The Botanical Art of Bertha Evelyn Jaques

Meichen Liu

Bertha Evelyn Jaques (October 24, 1863 – March 30, 1941) was a respected etcher and cyanotype photographer based in the American Midwest. She co-founded the Chicago Society of Etchers and is best known for her hand-colored botanical prints and a number of works depicting her foreign and domestic travels.[1] In the early 1890s, while Jaques mourned the loss of her three young children, she became fascinated by etchings displayed at World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893) and began experimenting with the medium.[2] Although most scholarship has focused on Jaques’s contributions as an etcher and her role in the Chicago Society of Etchers, Jaques also experimented widely with the cyanotype process. In this paper, I will focus on the significance of botanical motifs in Jaques’s printmaking and cyanotype practice, exploring her interest in nature and her contributions to natural preservation and artistic practice in the early twentieth century. At the same time, I will also examine her contribution to women’s participation in artistic practice, challenging the restrictions faced by female artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Background: Bertha E. Jaques and her New Vision of Landscape

Bertha Evelyn Jaques was an accomplished etcher interested in the possibilities of the medium. She experimented widely with different processes, from the acid-based etching used to create The Milwaukee River (Nocturne) (fig. 1), to the drypoint technique used to produce the soft, feathered lines of her botanical print, Artichoke (fig. 2). In addition to her own artistic production, Jaques was also dedicated the promotion of etching as a medium. In 1912, she published Concerning Etching, which introduced readers to a step-by-step demonstration of various printmaking techniques.[3] Throughout her career, Jaques’s selfless commitment to artistic education was constant and influential. She generously used her time and studio to teach others what she knew about the complexities of etching as an artistic practice.

Fig. 1. Bertha Evelyn Jaques, Milwaukee River (Nocturne), 1897, etching on japan paper.

Fig. 2. Bertha E. Jaques, Artichoke, n.d., drypoint. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Chicago Society of Etchers, 1935.13.436.

During the early stage of her career, she primarily worked in the landscape genre. Jaques’s interest in landscape can be viewed as a response to the drastic changes in Chicago’s urban environment during the last decade of the nineteenth century. The phenomena of urbanization and industrialization manifested themselves in the appearance of skyscrapers, department stores, and cultural institutions, and automobiles, all of which transformed the urban landscape.[4] Like many of the artists associated with the Chicago Society of Etchers, Jaques’s prints from this period documented the effects of these changes in Chicago and other midwestern cities.[5] Her landscape prints often evince an ambivalent attitude towards modernization. For instance, in The Milwaukee River (Nocturne), she depicts an urbanized landscape dotted with skyscrapers, bridges, and boats, while at the same time integrating these symbols of modernity of an atmospheric ensemble.

The Cyanotype of Botanic Arrangement

At the turn of the century, Jaques became increasingly interested in botanical motifs and began experimenting with the cyanotype process. An accessible practice deemed especially appropriate for women around the turn of the century, the cyanotype process involves placing objects directly against sensitized paper and exposing them to light. Throughout her career, she created thousands of botanical cyanotypes, most of which feature a single plant specimen situated at the center of the print. Although Jaques never explicitly wrote about her intent in producing these cyanotypes, her turn to the medium corresponded with her involvement in the Wildflower Preservation Society. By contextualizing Jaques’s cynaotype practice within the history of the medium and Jaques’s commitment to nature preservation, this section will argue that we can regard cyanotypes such as Cherry, South Haven as an effort to preserve the ephemeral and endangered beauty of the natural world in artistic form. Moreover, it will also consider how the accessibility of the cyanotype process aligned with Jaques’s commitment to art education by offering a way for individuals—especially women—to engage in artistic practice.

To understand the significance of Jaques’s cyanotypes, it is helpful place these works alongside the more well-known cyanotypes of the British botanist and illustrator Anna Atkins, whose Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843) employed the cyanotype process to create what is generally considered to be the first photographic book. Atkins learned of the cyanotype process from her father’s friend, Sir John Herschel, who invented the process in 1839. The process involved coating a piece of paper with a solution of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. Objects such as botanical specimens or lace could then be laid on the paper and set out into the sun for exposure. The action of light produced a rich Prussian blue on the parts of the paper exposed to the sun. The print would then be washed in water, which would remove the iron salts coating the unexposed parts of the paper, leaving a negative impression of the object on the final print. Requiring only paper, water, and chemical compounds free of patent restrictions, the process offered a simple and affordable method of creating durable impressions of two-dimensional objects.[6]

