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Robert Ridgway, from a carte de visite by Ulke Brothers
Robert Ridgway (1850-1929) was the curator of the Smithsonian’s bird collections for forty-nine years. His interest in ornithology began at an early age as he observed and drew birds near his home in Olney, Illinois. After several years of correspondence with Smithsonian assistant secretary, Spencer F. Baird, Ridgway developed into a serious student of natural history. He later assisted in writing the technical descriptions and drawing the illustrations for the first three volumes of Baird’s A History of North American Birds. His only compensation was a rent-free dormitory room in the Smithsonian Building. In 1874, Ridgway was appointed Smithsonian ornithologist and after Baird’s death in 1887, assumed his role as America’s leading professional ornithologist.
Photograph of Robert Ridgway in his office, August, 1884,
Robert Ridgway’s office was located on the fifth floor of the south tower of the Smithsonian Building from about 1875 to 1895. The office was reached by a flight of eighty-seven stone steps, which Ridgway reportedly delighted in bounding up two at a time. During the period Ridgway worked in this room, he published over 300 articles and produced countless drawings of birds and bird eggs. The 550 articles and books Ridgway published throughout his long career combined with the 23 species, 10 subspecies, and two genera of birds named for him ensure that his name is perpetuated in the field of ornithology.
Robert Ridgway’s bird prints exhibited below represent a stylistic departure from his other work of the mid-1870’s by depicting birds in full color in their natural environment. Ridgway had long since adopted a style of depicting birds in outline form only and without backgrounds.