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.