Monday, June 20, 2011

Art Hero: Francis Lee Jacques

I wasn't kidding when I said we were at warp speed around here.... and not one moment of this mad dash has had anything to do with starting on a new linocut (sigh). The good news is that I have a few more linocut icons to carve for the ongoing Southeast Colorado Regional Heritage project, so at least you'll be seeing carving tools and lino chips before too much longer.

Wood ducks, from "The Geese Fly High,"
(1939) by Florence Page Jaques.
Illustrations by Francis Lee Jaques.
In the meantime, I thought it might be fun to share one of my "art heroes" with you.

It's been almost 25 years since I was introduced to the drawings and paintings of Francis Lee Jaques (1887-1969). At the time I was hanging out with "museum people," friends who either were working in the exhibits departments of natural history museums or had done so previously. It was astounding to discover such occupations existed, and a wrench to be told the field was diminishing and exhibits departments everywhere were shrinking.

Jacques was renowned in those museum circles, his background murals for the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History are considered some of the best ever painted.  It is his black-and-white scratchboard drawings, however, that delight me the most.

More than 40 books are graced with Jaques illustrations, and although many are out of print, a few have recently been republished. Titles by natural history author Sigurd Olson can be found as paperback reprints on with the black-and-white Jaques illustrations reproduced as well. ( I have one, the quality isn't great, but it's still Jaques.)

William O. Douglas's "My Wilderness" books are harder to come by, but I scored my early editions inexpensively on eBay some time ago.

From "The Geese Fly High"
Click to embiggen.
It's the books by his wife Florence, however, that are my most prized Jaques-related possessions. Florence was my kind of natural history writer: Not a scientist. Not an expert. She was not a great adventurer, but she was always game, always curious, and always, always delighted by everything she experienced. Well, maybe not everything. There are plenty of passages in which she questions the sanity of her husband and his colleagues, arising in frigid dark to traverse half-frozen bogs or slogging through clouds of insects enroute to some northern lake. She wasn't afraid to admit she was often uncomfortable and ignorant.  Accompanying her new husband on museum expeditions and hunting trips in the 1920s and 1930s meant she was definitely treading in "male" territory, but tread it she did, and where she couldn't find delight she could find wry and clever humor.

The combination of Florence's writing and Lee's illustrations made books like "The Geese Fly High," "Snowshoe Country," and "Canoe Country" irresistible to me.  ("Snowshoe County" and "Canoe Country" have been reprinted as a single volume by the University of Minnesota Press.)

One more from "The Geese Fly High"

Lee's bold graphic sense and sensitive, calligraphic line... the balance of black and white. Wow. Just wow. I often look at these illustrations and "see" them in color... the sense of space and atmosphere seems uncanny. I love everything about this work... composition, line quality, shapes... (sigh). Yeah. Hero.

And for those of us who have recently been discussing all the jobs we've had on our way to arts careers, here's one more thing to appreciate: Francis Lee Jaques was a farmer, a taxidermist, a railroad fireman, a lumberjack, and a soldier before he found his place at the American Museum.

More about Francis Lee and Florence Page Jaques can be found at the Jaques Art Center in Aitkin, Minnesota. One of these days I'm gonna get there....


  1. OK Now I have to badger my library into getting at least one of Florence's books. You make her sound so readable!A bit like Ellis Rowan, perhaps?

  2. OK Now I have to badger my library into getting at least one of Florence's books. You make her sound so readable!A bit like Ellis Rowan, perhaps?

  3. My parents on a whim bought me a lovely old version of "The Geese Fly High," which is impressive as neither of them know a thing about art. Lovely stuff.
    You might enjoy the book "The Lovely and the Wild" by Louise de Kiriline Lawrence. It's a rambling but lovely book by a self-taught naturalist, it sounds like she might be a bit like Florence.

  4. Hey, Dinah... I don't know Ellis Rowan, so now I'll have to go hunt those down, too! Thanks!

    And Marissa... thanks for the Louise Lawrence hint. Oooh! I love hunting for new books.

  5. Thanks for sharing this hero, Sherrie.
    There really is magic in his black and whites, those white grasses and the fast transition to black sky took my breath away.

  6. It's a stunning piece, isn't it Patrick? To me it's so evocative... I can feel the wind and imagine a storm approaching.