Louis Agassiz Fuertes

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Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Birthdate: (53)
Birthplace: Ithaca, Tompkins County, New York, United States
Death: August 22, 1927 (53)
Unadilla, Otsego County, New York, United States
Place of Burial: Ithaca, Tompkins County, New York, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Estevan Antonio Fuertes and Mary Stone Fuertes
Husband of Mary French Fuertes
Father of Mary Fuertes and Louis S. Fuertes
Brother of Mary Katherine Fuertes; Felix Juan Fuertes; George Perry Fuertes; Sarah Demetria Hitchcock and James Hillhouse Fuertes

Occupation: Ornithologist, illustrator and artist
Managed by: Gene Daniell
Last Updated:

About Louis Agassiz Fuertes


Louis Agassiz Fuertes (February 7, 1874 Ithaca, New York – August 22, 1927 Unadilla) was an American ornithologist, illustrator and artist. He set new standards for ornithological art and is considered as one of the most prolific American bird artists after John James Audubon. He made thousands of bird paintings and sketches, based on studies in nature and details from fresh specimens, that illustrate a range of ornithological works. He died in a car accident near New York, shortly after returning from an expedition to Abyssinia. His name is commemorated in a species described by Frank Chapman as Icterus fuertesi although now considered a subspecies of the Orchard Oriole. He influenced several other wildlife artists after him apart from mentoring George Miksch Sutton. The Wilson Ornithological Society instituted an award in his memory in 1947.


Fuertes was born in Ithaca, New York and was the son of Estevan and Mary Stone Perry Fuertes. His father came from a prominent Spanish family in San Juan, Puerto Rico and was a professor of civil engineering at Cornell University and for sometime dean of civil engineering. Estevan named his son after Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (1807–1873). His mother, born in Troy, was of Dutch ancestry. Young Louis became interested in birds at very early age, securing birds with a slingshot and examing them carefully. As a child he had been influenced by Audubon's Birds of America. At the age of fourteen, he made his first painting of a bird, a male Red Crossbill, from life. He learnt to keep careful records of the appearance, habits and voices of birds. In 1890 he had sent a specimen that he collected to the Smithsonian and had received comments on its rarity and in 1891, when Louis was 17 years old he became an Associate Member of the American Ornithologists' Union. He was encouraged by his father's colleagues at the university including Burt G. Wilder and Liberty H. Bailey. In June 1892, he accompanied his parents to Europe and sketched birds and animals at the Jardin de Plantes. In September he joined the Institute of Keller, a school in Zurich, staying on for a year. Returning to America, he joined Cornell in 1893, choosing to study architecture. His older brother James however found that he lacked an aptitude for geometry and mathematics and attempts to coach him resulted in Louis falling asleep. During one lecture, he got out of class-room window and climbed a tree to investigate a strange bird call. His interest in singing led him to join the Cornell University Glee Club. In 1894, the Glee Club went on a tour to Washington, D.C., where another member of the club suggested that Louis could meet his uncle Elliott Coues, who was interested in birds. This meeting was a turning pointand Coues recognized his talent and spread the word on Fuertes' works. In 1895 Coues exhibited fifty of the works of Fuertes at the Congress of the American Ornithologists' Union at Washington, a meeting that Louis was unable to attend. He received the first of his many commissions for illustrating birds while still an undergraduate. At Cornell, he was elected to the Sphinx Head Society, the oldest senior honor society at the University. In 1896 Coues invited Fuertes to attend the Ornithological Congress at Cambridge in England. He graduated from Cornell in 1897 and decided to work with Abbott H. Thayer. In 1898, he made his first expedition, with Thayer and his son Gerald, to Florida.

In 1899, he accompanied E. H. Harriman on his famous exploration of the Alaska coastline, the Harriman Alaska Expedition. Following this, Fuertes travelled across much of the United States and to many countries in pursuit of birds, including the Bahamas, Jamaica, Canada, Mexico, Colombia, and Ethiopia. Fuertes collaborated with Frank Chapman, curator of the American Museum of Natural History, on many assignments including field research, background dioramas at the museum, and book illustrations. While on a collecting expedition with Chapman in Mexico, Fuertes discovered a species of oriole. Chapman named, Icterus fuertesi, commonly called Fuerte’s Oriole after his friend.

