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 Roger Tory Peterson  (1908 - 1996)

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Lived/Active: Connecticut      Known for: bird portraiture painting, identification

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Ad Code: 3
Roger Tory Peterson
from Auction House Records.
James Flamingos in the Andes
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Artist and naturalist Roger Tory Peterson, initially famous for his 1934 field guide to the study of birds, was born of Swedish immigrant, working-class parents in 1908 in rural Jamestown, in upstate New York. As a boy, apparently imbued with a passion present from birth, he observed and sketched the abundant birds of wood and field. He also read about Audubon, Lear, Durer and Fuertes, artists who painted nature. His interest in birds was also guided by his seventh grade teacher, Blanche Hornbeck, who had started a Junior Audubon Club. Peterson has said, " I can't remember a time when I didn't watch birds"

Peterson later studied commercial art at the Art Students League and National Academy of Design in New York City. As a young man, after his schooling, he taught art and science in Massachusetts, where he created his unique system for identifying birds in the field. He later developed and published more than fifty other guides on subjects as diverse as mushrooms, clouds, fish, stars and insects.

One of the world's preeminent naturalists, Peterson's identification system for birds in their natural habitat was called the greatest invention since binoculars. He commented on the book, its methods and origins in 1980: "In 1934 there was nothing remotely like the Field Guide in print. Still, I can't take credit for inventing something out of whole cloth. My special contribution was the visual element within a carefully chosen context. Other ornithologists, both noted and nameless, had worked out the field marks of most birds. I combined their knowledge with my visual presentation and, at the urging of two friends in particular, carried the idea through. Their encouragement, my native interest in birds, and my professional training as an artist enabled me to create something that appeared new, though it was really a kind of fertile hybrid."

Peterson credits Ernest Thompson Seton's semi-autobiographical story, "Two Little Savages," with awakening him to the individuality in the markings of birds. Peterson says, "I don't remember when I first read that tale. As a boy I found my most faithful friends in books Somewhat solitary, I was fascinated by birds and that set me distinctly apart. In Jamestown, New York, and throughout the nation, bird watchers were rare. They were considered kooks, though we didn't have that word then (I was called a number of other things, names I'd rather leave unspoken)."

Peterson was twice nominated for a Nobel Prize, receiving every major award for ornithology, natural science, and conservation. He was awarded twenty-two honorary degrees, as well as numerous medals and citations, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Peterson was also a worldwide filmmaker, making films in Europe, Africa, the Arctic, Galapagos Islands, Antarctica as well as at home in America. For more than thirty years, Peterson was art director for the National Wildlife Federation. He was a member of the board of directors of Defenders of Wildlife from 1965 to 1973. Peterson was also art editor of the National Audubon Society's magazine, as well as in charge of their educational programs.

Peterson's paintings are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; Minneapolis Institute of Art; and the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum. They were exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. and California Academy of Sciences.

Roger Tory Peterson died on July 28, 1996 at his home in Old Lyme, Connecticut. He was 87.

Les Krantz, "American Artists, Illustrated Survey of Leading Contemporary Artists"

"If you're bored with birds, you're bored with life" said Peterson, a native of Jamestown, New York. By age eleven, he was already a member of the Audubon Society. He studied art at the National Academy of Design in New York City and then pursued his fascination with drawing and painting birds. He pioneered methods of identifying birds through "field marks," which essentially made him the inventor of the modern field guide and the father of bird watching. It is thanks to him that the heightened interest in bird watching stimulated national environmental awareness.

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