Two exhibitions at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History offer an arresting contrast between right and wrong ways to depict wildlife.
A wrong way is shown in 30 watercolors of birds of pery by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874 to 1927)8 displayed on the walls of the third-floor gallery. A right way is the collection of photographs by Nancy Dunn of Galapagos Island wildlife, on view in the Learning Center Gallery on the first floor.
The watercolors were commissioned by the Arm & Hammer baking soda folks, to be reproduced for sale to the public. Although Fuertes's series on song and game birds were issued, the birds of prey were not. And small loss to the public it was.
The exhibit notes say the 30 paintings were locked away and protected from light and handling for 50 years, so we can be confident they remain substantially as they appeared when they left the artist's easel.
They are third-rate work. Fuertes is said to have combined "rigorous fieldwork with painstaking accuracy in the studio." Bosh. It is not even necessary to compare his hawks and owls with those seen in the field -- or the zoo -- to recognize his productions as hackwork. Most of them don't look half so alive as the dusty and badly mounted birds of the Washington area on display elsewhere in the museum, and the colors, textures and proportions are bad, bad, bad. His bald eagle, particularly, is a turkey.
But the Smithsonian says Fuertes "has been ranked with Audubon," and quotes Roger Tory Peterson, illustrator of no end of bird books: "We can accurately say that there is a 'Fuertes school' of bird painting even to this day, more than four decades after his death. Nearly all American bird artists have been influenced to some extent by the bird portraiture of Fuertes."
Which may explain why I have so often searched in vain through Peterson's "Birds of North America" for an illustration that resembled the bird before my eyes. One afternoon I hurled my Peterson into a marsh. I was sorry afterward, because it scared away the sandpiper I was trying to identify.
How thoughtful of the museum, having inflicted Fuertes upon us, to offer Dunn's photographs as an antidote. Relief is just two floors away, although you may have some trouble finding the Learning Center Gallery, which is off the Constitution Avenue lobby and should not be confused with the Nature Center.
The exhibit is titled, "Galapagos Islands: Intimate Views," and Dunn has brought us just that. Although absence of predators has made the wildlife of Darwin's famous islands preternaturally tame, the photographs testify to Dunn's sharp and wonderfully patient observation. At one point a land iguana crawled into her lap to have its portrait taken, and she filmed at least one aspect of animal behavior that a naturalist had never seen in six years of study.
Dunn gives us frigate birds courting, blue-footed boobies mating, a land iguana crawling onto her lap, a brown pelican getting the hell out of there.
The photographs are so tantalizing they set one to wishing to visit the archipelago. By rightful regulation of the Government of Ecuador visitors are discouraged, so that the Eden that triggered Darwin's synthesis of the theory of evolution is left undisturbed except by scientists and by such sensitive and talented observers as Dunn.
Relatively few visitors can be expected to stumble upon the Learning Gallery. The Museum of Natural History could perform a public service by putting Dunn's work or the third-floor gallery and hiding Fuertes.