Papers in the Biological Sciences


Date of this Version



An original publication. Copyright (c) 2008 Paul A. Johnsgard.

The portfolio Abyssinian Birds and Mammals: Painted from life by Louis Agassiz Fuertes is archived in this repository at


The year 2009 marked the 110th anniversary of the first colored reproduction of a Fuertes painting; a watercolor of two seaside sparrows published in The Auk, when Fuertes was about 25 years old. Although Fuertes' life spanned little more than a half-century, and most living ornithologists were born after his tragic 1927 death, his influence on natural history art has not lessened. This manuscript is a testimony to his enduring artistic legacy.

I first looked in awe at the original set of Fuertes paintings in the summer of 1995, during a visit to the Field Museum in conjunction with my research on North American hummingbirds and avian brood parasites. Like many other lovers of fine bird art, I had marveled at the Field Museum's 1932 album of Abyssinian plates, but the sight of all the additional, and especially the original, images was overwhelming. I inquired at the time about plans for possible publication of the entire collection, and was told that this was under consideration. Next, I was shown the Museum's set of baby bird portraits by George Sutton, and I immediately broached the possibility of publishing these in book form. That query met with favorable response from Benjamin W. Williams, Special Collections Librarian. This project flourished and during the spring of 1998 resulted in the publication of Baby Bird Portraits by George Miksch Sutton: Watercolors in the Field Museum.

As soon as this book appeared I began wistfully thinking again of the Fuertes plates. Then, in the summer of 1998 I made a formal suggestion to Mr. Williams that we consider producing a book containing all the bird paintings and their associated pencil sketches, with the text by me, and the hope that perhaps publication and descriptions of the mammal plates could be taken up by someone more qualified than I. I followed this up in September with a proposed outline for the book, and some preliminary text. I also visited the Field Museum during November, 1998, to examine the paintings and drawings closely, measure them, and discuss possible publication plans. At that time Mr. Williams and I agreed that the mammal plates needed inclusion, since there were too few to warrant a separate publication. I reviewed all the Fuertes drawings and watercolors, and photographed them for personal reference. I also selected out some preliminary pencil sketches and anatomical studies, and a few small watercolors of plant material that seemed too incomplete and data-deficient to warrant inclusion. The text length for each species description is directly related to the number of plates done by Fuertes (roughly 300 word per plate).

One problem in dealing with these plates is the fact that many of the English vernacular names, as well as the Latin names, associated with the species Fuertes illustrated have undergone changes since 1926, and produced to some problems in identification. There were also a few cases of inaccurate identification of the species illustrated. Thus, two appendices have been provided, respectively organized by original Latin names and by original vernacular names, to try deal with these confusing anomalies between my text and the names shown on the plates themselves or used in various publications. Avian taxonomy in this book follows Fry, Keith & Urban (1982-2004). Mammal taxonomy follows Kingdom (1997). There seems to be little agreement as to the proper spelling of Ethiopian place names, and I have modified some of those that were used by Fuertes and Osgood (1936) to conform with currently used spellings.

This review could not have been written without the complete support of the Field Museum of Natural History, and especially its Special Collections Librarian, Benjamin Williams. After Mr. Williams left the Museum, the manuscript lay fallow for several years and I directed my attention toward other projects. Then, in May of 2008, Elizabeth Babcock encountered a copy of my manuscript among older Museum files. She soon contacted me, and brought the project back to my attention. Later I contacted Dr. Paul Royster, Scholarly Communication director. University of Nebraska-Lincoln, about making the manuscript available on-line through the University's digital library (

In preparing this book I have received assistance from several people. Ms. Linda Brown helped in the indexing and photographing of the plates, and provided a great deal of constructive advice and encouragement on my text. Advice on the identification of the unidentified insect painted by Fuertes was offered by Dr. Brett Ratcliffe of the Nebraska State Museum.