Ever since I can remember, I have sketched, drawn, and painted: a portrait of my mother, a still-life, an elephant seen in a zoo, a landscape. The medium was usually graphite or color pencil on paper, sometimes watercolor. The primary inspiration for my artistic activities was my father, Willy Vuilleumier, who made his living, and our family’s, from his art. He considered himself first and foremost a sculptor, as stated by his calling card: Willy Vuilleumier, Sculpteur. Many of his sculptures, including an owl, ducks, a deer, and penguins, all in bronze, can be seen today around the city of Geneva, Switzerland, the country of my birth. This label did not prevent him from executing other kinds of works, however. Murano glass blowers produced vases from his pastel drawings. Oil on board was his preferred medium for his landscapes. He made graphite studies of female nudes that eventually resulted in a larger-than-life statue, now also in Geneva.

Three things from my childhood are anchored in my memory. First, my father’s studio, a large building located in a park, where I spent as much time as my schoolboy schedule allowed and where I watched my father work. Back home, after my evening homework was done, he and I pored over art books illustrating Benin bronzes, Etruscan sculptures, or Dali’s compositions. And we went to art shows, where he introduced me to Geneva’s painters and sculptors. One of them, Robert Hainard, well-known both as a painter and as a naturalist, made exquisite drawings of birds and mammals, from life.


In 1952, when I was 14 years old, inspired by Hainard’s work, I too started drawing animals from life. Mammals were my first choice. But as most mammals are nocturnal I was limited to diurnal squirrels, and promptly turned to birds. From then until now, birds have been my obsession. At fifteen I drew them after watching them through a home-made telescope built with cardboard tubes and a couple of lenses. The image was inverted, however, so that this was far from satisfactory. A year later, after buying a pair of binoculars, I started studying birds as biological subjects, although I never stopped drawing them. At age fifteen I decided to become an ornithologist and I have been lucky to fulfill this ambition. In 2005, fifty-two years later, I retired as Curator Emeritus from the Department of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, a Department of which I was Chairman from 1987 to 1992.

The schoolboy who drew birds eventually became an artist doing science. In the course of my career, I carried out research on the evolution of bird species all over the world, but mostly in the Andes of South America, from Venezuela to Tierra del Fuego. Some of the papers I published in technical journals incorporate my drawings. And wherever I went for my research, I drew birds. My portfolios include thousands of sketches of birds, sitting, feeding, preening, flying, scratching, or, simply, being birds.

For more information on this artist:

The American Ornithologists' Union

The Linnaean Society of NY

NJ Audubon Society

Rockland Audubon Society

Birds of North America - Hard Cover

Birds of North America - Soft Cover