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Francis Lee Jaques: Master Artist of the Wild


The work of a preeminent early 20th century American wildlife painter whose work helped create an awareness that inspired the environmental movement can be seen at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum through March 30, 2003. "Francis Lee Jaques: Master Artist of the Wild" features 75 oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, sculpture, and photographs as well as numerous personal artifacts that trace his life (1887-1969). (left: Francis Lee Jaques, Egret in Florida Pond)

Born in Illinois, Jaques (pronounced jay kwees) grew up on Kansas farms, came of age in the north woods of Minnesota, and then traveled the world for the American Museum of Natural History, New York. As he plowed fields, stacked hay, cut timber, and stoked steam engines, Jaques developed an intense sensitivity to the natural world and expressed that sensitivity through art. In his entire body of work, Jaques cast wildlife and wilderness, indeed the environment as a whole, as a fundamental but endangered heritage.

A self-taught artist, Jaques made his mark painting large natural history dioramas over a three-decade period beginning in the 1920s. After returning to Minnesota after World War I, Jaques sent assorted bird paintings to the chief curator at the American Museum of Natural History, who was so impressed he hired Jaques as a staff artist. Soon thereafter, Jaques began traveling the world on museum expeditions. In addition to his more than 60 dioramas in New York, his work in this format can be seen at the Bell Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis and at Yale University's Peabody Museum.

"Master Artist of the Wild" focuses on the artist's body of work apart from his dioramas, specifically early drawings, field sketches, scratchboards done for book illustrations, watercolors, and a selection of his finest oil paintings. Many of the works on view came about as a result of his museum research and document his travels throughout North America, including Alaska and regions of the North Pole, the west coast of South America, Panama, Peru, Polynesia, and Europe.

As a child in Kansas, stalking waterfowl in nearby marshes and creeks with his father was a favorite activity that not only fed the family but also provided the budding artist with subject matter. Waterfowl -- their beautiful plumage, their motion in flight, and the patterns of flocks against the sky -- would remain a hallmark of Jaques' art. In one poignant remembrance he recalled, "Two of the first ducks I shot, a mated pair of wood ducks, were kept so long while I did a drawing of them they spoiled. I wept, since I'd wasted them." (left: Francis Lee Jaques, The Old West Passes)

Jaques also created illustrations for a number of publications, some co-authored with his wife, Florence, and for other writers such as Sigurd Olson. Scratchboard was a favored medium for these illustrations as it perfectly suited the expression of those things he found so appealing in nature: strong shapes, stark contrasts, and open space. Jaques stated that "the shape of things has always given me the most intense satisfaction -- geese in a storm, a landfall after a long period at sea, horses in a fence corner, the eroded bank of a stream winding through a pasture. Such beauty one wants to preserve..."

In 1953 Jaques and his wife moved from New York to North Oaks, Minnesota, where they spent the rest of their lives. The Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota became the repository for a large body of the couple's art collection, photographs, and field notes. It is from this collection that "Master Artist of the Wild" has been organized.


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