Nature Lover

Minnesota boasts no defining fine artist, no painter of universal renown. Alexis Fournier, Seth Eastman, Nicholas Brewer, Wanda Gag, Dewey Albinson, George Morrison—any of these names may ring a distant bell. But Minnesotans have no Albert Bierstadt or Winslow Homer, no Grant Wood, Georgia O’Keefe or Frederic Remington to lionize. The central Minnesota town of Aitkin, however, has made a bid to raise the profile of its most famous son, Francis Lee Jaques. In 1996, twenty-seven years after his death, it opened the Jaques Art Center; recently a new gallery was inaugurated with a major display of his work, including much of the collection from the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum of Natural History. (Francis Lee Jaques: Master Artist of the North Country is on view through June.)

As a wildlife artist, Francis Lee Jaques (pronounced “jay-queez”) wrung the last of the nineteenth century from the genre. A realist with a keen eye for avian, arboreal, and topographical form, he traveled all over the world, but his best work was inspired by the cliffs, moraines, and prairies of Minnesota and the creatures that inhabited them. In addition to the canvases that brought him national notoriety, Jaques was for decades one of the preeminent book illustrators in the world. And his ability to bend perspective into the curved walls of museum dioramas—the grand institutional illusions of their time—has never been surpassed.

Though Jaques is still celebrated in the highest halls of ornithology and natural history, it’s possible that his broader renown has waned because of the genre in which he worked. Wildlife art is the bachelor uncle of culture, and sometimes you suspect he has been spending a little too much time alone. Modernity eclipsed the need for those skilled at vivid natural depiction; such talent seems quaint in a digital world. But few artists have ever rivaled Jaques and his level-headed mastery of the real, which was steeped in the boggy heart of Minnesota.

Aitkin’s roots reach to the late nineteenth century, at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Mud River. This far upstream, the Mississippi shows little promise of its vastness below the Twin Cities. Old Man River is but a confused, pimply teen. Still, there was enough water at Aitkin to foster a bustling mill town and riverboat trade, ingesting the wealth of the pinelands upstream. That vitality drew Ephraim and Emma Jane Jaques and their four children in 1904, after failed endeavors in Illinois and Kansas.

The Jaques family was a twentieth-century anachronism, traveling by wagon across a dozen westward-bound railroads. Their son Lee, an observant teenager, walked the entire distance with his father, following the oxcart over every prairie hill and marsh. If ever a journey ran perpendicular to progress, this would be the one. But the family trajectory predicted Lee’s temperament: never going against the grain, but never quite flowing with it, either. He began his artistic career relatively late in life, in his mid-thirties, and so his ability to capture the grace of a bird’s flight or the sway of a tree in the wind was rooted in experience. His childhood was full of the hard work of homesteading: squaring tree trunks, splitting cordwood, hunting fowl for the family table, bringing in hay; he cultivated his talent early in life via calloused hands handling feathers, bones, bark, and tools.

The Jaques family carved a meager farmstead, which they called Seven Oaks, out of low country acreage seven miles north of Aitkin. The meandering Mississippi leaves oxbows (small curly ponds of abandoned riverbed that the locals call “logans”) on either side of its path through Aitkin County. Situated between one of these oxbows and the river itself, Seven Oaks beckoned ducks, coots, mergansers, and myriad other bird species. Jaques found time to ponder and sketch, and some of his early drawings were published in Field and Stream with stories written by his father.

In his early twenties, Jaques took over the local taxidermy business from his employer in exchange for back wages. Years elapsed, but he eventually chafed at the bit of small-town isolation. One day, watching an idling locomotive pointed toward Duluth, he decided to leave town and find his place in the world. He found work on the Duluth and Iron Range Railroad, feeding ravenous coal-fired locomotives with a rapid shovel. When work permitted, he made time, at the end of the tracks beyond Ely, to dip a canoe in the boundary lakes. He produced portage maps of the region for the like-minded—those who would rather bring themselves to a lake than have it brought to them.

