Early Painting of Aviation Shows Flying Machines Not Yet Able to Take Off

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The Fledglings, a painting of a 1908 air meet in Morris Park in the Bronx, New York, has the feel of a single frame of a comic strip, with a lively crowd surging across the scene, milling around the aircraft, and even climbing into trees. That would make sense: the artist was 31-year-old Rudolph Dirks, a German immigrant already famous for creating the pioneering comic strip The Katzenjammer Kids.

“This painting is the first serious work of art to capture the excitement surrounding the birth of aviation in America,” says Tom D. Crouch, senior curator of the Division of Aeronautics at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Crouch recently brought this valuable historical document into the museum’s collection thanks the generosity of the artist’s son, John Dirks.

The five-month-old Aeronautic Society of New York sponsored the early November flying meet to show off aircraft created by its members. Not one of the powered machines on display, however, was capable of flight. But the crowd watched a glider (the second aircraft from the left) go airborne, pulled by a red Thomas Flyer automobile (also pictured) and piloted by 16-year-old Lawrence J. Lesh, who would suffer a broken ankle when the machine crashed. Myriad balloons and kites filled the sky that day.

Delighted by the “bizarre carnival atmosphere,” Dirks rushed back to his 14th Street studio in New York City, clutching “only a few rough pencil sketches as notes.” With no fresh canvas on hand but determined to begin work while the day remained fresh in his mind, Dirks tore down a large linen window shade, stretched it, and began to paint.

The Fledglings will go on display soon in the museum’s Early Flight gallery.