. Fortunately, both Anne and I had cameras and between the two of us we were able to record the movements of the hummingbird. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) Hummingbird in Flight

Normally a hummingbird flutters its wings at 75-80 beats per second (faster during mating season). Remarkably a couple of our photos came close to capturing this incredible feat of aerodynamics.

When we returned home, my thoughts turned to the exhibition at the Academy of Natural Sciences. The subtitle was especially intriguing: Drawing as a Way of Knowing. If my imagination was sparked by a couple of photos of a hummingbird in a neighborhood garden, how much more inspiring and thought-provoking would an intense session of sketching birds in a more remote setting be!

The subtitle was indeed key to grasping the theme of the exhibition: the way drawing informs our knowledge of nature - and hopefully increases our empathy for our fellow creatures.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
An example of the avian art of Ned Smith (1919-1985),
 a noted artist and writer for the Pennsylvania Game Commission 

The animal world has indeed been a major focus of human artists as far back as the Chauvet caves and no doubt much longer. Incredible degrees of authenticity were imparted to the depiction of birds and animals in prehistoric times. With the rise of civilization and urban communities, however, people became increasingly divorced from nature.

For those interested in nature, the "expert" testimony of others, natural philosophers as they were called during the European Enlightenment, was crucial to their understanding. One of the key works in the Academy's exhibition is a kind of notebook called a "common place" book. It was compiled by an Englishman named Joshua Spencer and dates to the early eighteenth century. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
Joshua Spencer's Commonplace Book, ca. 1729

Spencer was what we would call today an "armchair naturalist" jotting down notes from his reading of the leading scholars of his day such as Sir Isaac Newton and John Ray. He also drew highly detailed, if imaginative, depictions of animals from accounts by European explorers and travelers.

I suspect that the Egyptian Leaper which Spencer drew, "faced like a ferret, body moving like a cat", was based on an early report of a lemur. It's the kind of naive, if enthusiastic, scholarship that makes the manuscripts and documents related to "natural philosophy" such compelling witnesses to the past.

Spencer's commonplace book sets the stage for the first-hand exactitude of nineteenth century nature artists like Audubon. Their fieldwork, often accomplished under difficult and dangerous conditions, is a theme of the Illuminating Birds exhibition. Our knowledge of nature, especially of avian life, is based on the dedication of these intrepid artists.

There is a dark side, however, to art and science during the early nineteenth century. In the days before high-speed camera lenses, artists in the wild needed to supplement their sketchbook with a  different "point-and-shoot" instrument, the black-powder rifle or shotgun.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
Preserved bodies or "birdskins" of 
the Red-winged Parrot (left) and the Scarlet Macaw

In order to study the "birds of America", Audubon needed to shoot them. He was a noted marksman and he killed thousands of birds to compile the stock of specimens required for his detailed examination. So did other artists during the early days of scientific study of avian life.

The preserved specimens of birds displayed in the Academy of Natural Sciences exhibition make for unpleasant viewing. 

The tragic fate of magnificent creatures like the Scarlet Macaw (above) signifies more than just the unfortunate price of "clinical" science. The close observation of nature produced abundant evidence of "red in tooth and claw" behavior. This was very unsettling to sensitive souls who wished to preserve the comforting illusion of God's creation as a refuge from the heartless, human world of the Industrial Revolution.

A new creed, Social Darwinism, harnessed to rigorous, fact-based, scientific method, replaced the engaging pictures of gentleman amateurs like Joshua Spencer and romantic ideas about nature. 

The results of Victorian-era bird watching (and shooting) were methodically recorded and specimens of exotic birds carefully mounted for the edification of the public. According to its website, the Academy of Natural Sciences has 205,000 avian study skins (preserved bodies of birds) and 17,000 tissue samples in its Ornithology Collection. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
Gallery view of Illuminating Birds: Drawing as a Way of Knowing 

The nineteenth century attitude to the natural world, especially avian life, led to a vast extension of knowledge but also to the ruthless slaughter of birds. Some species were hunted to extinction like the Carolina Parrot or Parakeet, the only native parrot species living in the eastern U.S, and the subject for one of the most brilliant illustrations in Audubon's Birds of America .

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Preserved body of the Great Indian Hornbill

Despite the sobering tone of this essay, Illuminating Birds: Drawing as a Way of Knowing is ultimately very encouraging in showing how the interaction of human beings with the natural world can evolve in more positive ways. 

Drawing remains central to the process of knowing and nurturing, as the life of Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927) testifies. The son of a brilliant engineer and astronomer from Puerto Rico who came to the U.S. to teach at Cornell University, Fuertes was fascinated by birds from childhood. Over the course of his life, Fuertes set new standards of excellence in depicting birds and mammals in the wild, without adding, unduly, to the carnage of earlier eras.

Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927)

Initially, the young Fuertes used a sling shot instead of a rifle to create his own collection of "study skins". But, in teaching himself to draw, Fuertes developed amazing skills in direct observation and detailed recollection of what he saw.  By his early teen years, Fuertes was painting superb avian portraits and at the age of seventeen, he was inducted as an Associate Member of the American Ornithologists Union. It was but the beginning of a storied career as the greatest American nature artist except for Audubon.

Fuertes took part in a number of high-profile scientific expeditions to Alaska, Central and South America and finally to Ethiopia. The Illuminating Birds exhibition displays several of his portraits of rare bird species from these, still remote, regions of the world when he ventured there.

Anne Lloyd, Photos (2023)
Bird paintings by Louis Agassiz Fuertes:
the Common Potoo (top) and the Emerald Toucanet

Having survived the rigors of the expedition to Ethiopia in 1927, Fuertes met with his friend, Frank Chapman, curator of the American Natural History Museum. On the drive home, Fuertes came to a railroad crossing not far from where he lived. Local farmers had stacked bales of hay along the tracks, obscuring his vision. Fuertes' car was struck by a train as he tried to cross and he was killed.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
The paintbox of Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Fuertes' death came when he was at the height of his powers as an artist and a naturalist. It was a tragic loss, yet by the time of his death, Fuertes had raised the standard of avian art in the U.S. to heights of accuracy and sensitivity that still command respect today.

In 2002, a colorful parrot, native to the South American nation of Colombia, was rediscovered. It had not been seen in ninety-two years and was presumed to be extinct. The bird, still on the endangered list, was named Hapalopsittaca fuertesi or Fuertes parrot.

City boy that I am, I doubt if I will ever see a Fuertes parrot flying about in my neighborhood - or anywhere else. But thanks to the work of great nature artists like Louis Agassiz Fuertes and this insightful exhibition at the the Academy of Natural Sciences, I am not going to lose sight of the importance of "drawing as a way of knowing."


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved.

Original photography, copyright of Anne Lloyd.

The introductory image to the essay shows a Purple Glossy Starling from the collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, PA.  

The photo of Louis Agassiz Fuertes comes from the collection of the American Museum of Natural History, New York City.


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