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R. Bruce Horsfall’s feathers and fauna

The exhibition at the Oregon Historical Society features Horsfall's meticulous illustrations of birds from the Pacific Coast. Horsfall was a member of the Oregon Audubon Society and inspired by the artistic endeavors of the organization's namesake, John James Audubon.

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birds perched on a fir branch
Watercolor painting depicting the Varied Thrush and the American Robin sitting on branches. Illustration: R. Bruce Horsfall/Courtesy of the Bird Alliance of Oregon

R. Bruce Horsfall’s paintings depict birds of the Pacific Coast in their natural habitat. Two by two, like pages in a book, the neatly organized bird paintings guide the viewer through Birds of the Pacific Coast: The Illustrations of R. Bruce Horsfall, an exhibition on view at the Oregon Historical Society.

R. Bruce Horsfall was an internationally recognized artist in the early 20th century. He lived in Oregon from 1914-1924 and participated in the Oregon Audubon Society (later known as Portland Audubon, then most recently as The Bird Alliance of Oregon) wildlife surveys. In 1920, Willard Ayers Eliot, who was deeply involved with the Oregon Audubon Society, contracted Horsfall for fifty-six illustrations for his wildlife book Birds of the Pacific Coast. On the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the first printing of Birds of the Pacific Coast, the Oregon Historical Society pulled its collection of Horsfall’s original watercolors from its archives. The exhibition includes the watercolors alongside contextual objects contemporary to the artwork as well as video and audio that offers insight into what bird watching in Oregon looks like today.

Horsfall’s paintings are lovely. Birds of the Pacific Coast: The Illustrations of R. Bruce Horsfall includes fifty-six framed images of regional birds ranging from backyard chickadees and wrens to sky-sweeping predators like Cooper’s Hawks and Kestrels. Each painting, often including male and female specimens or multiple species, is rendered in vibrant and precise detail. Horsfall depicts the birds in their actual ecosystems with considered compositions. The saturated oranges of the Varied Thrush contrast against fir green in a spare winter landscape, a sweet pair of Pacific Wrens are warm and dark over pale grass and pond water, and the American Dipper bursts front and center against water spray and wet stone. 

Watercolor painting depicting the House Wren and the Bewick's Wren in a backyard space with a birdhouse
Watercolor painting depicting the House Wren and the Bewick’s Wren in a backyard space with a birdhouse. Illustration: R. Bruce Horsfall/Courtesy of the Bird Alliance of Oregon

Horsfall’s paintings are also scientific. They categorize and identify. While presented here as individual paintings in frames in an exhibition space, they also exist as illustrations in books to help the public identify local wildlife. The exhibition leans into this history with a glass case displaying early twentieth-century bird-watching gear, including outdoor clothing, binoculars, a box camera, and a guidebook. There is also an interactive portion called “Birding by Ear” that allows viewers to hear what the birds sound like next to their illustrations. Another display about Portland Audubon presents slides of paintings from the 1930s with scientific names written under each species and books from the 1920s with printed images and detailed information on the opposite page. 

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Before the advent of modern photography, scientific illustration was critical in the collection and identification of the natural world. Many early Western images of flora and fauna depict their subject in a white void, captured and detached from any context of its original habitat. One of the first artists to fully render birds within their ecosystem was John James Audubon; his work has deeply influenced birding and conservation movements in the United States. Audubon worked in a post-Enlightenment world amid the industrial revolution of the early 19th century. 

While no scholar, Audubon was concerned with rendering his subjects with scientific precision. He decided that every bird must be life-size, including giants like the Wild Turkey and American flamingo. With the help of expert artists and craftspeople like Robert Havell, Jr., he created the elephant folio, a book three feet tall printed on paper made specifically for the project. This work also featured a small book with descriptions of the habits and habitat of each bird species in detail. (1)      

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Earlier books illustrating birds existed, but Audubon was the first to render the birds in their natural habitat, often surrounded by flora or fauna associated with the species, and in a variety of somewhat lifelike poses. The way he wrote about his subjects was just as lively, allowing the general public to understand birds the way Audubon did as he spent many hours studying them directly in nature.

But Audubon did not draw his birds from nature. He once wrote, “I call birds few when I shoot less than one hundred per day,” (Audubon, letter to G.W. Featherstonhaugh, December 1831). He used a fine shot that would not muss the feathers, then staged his scene with wire to suit his artistic vision. While Audubon collected many of his specimens himself, he also relied on slave labor to help obtain both birds and data. None of the enslaved men or people of color who helped him in his work received any credit. 

large eagle occupying the bulk of the composition, small man in background on log between mountains
The original Golden Eagle portrait featuring Audubon’s likeness in the background. Illustration: John James Audubon/Courtesy of the New York Historical Society

The rarer the bird, the more Audubon coveted it. In 1835, he managed to procure a live golden eagle and wrote romantically of its demise:

“I must acknowledge that as I watched his eye, and observed his looks of proud disdain, I felt towards him not so generously as I out to have done. At times I was half inclined to restore to him his freedom, that he might return to his native mountains; nay, I several times thought how pleasing it would be to see him spread out his broad wings and sail away towards the rocks of his wild haunts; but then, reader, someone seemed to whisper that I out to take the portrait of the magnificent bird; and I abandoned the more generous design of setting him at liberty, for the express purpose of shewing you his semblance.” 