Then World War I intervened. Jaques was drafted and sent to train at the Presidio in San Francisco. There he first beheld the wonders of a natural history museum, and his life’s ambition crystallized. His company eventually made it to France, but the war exhausted itself before Jaques saw action. He returned to Duluth, worked as an electrician, and served as a delegate for Eugene Debs during the election when the socialist labor activist ran for president from prison. All the while he cultivated the skills that could free him from drudgery. He worked in commercial art and created several covers for a Duluth magazine called The Zenith. Jaques also drew heavily upon the knowledge of a mentor, a transplanted artist from the East Coast named Clarence Rosenkranz, who taught him how to paint with oils. The war experience had broadened his horizons, and he sought a life suited to his skills.

In 1924, Jaques sent several paintings to Dr. Frank Chapman, the curator of birds at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City. The museum, a vast compound overlooking Central Park in Manhattan, was and remains a colossal trove of taxonomy and a globally renowned institution. Jaques, the modest bachelor from Northern Minnesota, was hired into this elite community without an interview, for Chapman recognized in his work an eye for avian form. Specifically, Jaques properly portrayed the reverse coverts of an American black duck, a detail of plumage gathered only from patient observation, and Chapman took a chance based on this undeniable display of skill. Several years later, he would refer to Jaques as an heir to the mantle of John James Audubon and Louis Agassiz Fuertes, the demigods of American ornithological painting.

“The museum employed an amazing team of artists and scientists at that time,” says Steve Quinn, who currently manages the art staff at the AMNH. “Yet Chapman detected an aesthetic and scientific skill in that Jaques painting. He also searched for artists capable of rendering a sense of place. Jaques always dealt with environment, and had an uncanny ability to portray birds in flight.”

Jaques had achieved an incredible, improbable leap to the big leagues. As his train approached New York, it passed boxcar after boxcar of fresh produce on the sidings. “Must be quite a city that could eat a trainload of watermelons,” he noted in a journal entry. Jaques thrived in the disciplined, scholarly environment of the AMNH. The museum nurtured his artistic talents, and he rewarded it by becoming proficient in the creation of diorama backgrounds, the curved canvases that, together with stuffed fauna and lacquer-immortalized flora, create the illusion of a natural environment. Offering deceptively true depictions of faraway landscapes, dioramas were the IMAX and Discovery Channel of their time.

“The Jaques dioramas stand the test of time,” says Quinn, who is writing a book on dioramas and recently supervised the AMNH’s restoration of a Jaques diorama depicting a Bahamas coral reef. A Bering Sea diorama, which portrays a shelf of beach on Little Diomede Island, is one of the best of the Jaques works in New York, according to Quinn, and is still a relevant and popular exhibit seventy years after its creation.

Even though Jaques was now living in New York, he still painted from life. The AMNH often dispatched its artists to the sites that they would eventually depict for the museum. Jaques visited the Alaskan coast in 1928 aboard the vessel Morrissey, and spent time in Panama and the Bahamas sketching scenes that would end up on museum walls in New York. In 1934, he accompanied an expedition aboard the yacht Zaca through the South Pacific. They visited Pitcairn Island, and in his spare time Jaques, ever the tireless sketcher, drew a map of the island that was more faithful than any previously published. The Zaca also spent weeks at the Galapagos, the naturalist’s mecca. Jaques was granted several days ashore, sketching iguanas, penguins, tortoises, and the sere island landscape. This was the last stop on a long voyage, and he was eager to leave the Zaca and the strictures imposed by the expedition leader. But he was even more impatient to return to New York and rendezvous with the former Florence Page, the woman who had completed his transformation from northwoods bachelor to career artist.

