'Alive With Birds' Exhibition Brings Together Historic Art to Illustrate the Role of Bird Advocate William Brewster

  • February 27, 2022 16:23

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Black-billed Cuckoo, John James Audubon (1785-1851), 1828. Mass Audubon Collection, Bequest of Anna Bemis Stearns (1995)

To my great surprise, the Farm was simply alive with birds, the entire morning.” William Brewster, April 7, 1893.  

The Concord Museum in Concord, Massacusetts, has collaborated with Mass Audubon on the special exhibition, Alive with Birds: William Brewster in Concord, on view March 4, 2022 through September 5, 2022. Alive with Birds is the first and most comprehensive exhibition on William Brewster (1851 -1919), the first president of Mass Audubon and one of the country’s earliest advocates for the protection of birds and their habitats.

William Brewster, Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), 1907. Chapin Library, Williams College, Gift of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The exhibition also showcases 20 paintings and sculptures from Mass Audubon’s Museum of American Bird Art by acclaimed artists, including John James Audubon, Frank Weston Benson, Anthony Elmer Crowell, Charley Harper, David Sibley, Leonard Baskin, and Barry Van Dusen, each of whom depicted birds formerly or currently native to Concord’s landscape.

In 2019, Mass Audubon received a gift of 143 acres of the October Farm property, which has been renamed Brewster’s Woods Wildlife Sanctuary.

“My colleagues and I have long wanted to curate an exhibit on William Brewster,” said Tom Putnam, Concord Museum’s Edward W. Kane Executive Director. “This unique collaboration with Mass Audubon allowed us access to an array of artifacts and artwork that will bring Brewster to life and our galleries alive with birds.”

Drawn to Concord for its natural beauty and abundant bird life, William Brewster made October Farm, his 300-acre property, into an experimental field laboratory and documented its wildlife for scientific study and public enlightenment. His rich observations and analysis of the local landscape included a concern for environmental changes caused by humans. A prolific writer and amateur photographer, the words and images he left behind form a bridge to the past, just as his lessons provide a key to the future.

Alive with Birds will showcase items drawn from the wide-ranging collection of artwork, photography, and historical objects from Mass Audubon’s Museum of American Bird Art, and from the Concord Museum, accompanied by manuscript materials from the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University and the Chesterwood Archives at Williams College.

“William Brewster stands tall in Mass Audubon’s history not only as the first president of our organization, but also through his influence on the advent of the modern conservation movement as evidenced by his writings, his ethic of wildlife protection, and his photography,” said Mass Audubon President David J. O’Neill. “We are delighted to share the incredible landscape of Brewster’s Woods through this collaboration with the Concord Museum, interpreted through the lens of Brewster’s journals and the significant contributions of Robert Gilbert, as well as renowned artists who inspire us to continue to protect the nature of Massachusetts for generations to come.”

CHARLEY HARPER (1922-2007) Mass Audubon Collection.

Alive with Birds also explores the contributions of Robert Gilbert, a Black ornithologist who served as Brewster’s assistant for over twenty years, as well as Brewster’s lifelong friendship with the sculptor Daniel Chester French, for whom Brewster’s work served as an inspiration for his art.

“This exhibition weaves together art, science, and history to tell the story of a truly fascinating figure,” says Erica Lome, Peggy N. Gerry Curatorial Associate, Concord Museum. “The works of art on display tie everything together, illustrating the diversity of birds species represented by William Brewster in his writings, as well as the artists who, from past to present, have found inspiration in this subject.”

River Field Scene, Roger Tory Peterson (1908-1996), about 1949. Mass Audubon Collection, Bequest of John Henry Dick (1995).

David Wood, Curator, Concord Museum, continued, “For thirty years William Brewster labored to make a few hundred acres on a bend on the Concord River a better place for birds. This collaborative exhibition demonstrates that his singular efforts continue to pay rich dividends.”

A centerpiece of the show is a meditative exploration of Brewster’s Woods in a 10-minute media presentation. William Brewster’s own words, taken from his journal entries, guide the visitors in discovering the wonders of this natural landscape and his own photographs, taken in the late 19th century, are compared side-by-side with scenes today showing how little has changed in the intervening years.

As a youth, William Brewster (1851- 1919) explored the fields, meadows, and marshes just beyond his home on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, collecting eggs, nests, and specimens to study. Rather than follow his father’s footsteps into banking, Brewster remained devoted to the field of ornithology, of which he was primarily self-taught.

After his marriage to Caroline Kettell in 1878, Brewster built a house in Cambridge which included a library and museum to hold his growing collection of mounted birds. He became the curator of mammals and birds at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in 1885.

In 1890, Brewster bought a tract of woodland on the Concord River with a farmhouse situated on Monument Street dating back to the eighteenth century. The property spanned 300 acres and Brewster renamed it October Farm. Brewster spent the last thirty years of his life exploring October Farm and recording his observations.

Alive with Birds: William Brewster in Concord is a collaboration with Mass Audubon.

Tags: american art

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