Anna Atkins was quick to perceive the potential contribution the process could make to the botanical sciences. Her Photographs of British Algae included dozens of cyanotypes made from diaphanous specimens of dried and pressed seaweeds that Atkins likely collected herself. Each print also included a label identifying the specimen by its Latin name. According to Atkins, who was also a scientific illustrator, it was very difficult to make accurate drawings of objects as small and delicate as algae and confervae. Herschel’s process presented a solution to this problem by allowing the plant specimens themselves to print themselves, as it were.[7] Because cyanotype impressions are produced through direct contact with the original specimen, Atkins regarded them as the next best thing to looking at actual specimens.[8]

The basic technique for creating cyanotypes changed little over the decades that separated Atkins and Jaques’s work. Jaques would have prepared her compositions out of direct sunlight, placing her plant specimens directly on sheets of sensitized paper under a pane of glass, likely in a wooden printing frame with a bar on the back to hold the specimen in place. The printing frame was then placed into sunlight for exposure. Depending on the sensitivity of that particular batch of sensitized paper, the strength of the sunlight, and atmospheric conditions, the time required for exposure would vary. Once the part of the paper exposed to the light began to turn bronze, the print would be removed from the sun and washed in water to produce the vivid Prussian blue of the completed print.[9]

Jaques’s Cherry, South Haven (fig. 3) presents a branch from a cherry tree as a monochromatic silhouette that preserves the scalloped contours of the original specimen with scientific accuracy. The delicacy of the cherry blossom petals is conveyed by the different degrees of translucency in the print, which mark where the light passed through the specimen. Opaque white areas indicate where multiple layers of the flourishing plant overlap. This play of line, tonality, and dimensionality, while offering aesthetic pleasure, does not impede the precise reproduction of the specimen. The cyanotype thus serves both an aesthetic and scientific function at the same time, something which becomes clearer when examining Jaques’s involvement with the Wild Flower Preservation Society.

Cyanotype print showing the white silhouette of a cherry tree branch against a rich blue background.

Fig. 3. Bertha Evelyn Jaques, Cherry, South Haven, 1909, cyanotype negative on brown paper mount. Gift of the Estate of Lester and Betty Guttman, Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, 2014.431.

The Wild Flower Preservation Society of America was founded in 1902 using funds that Olivia and Caroline Phelps Stokes provided to the New York Botanical Garden.[10] It aimed to promote the conservation of native species of plants, which were endangered not only by the modernization of the American landscape but also by the destruction wrought by careless and irreverent human actions such as picking flowers, breaking of branches, or trampling of plants in woods and meadows. As Nathanial Lord Birtton, Director of the New York Botanical Garden wrote in an article announcing the formation of the society, “wild flowers, once so common, have become rare by such vandalism, so that the healthful pleasure and interest of woodland walks have become much less enjoyable.”[11] The Wild Flower Preservation Society thus aimed to educate the public about the importance and beauty of wildflowers while at the same time encouraging nature conservation efforts. It awarded prizes for scholarly essays on native plants and sponsored lectures in urban areas [12] The society’s lectures and publications included scientific studies of endangered local species to discussions of botanical arts like floral arrangements and gardening.

Although Jaques’s did not state her intentions in making cyanotypes, it is notable that her turn to this medium roughly corresponded with her involvement in the Wild Flower Preservation Society and many of her works featured endangered local plants. Moreover, the method of making cyanotypes can also be situated in relation to the larger activities of this society. To create an impression, Jaques would first have to collect, identify, dry, and press her specimens, an extended process that occasioned direct engagement with the natural world as well as scientific knowledge. The process of creating cyanotypes was in fact recommended by May Coley in her Wildflower Preservation: A Collector’s Guide (1915), a how-to publication aimed primarily at women and children. This book offered a thorough guide to the process of preserving dried flowers, including how to collect and identify flowers, how to dry and press specimens, how to trim specimens into better shapes, and the mounting techniques for the finished specimens.[13] What’s more, it encouraged readers to incorporate nature into domestic life. For example, Coley taught readers how to keep a “Nature Notebook” that would not only record the scientific names of the specimen and other botanical data, but also sketches and poetry and descriptions of the scenery that would animate the specimens and encourage flower collectors to engage with nature in aesthetic terms.[14] Jaques cyanotypes can thus be regarded as contributing to the Wild Flower Preservation Society’s goals by both facilitating scientific identification and arousing public sentiment of nature conservation through aesthetic means. Also significant is the fact that collecting, pressing, and producing cyanotypes was conceived of as a particular suitable past time for American women. Compared to Jaques’s urban landscape etchings, which required travel and extensive artistic training, the practice of making cyanotypes was accessible to a wider group of women and could be practiced using specimens collected close to home.

