26 July 2008

Bertha Jaques: Chicago Printmaker

Recently I discovered the etchings of Bertha Jaques (1863-1941) while rummaging around the lower shelves of the University library. The book Bertha Jaques and The Chicago Society Of Etchers by Joby Patterson (Fairleigh Dickinson: 2002) only caught my attention because I had never heard of her.









Her story is as dramatic as her art, yet the two aspects coexist in tantalizing proximity without revealing an obvious plot line.






We meet her first, a young woman, married to a surgeon, publishing poems in The Railway Conductors' Monthly in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (1885). Eight years later, when Jaques attended the 1893 Columbia World's Fair in Chicago, she experienced an epiphany on encountering the etchings of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. In between, she had not only moved from a backwater to one of America's great cities, but she and her husband had suffered the grievous loss of their three children.





Jaques had liked to paint, but something happened when she brought a copper plate home and applied wax, pitch and nitric acid to it with a dentist's drill and a paint roller. Her husband, William, took her efforts seriously. When Bertha could find no usable equipment, he improvised. "From surgical instruments he shaped tools for the etcher's trade, and soon Bertha Jaques had everything to work with except a press. Inventor Jaques though a clothes wringer might be made to serve, but tinker as he might, the wringer would not exert enough pressure to print. Nor could three persons standing on a plate make it impress itself on a square of printing paper." Eventually they were able to obtain a second-hand press from nearby Milwaukee.



The first of her 400 etchings was completed in 1897. Technically, Jaques could do anything she wanted with a needle, from capturing the steam rising from a dump by Lake Michigan to architectural renderings.
She had the eye of an engineer for perspective and an unconventional (especially for a woman of he time) taste in subjects. Backs of houses, waterfront workplaces, a rag picker's shop in Florence, even travels abroad failed to elicit conventional views from Jaques .


When the respected Swedish artist Anders Zorn was passing through Chicago in 1900 and wanted to make a test print from a newly completed plate, someone remembered hearing about Bertha Jaques. she never forgot his encouragement, nor that of Helen Hyde (1868-1919) who also came to Chicago in 1902. The two women became such good friends that Jaques took charge of marketing Hyde's work for the many years that Hyde lived and studied printmaking in Japan. An extended visit to Japan in 1908 inspired Jaques' book Red Letter Days In Japan. In 1915 Jaques organized a traveling exhibition of prints by Hyde and Elizabeth Colwell, who had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago with B. J. O. Nordfeldt.


With equal parts energy and generosity, Jaques gathered together a group of local artists at her home in August, 1909 and jollied them into chartering themselves as the Chicago Society of Etchers. A prepared statement, that she read to them, said in part: "The Needle Club is a club without organization, without officers, without dues and without any special purpose. It was not discussed or promoted or agreed upon. It may not be said to even exist except in the imagination of the writer who thro' sixteen years of solitary work in etching has enjoyed the
mutual companionship of all great etchers back to Rembrandt."















Their first official exhibition took place in 1911, and two years later it had grown to international scope and taken up residence at the Art Institute of Chicago. Yet, as one Eleanor Jewett recalled in 1932, "[It] was never in all its days first a museum piece. It was always a popular frolic..." It was Jaques who came up with the novel idea of offering demonstrations of etching for curious visitors. And the Society presented a major exhibition of woodblock prints in 1919. Most of the Chicago printers shared Jaques' breadth of interests - industry, hard work, and poverty inspired as many works as picturesque views.

In 1923, Bertha Jaques became the first artists to have a solo exhibition of graphic arts at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., an honor she received again in 1930 and in 1931. Today the Institution is home to 77 works by Bertha Jaques in various media.

11 comments:

Neil said...

What a beautiful tribute to a pioneering woman artist - and one who herself took great pains to encourage and enable others. Have you read the book Etched in Memory: The Building and Survival of Artistic Reputation by Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang? It has quite a bit about Bertha Jacques, alongside many other female and male participants in the late 19th/ early 20th-century etching revival.

Neil said...

Even as I tried to type this correction, I still mis-spelled Bertha Jaques as Jacques...

Jane said...

Thank you for suggesting the book. I checked and our library has it. My typing fingers wanted to add a "c" to that name, too. The Smithsonian's print collection is huge and, sadly, most of it is in storage. The good news is that most of it is available for viewing online.

Sam said...

I just saw this. I am a proud owner of a Bertha Jaques etching from 1907. Always curious about her.

Jane said...

Welcome, Sam. You are lucky to have a Jacques work. I wonder what it is like. Neil Philip, a British print dealer, whose website is Adventures In The Print Trade is an admirer, too.

david poague said...

I have a christmas card by Bertha E. Jaques. copyright 1907 with etching in black and gold. Is anyone familiar with it? Have any information? Contact me at davidinhadley@gmail.com

Gerrie said...

What a great artist and what great reading Jane, thank you.

Jane said...

Gerrie, Glad you like Bertha Jaques, too. There's another piece posted here April 25, 2011 about Bertha Jaques and Helen Hyde. I have to remind myself every time that there is no 'c' in Jaques!

James Linsky said...

My Mother, after the death of her Mother, was adopted by Bertha's husband William at age 8 and lived with Bertha and William for the rest of her childhood and again after divorcing her first husband. We have a scattering of Bertha's etchings in the family, a couple of photographs of her, copies of her poetry book and a book she wrote titled Shep (her dog). I remember looking through the Red Letter Days in Japan Bertha put together from her visit to Japan and seeing various items such as clothing and jewelry she obtained in her travels. The Jaques also had a beautiful piece of property on the Black River in South Haven, MI where they spent time in the Summer months.
James Linsky - jlinsky@cfl.rr.com

Jane said...

James, thank you. What a pleasure to hear from you. Your comments have added much interest to this article. There is also a piece posted here on April 25, 2011 - "Helen Hyde and Bertha Jacques."

Anonymous said...

I just purchased an etching called Jimson Weed that is signed by Bertha Jaques.. It also has an embossed stamp under the handwritten title, "Jimson Weed." I am interested in the value and how I may go about selling this piece. Thank you for any help or suggestions you may have. Please email me if you can help. Thank you. Beckylink937@gmail.com