Lee and Florence had married in 1927, when both approached forty. She had returned to New York from Illinois to study poetry at Columbia University, and Lee had rented the apartment she had occupied in a duplex overlooking the Hudson during a previous sojourn. The landlords found other accommodations for Florence, but fostered a courtship between them. Marriage suited Lee: “This was the great turning point for me; life from here on was infinitely better,” he wrote in his memoirs. Not in the least because he and Florence launched a fertile and entertaining literary collaboration, in which Florence would recount their travels to remote North American destinations, with Lee’s drawings featured on every third or fourth page.

One of the seven books the couple produced, Canoe Country, recounts their honeymoon, a three-week late-summer trip in the Boundary Waters out of Fall Lake to the cliffs of Lac La Croix and beyond to the Quetico. Lee had a deep fondness for the region, but on the eve of the trip, Florence became skeptical that she had the mettle for wilderness travel. “I’ve never been so cold in my life,” she wrote in Canoe Country. “I wear my fur coat all the time. If this is what Duluth is like in August what must it be in January? ‘Of course,’ people tell me cheerily, ‘you’ll be much colder camping out.’” But she turned out to be game, when not positively giddy, with the love of her life in the stern of the canoe. Lee, capable and patient, showed her the watery country he knew so well from canoe trips during his bachelor years. And if push came to shove with an early cold front, he could have resurrected his taxidermy skills and clothed her in endemic peltry.

The early portages of that trip must have been brutal, as Lee and Florence packed a larder that included more than twelve pounds of meat. This was not a bannock-and-beans expedition: ten pounds of flour, five of brown sugar, and three cans of Crisco rounded out the major supplies. But their weather was the best of that season, the mosquito-free ides of September. “We climbed into the branches of a pine which hung far out over the water, and dangled our feet and read Millay to our hearts’ content. Then we swam in the ebony pool—so different from our usual sunny beaches—and tried picking water lilies under water.”

One of Lee’s favorite spots was the pictographs beneath the granite cliffs on Crooked Lake, depicted in one of his few historical works and probably his most famous, Picture Rock at Crooked Lake, also known as Return of the Voyagers. Jaques’s scene painting is at its best; the non-animal elements are transcendent. The border-country bedrock looms geometrically at the picture’s center, and white pine—the species he must have loved best for their sinuous beauty in his rendering—crest the hillside above a mossy swale. Everything is awash in the blue of the sky and still water. A typical Jaques thunderhead towers to the south, a billowing echo of his pines, and a host of voyageurs pass below. Swarthy paddlers labor in each canoe, with one exception. Sitting rigid and luminous—and also paddle-less—is the company man, the bourgeois, wearing a red jacket, a flash of white plume jutting from his hat. Jaques was always the working man, from woodcutter to fireman to commercial etcher to museum artist, and it cannot be that he admires the idle captain of this endeavor.

While it is true that Lee’s paintings are masterful, his scratchboard drawings are the key to understanding his genius. He did so much with the simple choice of black and white—the soft textures of a distant hill, the muscular movement of a moose—and one sees through his drawings that his mastery of form is what sustains the playful use of color in his paintings. In one scratchboard from Canoe Country, Jaques depicts the newlyweds in an open-water paddle, and Florence is idle, but in a much different manner than the bourgeois. She has her paddle at the ready as they roll down the lake with a heady wind at their backs before waves that could easily founder a canoe. Lee sits behind his wife, leaning into his J-stroke, keeping the canoe upright, and it looks like they are going the right way. Lee Jaques had himself a traveling companion.

Roger Tory Peterson, the man whose name is synonymous with a field guide and whose drawings have undoubtedly verified millions of finch, wrote in Natural History magazine in 1983 that it was time for the art world to get over itself and accept that bird art was, indeed, art. While tradition had almost always required the inclusion of humans (or some detritus of human activity) for a work to be considered art, Peterson maintained that certain wildlife artists deserved a seat at the academy. He lauded Audubon and Fuertes as the Abraham and Moses of this march to the promised land. But he also singled out Jaques: “I can think of only one top-level bird artist of my acquaintance who was not influenced in the slightest by either Audubon or Fuertes—Francis Lee Jaques.”