    –Audubon, Writings and Drawings, 355. (3)

Audubon tried to asphyxiate the bird by shutting it in with burning coal. When this did not work, he pierced it through the heart with a steel pin. The final painting depicts it flying to the heavens, a bleeding rabbit clutched in its talons. But its wingspan is constrained by the page and its neck awkwardly stuck skyward (2). Violence and restraint inhabit the poses of Audubon’s birds. 

After Audubon’s death, bird populations in the United States dwindled. Some of the birds featured in his book, like the Carolina Parrot, are now extinct. As naturalists became concerned about the fate of America’s wildlife, they turned to Audubon. His lively prints and writing birthed a movement and Audubon Societies concerned with bird conservation sprung up throughout the United States. Others ventured west and continued cataloging what they viewed as a raw, natural wilderness. This wilderness dwindled, too. As rail and road colonized the West, Americans experienced the outdoors from the relative safety of backyards and parks.

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One hundred years after Audubon’s The Birds of America, R. Bruce Horsfall depicted the birds of the Pacific coast. His sparrows perch on telephone lines, his wrens nestle near birdhouses. The composition of each piece is well-designed, the drafting fluid, and the paint applied with just the right ratio of spontaneity to precision. In contrast to Audubon’s awkward and gruesome Golden Eagle, Horsfall’s Pacific Nighthawk has its full wingspan on display as an open beak soars toward insects suspended in a spare sky. Behind the Pacific Nighthawk, a Vaux’s Swift mirrors its movement. Indistinct gray bird silhouettes, slightly bigger than the insects, drift distantly to the right. It is likely that Horsfall worked from stuffed bird references for this and other paintings, but he would not have caught these specimens himself. A century of categorization work by Audubon and others allowed him to pull from the collections of archives and museums in order to create his own collection.

Birds in flight against a greige background
Watercolor painting depicting the Common Pacific Nighthawk with the Vaux’s Swift flying behind. Both birds are in flight, and appear to be about to catch small flying insects. Illustration: R. Bruce Horsfall/Courtesy of the Bird Alliance of Oregon

On a far wall, a glass case features an example of these stuffed birds killed and made into an art piece by Fleming B. Reeder on Sauvie Island in 1890. Reeder ordered these birds into pattern based on species, size, and color. These real bodies of preserved birds lack the liveliness and spontaneity of Horsfall’s paintings and emphasize the importance of the artistic hand. While this display is an example of reference, Horsfall likely also created sketches of birds from life and worked the two together to create his final imagery.

Who are Horsfall’s paintings for today? In the center of the space, facing a wall of birds, a video titled “Conversations with Birders” plays. Bird enthusiasts from a diversity of backgrounds describe how they fell in love with birdwatching, how People of Color are creating birding communities, how younger generations are showing interest in venturing outdoors, and advice on local birdwatching. Camilla Zollars of The Bird Alliance of Oregon (formerly Portland Audubon) says, “For me and a lot of other folks that I interact with, it is a time to slow down, even if it’s for just an hour, and just observe and be curious about the birds around you.” 

bird with feathers
Watercolor painting depicting the American Dipper resting on a dark rock in a rushing white-colored river. Illustration: R. Bruce Horsfall/Courtesy of the Bird Alliance of Oregon

So these paintings are for those who enjoy birds. They are lively enough to display bird personality and they are specific enough to teach the viewer what each bird species looks like. Those who encounter these paintings may now know chickadees when they see them at golden hour. They may identify the call of a Mourning Dove at dawn. Those who are a little closer to nature care more. A Portland Audubon display acknowledges the racism and violence of their namesake and announces their new title, The Bird Alliance of Oregon, which they felt “better reflects their mission and values.” As conservation movements born in the colonialism of the early 19th Century acknowledge their past and look to the future, exhibitions like Birds of the Pacific Coast can help educate and engage the public in campaigns for green spaces and clear skies. Climate change makes the cause more urgent than ever.  


The Oregon Historical Society is located at 1200 SW Park Ave in Portland. Birds of the Pacific Coast: The Illustrations of R. Bruce Horsfall is on view through May 19th. The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10am – 5 pm and on Sunday from 12pm – 5 pm.

(1) Audubon, John James. Birds of America. 1827-1838. London: Pub. by the author
(2) Audubon, John James. Golden Eagle. 1833. New York: New York Historical Society 
(3) Audubon, John James, 1785-1851. Writings and Drawings. New York: Library of America: Distributed to the trade in the U.S. by Penguin Putnam, 1999.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Sophie Loubere

Sophie Loubere is an interdisciplinary artist and educator based in the Puget Sound and Portland regions. Her work is rooted in research with a focus on printmaking, handmade paper, and alternative photography. She earned an MFA in Printmaking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a BFA in Illustration at Rhode Island School of Design. She currently teaches at Pacific Northwest College of Art.

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