Beautiful Birds  —
Masterpieces from the Hill Ornithology Collection


Birds, with all their color and life, have fascinated people throughout history. At no time was this fascination expressed more beautifully in art than during the 18th and 19th centuries, an era of widespread curiosity about natural history. The exploration of new worlds, especially the Americas, produced vast amounts of information to be evaluated, classified and recorded in word and picture. Birds excited special interest. So extensive was the pursuit of bird specimens that by the end of the 19th century only a few species in the world remained to be discovered.

The art of portraying birds accurately and attractively developed along with the growth of scientific data. Detailed written reports were brought to life through the careful, colorful work of the bird artist. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, artists paid particular attention to painting the exact details of beak, foot and feather, with little thought of adding appropriate background or animation. Stuffed specimens were the models, resulting in stiff portraits. Engraving on metal or wood was the chief technique available for the publication of an artist's work until the invention of lithography in the early 1800s opened the door to a new freedom of style. The era from 1830 to the end of the century saw the publication of superb hand-colored volumes on ornithology — books that have never been excelled, even with today's impressive photographic techniques.

"Beautiful Birds" traces the development of ornithological illustration in the 18th and 19th centuries and highlights the changing techniques — from metal and wood engraving to chromolithography — during that period. The exhibition includes books from Cornell Library's Hill Ornithology Collection and art works on loan from the personal collection of benefactors Kenneth E. and Dorothy V. Hill.

The contrast in artists' styles reflects the two schools of bird art that vied with each other throughout the period. One, the "museum school" of zoological draftsmen, was concerned mainly with precision in recording the details of the birds' characteristics. The other, the "bird artist school," was interested in adding more lifelike characteristics, natural settings, and sketches of nests, eggs, and young to the detailed picture of the bird itself.

The exhibition begins with a display of plates by three of the best known bird artists in early America, Mark Catesby (1683-1749), Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), and John James Audubon (1785-1851). Catesby, a botanist first and an ornithologist second, painted his birds with a fair degree of accuracy against a background of plants, departing from the stark style of his 18th-century contemporaries. Wilson, the "father of American ornithology," produced excellent, precise, rigid, perched likenesses, modeled on stuffed skins. Audubon, working from freshly killed specimens, introduced the spirit of the living bird into his paintings and placed his figures in romantic but authentic settings.

As the exhibition progresses, it is clear that one figure stands out in the world of 19th-century bird art. John Gould (1804-1881), a highly successful businessman, ornithologist, and artist, was responsible for the publication of some 3,100 hand-colored lithographs in 43 volumes. Most were imperial folios, depicting birds in full size. Gould sought out some of the foremost artists of the day to take part in his productions, did the rough sketches and designs for most of his plates himself, and wrote the texts for many of the books. His handsome, colorful plates dominate the portion of the exhibition which focuses on lithographs.

Jeanne A. White                    
Guest Curator                        


This exhibition and Web site have been made possible by the generous support
of Kenneth E. and Dorothy V. Hill.

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