Our American Game Birds / by Justine Lee Hirten

This entry marks the beginning of my book blog covering selected items from my collection. Most of my books are focused around birds and natural history illustration, and nearly all of them are second-hand or vintage. Our American Game Birds was first published in 1917, and mine is a 1947 edition.

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In the Natural Science Illustration group on Discord someone asked whether hunting or game illustrations count as natural science illustration, and I firmly believe they do. Whatever your stance on hunting may be does not detract from the validity of observations made by hunters/anglers and the many stunning examples of artwork in this genre. The best of these hunters are excellent naturalists and contribute strongly to conservation efforts — our foreword’s author, Theodore Roosevelt, case in point. The hunter-illustrator can clock an immense number of hours in patient observation and hands-on study that can lend a great deal of accuracy and presence to their work. Lynn Bogue Hunt is my favorite in this genre, his paintings stand out stylistically from the rest and artfully demonstrate the depth of his first-hand knowledge of these species.

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The use of color and composition in these artworks is very striking. I find them to be quite expressive and sophisticated — the post-impressionist influences, glowing sunset lighting, and flattening of space blend together in a way that makes me feel a bit like I am peering into a birds’ dreamland and all the birds are peering back. Repetition is a given for artwork of flocking birds but the way he arranges and abstracts the subjects is very thoughtful and musical — the subjects are the perfect balance between the patterns of nature and the patterns of a successful composition. These paintings feel so self-aware, I can’t really explain it, they just have an aura about them.

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The woodcock chapter features one of the most dramatic images in the book, but Van Campen Heilner’s text is a bit of a rollercoaster. It starts off with a very casual mention of his former woodcock hunting companion committing suicide with his shotgun and finishes with a little story about how “there is probably nothing finer than woodcock on toast.” Somewhere in the middle he talks about woodcocks making odd appearances in cities, which still holds true 100 years later despite how much the landscape has changed. I remember running into one in downtown Chicago 12 years ago, that was before I knew much about birds and the encounter was completely baffling. If you have ever seen and heard this bird fly you’ll understand why. This bird is so plucky and humorous but Hunt gives us the woodcock’s serenity and majesty that often goes unrecognized.

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One of my favorite books in my collection and one of my favorite bird artists, and I hope this will be a good start to this blog! Thank you for following.