In 1904 he married Margaret F. Sumner and they had a son, Louis Sumner, and a daughter, Mary.

Fuertes lectured on ornithology at Cornell University from 1923. In 1926–27 he participated in the Chicago Field Museum/Daily News Abyssinian (Ethiopia) Expedition led by Wilfred Hudson Osgood. He produced some of his most exquisite bird and mammal watercolors as a result of this trip. On his return he visited Frank Chapman at Tannersville, New York. Returning from the meeting, his car was hit by a train at a rail-road crossing near Unadilla. A load of hay had concealed the oncoming train. His wife was seriously injured, but he died. The paintings he carried were however undamaged. This collection was later purchased from Mrs. Fuertes by C. Suydam Cutting.

Selected works

Fuertes' earliest commissions included 25 large decorative panels for F. F. Brewster of New Haven, Connecticut. This was followed by some murals at the Flamingo Hotel, of Miami, Florida and some paintings for the New York Zoological Society. He was much sought after later, illustrating books, plates for journals and magazine. Working with impressions from the field and from freshly collected specimens, Fuertes' works are considered some of the most accurate and natural depictions of birds. He had an ability to capture the bird in action and reproduce illustrations from a mental image. Apart from illustrations, he wrote some full length articles including one on falconry in the National Geographic and another on dogs. The cover of the journal Auk published by the American Ornithologists' Union was designed by Fuertes.[10] Some of the books that he illustrated include:

A-Birding on a Bronco, by Florence A. Merriam, 1896 (scanned)
Citizen Bird by Mabel Osgood Wright and Elliot Coues. Macmillan Company, 1896 (1923 reprint)
Song Birds and Water Fowl, by H E Parkhurst, 1897 (scanned)
Bird Craft, by M. Osgood Wright, 1897 (1900 reprint)
The Woodpeckers, by F H Eckstorm, 1901 (scanned)
Second Book of Birds, by Olive Thorne Miller (pseudonym of Mrs. Harriet Mann Miller), 1901 (scanned)
Birds of the Rockies, by Leander S. Keyser 1902 (scanned)
Handbook of Birds of Western North America, by Frank Chapman, 1902 (1904 reprint)
Upland Game Birds, by Edwyn Sandys and T S van Dyke, 1902 (scanned)
Key to North American Birds by Elliot Coues, 1903 (scanned)
Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America, by Frank M. Chapman, 1904 (scanned)
Birds of New York by Elon Howard Eaton, 1910 (scanned)
Wild Animals of North America by Edward W. Nelson, 1918 (scanned)
Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States by Edward Howe Forbush, 1925 (1927 edition)
Artist and Naturalist in Ethiopia by Wilfred Hudson Osgood. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1936
The Bird Life of Texas by Harry Church Oberholser. University of Texas Press, 1974

Honors and memorials

In 1927, the Boy Scouts of America made Fuertes an Honorary Scout, a new category of Scout created that same year. This distinction was give to "American citizens whose achievements in outdoor activity, exploration and worthwhile adventure are of such an exceptional character as to capture the imagination of boys...". The other eighteen who were awarded this distinction were: Roy Chapman Andrews; Robert Bartlett; Frederick Russell Burnham; Richard E. Byrd; George Kruck Cherrie; James L. Clark; Merian C. Cooper; Lincoln Ellsworth; George Bird Grinnell; Charles A. Lindbergh; Donald Baxter MacMillan; Clifford H. Pope; George Palmer Putnam; Kermit Roosevelt; Carl Rungius; Stewart Edward White; Orville Wright.

Apart from mentoring George Miksch Sutton, Fuertes influenced many later wildlife artists including Roger Tory Peterson and Jörg Kühn. The Wilson Ornithological Society established the Louis Agassiz Fuertes Award in 1947.

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Louis Agassiz Fuertes's Timeline

February 7, 1874
Ithaca, Tompkins County, New York, United States
August 22, 1927
Age 53
Unadilla, Otsego County, New York, United States
Ithaca, Tompkins County, New York, United States