Moreover, just as Coley’s book framed the collection of flower specimens as way the importance of developing an aesthetic sensibility towards nature, Jaques’s cyanotypes also, I believe, suggest the artist’s poetic appreciation of nature. This becomes more apparent when comparing Jaques and Atkins’s work. Without denying the strong aesthetic impression made by Atkins’s prints, we can observe a clear concern with scientific accuracy at work in her effort to render each delicate part of the specimen with clear and precise lines, created through the careful placement of the specimen in direct contact with the paper. By contrast, Jaques’s Cherry presents the plant as though it had been freshly picked. Jaques picked her specimen just as the flowers began to open, presenting the cherry blossoms at their climax. The verticality of the specimen invites viewers to ponder the uplifting spectacle of the cherry blossom’s vibrant life, while Jaques’s decision to include a few falling cherry petals on the right hand side endows the subject with a sense of animation and temporality that reminds the viewer of the blossoms’ ephemerality.

The ephemeral beauty of the natural world was an important subject for Jaques. In a later publication called A Country Quest (1936), the artist communicated her understanding of living harmoniously with nature. She devoted a chapter to her appreciation for the month of May, which would have been the month in which she collected the specimen used to create Cherry, South Haven. As she wrote: “So few people seem to realize that May is the month of miracles and should be diligent — aye, reverently watching for mysteries that unfold every day. In a short time — two weeks at most — the mysteries are well-ordered facts that we settle down to the acceptance of trees in leaf and blossom; everything moves along according to schedule and nothing to get excited over.”[15] Learning to appreciate the ephemeral miracles of the natural world was, for Jaques, a way to transcend the trivialities of everyday life. The notion of ephemerality is also a key theme in her poetry book, Whims (1934), which contains a number of poems dedicated to her botanical prints, seasons, and various flowers. The most striking of these is her poem “An Etching,” in which Jaques characterizes the practice of etching as a way to capture and preserve the ephemeral beauty of the world, an aspiration which can, perhaps, be extended to her cyanotypes.

“An Etching”

There was a moment’s loveliness

too great for words to hold;

An etcher seized it with his point

and fastened it on gold,

But metal could not hold the thought

though it was grave deep;

So paper caught and scattered it

for all the world to keep.[16]

The Influence of Japanese Prints

Although her involvement with the Wild Flower Preservation Society clearly influenced Jaques’s shift to botanical themes in the first decades of the twentieth century, another important influence on her practice was the popularity of Japanese ukiyo-e prints. During the 1930s, Jaques started to create colored etchings of floral arrangements. These etchings were thematically coherent with her cyanotype prints, but approached the rendering of botanical forms in a new way. In this section, I will examine her further exploration of etching techniques that was built upon her close-looking of nature. Through her association with Helen Hyde, an American etcher who studied in Japan, and the influence of Japanese botanic prints, I will analyze Jaques’s stylistic change in the later stage of her life.

Japanese art and architecture were an important influence on American art during the late nineteenth century, especially amongst artists broadly associated with the Arts and Crafts movement.[17] This influence also extended to Jaques and the other artists of the Chicago Society of Etchers. For example, we can consider Jaques’s drypoint etching, Yucca, which presents a single orchid plant against an undefined ground (fig. 4). The use of strong black outlines appears to be inspired by Japanese ink painting and woodblock prints, while the central, yet asymmetrical placement of the plant recalls the prevailing style of botanical illustration in Japan (fig. 5), leading the viewers eyes upwards to the delicate blossoms that animate an otherwise austere composition.[18]

Fig. 4. Bertha E. Jaques, Yucca, ca. 1935, drypoint on paper. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Chicago Society of Etchers, 1935.13.432.

Significantly, it was not until Jaques entered into correspondence with Helen Hyde that she began to incorporate color into her artistic practice as an etcher. In her book Helen Hyde and Her work; An Appreciation (1922), Jaques recounted that she did not believe in adding colors to her prints until she saw the brilliant Chinese costumes in San Francisco while visiting Helen Hyde, who exclusively produced colored etchings and woodblocks inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e prints.[19] Discussing Hyde’s prints, Jaques wrote that “the character of her black line is sensitive and full of expression as only a brush line can be. Her colors are chosen with nice regard for balance and harmony. Particularly pleasing is her use of fine apple green and rose pink, which is also used in overlay to produce a third tone of agreeable olive, thus blending the three, as in Day Dreams, an example of excellent composition in circular space.”[20] It was her close study of Hyde’s prints that inspired Jaques to first experiment with color, leading to the creation of works like Green Dragon (fig. 6) and Gladiola (fig. 7). In both of these prints, Jaques incorporated the apple green and rose pink that were used by Hyde in color woodcuts like A Weary Little Mother (fig. 8). We can also observe a certain similarity between the gladiolas that frame Hyde’s print and those of Jaques’s print. Compared to the detailed cyanotype prints she made, Gladiola seems to be less concerned with scientific accuracy than the harmonious relationship of line, shape, and color, offering a poetic rendering of the flower that produces a tranquil impression.

