Pioneering Illustrated Work on the Hummingbirds of Mexico

Vivid Hand-Colored Lithographs by Iriarte

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463. MONTES DE OCA, Rafael. Ensayo ornitológico de los troquilideos ó colibríes de México por Rafael Montes de Oca Miembro de la Sociedad Mexicana de Historia Natural, Profesor de dibujo, pintura en cristal, é idiomas publicado con la proteccion del Ministerio de Fomento. Mexico: Imprenta de Ignacio Escalante, Bajos de San Agustin Num 1, 1875. [4], [1] 2-60 pp., lithograph oval bust portrait of author on tinted ground with facsimile signature beneath, 12 lithograph plates of hummingbirds (some with flowers) with original beautiful hand coloring, a few attributed to Hesiquio Iriarte, after original artwork by author-artist. 4to (28.2 x 20 cm), nineteenth-century full dark green sheep, gilt-lettered spine, endpapers rather riotous in design and color, with maroon, green, terracotta, and gilt floral-pattern, a.e.g. Upper hinge slightly rubbed, minor bumps to binding. Except for minor foxing to first few leaves, including portrait, an excellent copy, the plates very fine. This work is difficult to find in fine condition. Tipped in at rear is a modern news clipping and typescript note, both relating to hummingbirds.

     First edition in book form, after appearing in parts in various issues of La Naturaleza in 1874 (with only three of the plates). Fine Bird Books, p. 95. Bradley Martin Sale Lot 1741 (Sotheby's NY December 1989). Nissan, Die illustrierten Vogelbücher 643. Palau 178890. Wood, Vertebrate Zoology, p. 470. See also: “Rafael Montes de Oca: Ensayo ornitológico de la familia Trochilidae o sea de los colibríes o chupamirtos de México,” in Elías Trabulse, Historia de la ciencia en México. Siglo XIX, México, Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1985, pp. 82-87. Another source on the author is Carolina Amor de Fournier’s introduction to the 1963 volume Hummingbirds and Orchids of Mexico, Montes de Oca's previously unpublished original watercolors from 1874-1878 for his “Monografía de los colibríes y apuntes sobre las principales orquídeas de México,” a work that, despite the popularity of his Ensayo ornitológico..., he was unable to get published. Amor de Fournier’s grandmother, a student of Montes de Oca, received the watercolors and manuscript from him when he lost hope of getting it published. The material stayed in the family until Amor de Fournier succeeded in publishing the watercolors in English and Spanish limited editions in Mexico by Editorial Fournier.

     Eduardo E. Iñigo in his entry titled “Mexico” in Jeffrey V. Wells, Birder's Conservation Handbook: 100 North American Birds at Risk (Princeton University Press, 2007), pp. 37-38:

The history of bird conservation in Mexico is old, extraordinarily rich, and complex.... In the pre-Hispanic cultures, birds were protected for several reasons.... During the peak of the pre-Hispanic cultures, particularly among the Aztecs 1300-1519), emperors ordered the protection of birds and their habitats and established some protected areas such as Chapultepec to secure water for the city and the habitat of wildlife. They also kept zoos with collections of live bird specimens. The years 1521 to 1940 after the encounter of Mexican and Spanish cultures was a period of dramatic change for Mexico's environment, including its native peoples. Beginning in the 1800s, large biological expeditions were undertaken, the first systematic ornithological collections were established, and scientific illustrations describing the Mexican avifauna were initiated. In 1868, the Mexican Society of Natural History was created and began publishing Naturaleza, where many ornithologists first described much of the natural history and taxonomy of Mexican birds. Among the most influential was Rafael Montes de Oca who published several papers in this journal in 1874 on the natural history of Mexican hummingbirds.

     This is a pioneering work on Mexican hummingbirds by a talented Mexican ornithologist and illustrator, with the descriptions linked to the illustrations by numbers. In total, forty-eight species are listed, and forty-six are illustrated, some of them being described as very rare. A native of Mexico, Rafael Montes de Oca (fl. 1859-1880s) was a scientific illustrator, artist (including painting on glass), teacher of drawing and languages, and naturalist who wrote, researched, and collected birds and plants of Mexico. As early as 1859-1860, his ornithological researches were published in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London and Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Montes de Oca worked as a naturalist on the Mexican-Guatemalan Boundary Commission and collected many plant specimens that are now deposited in the herbarium of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Between 1883 and 1884 he collected in Soconusco (Chiapas), Oaxaca, and Puebla, and the following year in Xalapa (Veracruz).

     Montes de Oca was a friend and colleague of both naturalist Dr. Manuel María Villada (1841-1922), founding member and longtime president of the Sociedad Mexicana de Historia Natural, and Mexican painter José María Velasco (1840-1912), who made Mexican geography a symbol of national identity through his paintings. Carolina Amor de Fournier, in her introduction to Hummingbirds and Orchids,describes them as a trio of nature enthusiasts who were often in the field together. Velasco also illustrated botanical, zoological, paleontological, and geological publications. In some instances Velasco modeled his detailed anatomical drawings on the scientist Montes de Oca’s specimens. Two of the illustrations in the present work are listed as Velasco’s in the exhaustive National Homage, José María Velasco (Mexico, 1993).


Sold. Hammer: $4,000.00; Price Realized: $4,900.00.

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