Fig. 6. Bertha E. Jaques, Green Dragon, n.d., hand-colored drypoint on paper. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Chicago Society of Etchers, 1935.13.435.

Fig. 7. Bertha E. Jaques, Gladiola, n.d., etching. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Chicago Society of Etchers, 1935.13.446.

Fig. 8. Helen Hyde, A Weary Little Mother, 1914, color woodcut on paper. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Hyde Gillette in memory of Mabel Hyde Gillette and Edwin Fraser Gillette, 1992.13.97.

Jaques’s Contribution

The different stages in Bertha’s career manifest two distinct relationships between human and environment. Her early etchings and drypoints of the urban landscape present a romantic vision of the changing environment of the Midwest during the late nineteenth century. Her shift towards botanical themes later in her career, by contrast, speaks to a rising concern with the preservation of nature. It is significant that these works generally depict plants and flowers without context, isolated against the Prussian blue backgrounds of her cyanotypes or the white pages of her prints, perhaps suggesting that only art could preserve a vision of nature threatened by human development. Yet despite this isolation, Bertha’s cyanotypes and prints alike depict the botanical world as vigorous and animated, manifesting a desire to preserve the beauty of the natural world in visual form.

At the same time, Jaques’s cyanotype and etching practice also allow us to consider the relationship of art, science, and the natural world through a female lens. As an American woman artist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Jaques’s career allows us to consider the complex and changing place of women in American art and society. Although her shift from urban landscapes to the production of cyanotypes and botanical etchings might be regarded as a retreat into a more traditionally “feminine” genre, since the collecting and depicting of flowers was widely considered to align with the art of decorating the home, these works nonetheless speak to an intertwining of scientific knowledge and aesthetic appreciation, technology and craft, and the domestic sphere and the natural world beyond it.

Moreover, Jaques’s lifelong commitment to artistic education, especially amongst women, also allows us to think about the creation of cyanotypes and botanical illustrations in relation to women’s self-realization as independent and creative individuals. As a hard-working artist herself, Jaques managed to challenge prevailing notions of what women were capable of doing.[21]  For Jaques, gender was no barrier to the creation of intricate and demanding art. She expressed this sentiment to an audience of women artists in a speech delivered at Chicago’s Palmer House in 1939: “A needle is usually associated with a woman — but the one I use is not threaded. There are enough knots in the technique without adding thread.”[22] Through her artistic practice, printmaking demonstrations, and many publications on art making and nature appreciation, Jaques encouraged women with different levels of freedom to develop their creative aptitudes through engagement with both art and nature, offering them a chance to develop as artists and overcome the technical and social barriers.

[1] Joby Patterson, Bertha E. Jaques and the Chicago Society of Etchers (Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press and Associated University Presses, 2002), 114.

[2] Ibid.; also see Third International Exhibition of Etching and Engraving in Cooperation with the Chicago Society of Etchers: The Art Institute of Chicago from March 21 to June 2, 1935 (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1935).

[3] Bertha E. Jaques, Concerning Etchings, (Chicago: T. Rubovits, 1912).

[4] See Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969).

[5] Patterson, 37.

[6] Larry Schaaf, Sun Gardens: Cyanotypes by Anna Atkins (New York: Prestel, 2018), 64.

[7] Ibid, 38.

[8] Ibid., 85.

[9] Ibid., 71

[10] C. Gordon Copp, “Protection of the Wild Flowers,” The Plant World 7, no. 7 (July, 1904): 180.

[11] Nathanial Lord Britton, “The Preservation of Native Plants,” The Plant World 4, no. 12 (Dec., 1901): 230.

[12] Charles Louis Pollard, “The Wildflower Preservation Society,” The Plant World, Vol. 5, No. 9 (Sept., 1902), 184-186.

[13] May Coley and Charles Alfred Weatherby, Wild Flower Preservation: a Collector’s Guide (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1915), 48.

[14] Ibid., 58.

[15] Bertha E. Jaques, A Country Quest (Chicago: The Libby Company Printers, 1936), 51.

[16] Jaques, Whims (Chicago: Bertha E. Jaques, 1934), 54.

[17] For an example of the influence of Japanese art on the Arts and Crafts Movement in Chicago, see Kevin Nute, Frank Lloyd Wright and Japan: The Role of Traditional Japanese Art and Architecture in the Work of Frank Lloyd Wright (London: Routledge, 1993).

[18] Harley Harris Bartlett and Hide Shohara, Japanese Botany During the Period of Wood-block Printing (Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1961), 23.

[19] Bertha E. Jaques, Helen Hyde and Her Work: An Appreciation (Chicago: The Libby Company, 1922), 10.

[20] Ibid., 25.

[21] Patterson, 118.

[22] Jaques’s address to Palmer House, James Swann Papers.

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