New York exposed Jaques to a wide world of artistic technique and proficiency. At the AMNH, he would bite his tongue while a crusty pedagogue measured the neck of a Jaques swan and pronounced it too short. The teacher, trapped in Audubon’s dimensions, failed to reconcile his textbook accuracy with the way in which Jaques’s birds did not simply move across your field of view—they came at you, or fled. He successfully crossed a threshold, converting the useful into something beautiful, like a scythe bent to the line of a haymower’s back.

Aside from his collaborations with Florence, Lee’s most memorable illustrations feature in several collections of essays by Sigurd Olson, the legendary wilderness advocate. Olson and Jaques became friends, and the former trusted Lee’s ability to vitalize his ideas. In The Singing Wilderness, Olson emphasized a fundamental element of wild places—their potential for silence. Storms may noisily lash the pines, volleys of geese may trumpet upon the remotest bay, and sometimes the rush of distant rapids draws the ear. But wild places eventually fall back to a static aural imperceptibility. A difficult task for the artist, to depict silence. But Jaques was once praised by a friend for his ability to paint the wind, and Florence once exclaimed that a particular painting of her husband’s was the coldest she had ever seen. The drawing for Olson’s essay in which he recounts a last trip along the border from Lac la Croix to Saganaga (just before that lake was conceded forever to the two-stroke drone of Evinrude armadas) seems to radiate silence, with only the slow lake current for movement.

In 1942, when Lee was fifty-five, he and Florence returned to Minnesota for good. They built a modest house between two ponds on James J. Hill’s subdivided farm, which eventually became the suburb of North Oaks. This would be the most productive period of his life. He drew and painted constantly, almost wearying from the talent that coursed through him; he was a river at flood, full of purpose, spilling over the banks. “I fondly recall an older couple who simply revered nature,” says John Fitzpatrick, recalling Lee and Florence. He grew up near them in North Oaks, and now directs the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the country’s premiere institution of bird research and conservation. He freely credits Lee Jaques as a mentor; a 1968 painting by him hangs outside his office.

Retired from the AMNH, Jaques painted the best of his dioramas under contract to the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota, creating nearly a dozen of the museum’s largest installations. The ornithological displays are stunning. In one, a platoon of sandhill cranes descends from the flyway, thick as dandelion seeds, and the ancient birds are remarkably individual for their sameness of plumage. Jaques always favored larger birds as subjects, once stating that “the difference between warblers and no warblers is very slight.” The sandhill crane diorama is a favorite place for docents to pause with a group of eight-year-olds and encourage their avian mimicry, for the cranes are just their size.

For the Bell’s wolf diorama, Jaques created a brooding portrait of Shovel Point, at what is now Tettegouche State Park, as the North Shore backdrop. A tower of mist rises from the lake, as it will during January, and the icy waves roll up on a snow-rimmed cobble beach. It’s easy to linger on this display any time of the year, but it wears best on a steamy summer day.

Officials at the Bell Museum recently announced plans to build a larger facility on the university’s St. Paul campus. As inert as the Jaques dioramas may seem to the casual visitor, they are vital to the Bell’s identity and will make the short journey east. According to Don Luce, the museum’s curator of exhibits and resident Jaques expert, entire walls will be moved to relocate these paintings.

“Audubon had a great sense of design, and Fuertes was a master at making birds realistic,” Fitzpatrick says. “But Jaques was not simply a great bird painter. Because of his constant observation and sketching, he mastered the placement of his subjects into the landscape. This made him one of the great artists of the twentieth century.”

Lee and Florence occasionally visited Aitkin during their Minnesota years. He would drop in at the local barbershop for a trim, and they would call on his elderly parents. His siblings, too, had remained in Aitkin for life, and raised a crop of salutatorians, according to Cherie Holm, a board member at the Jaques Art Center and an Aitkin native whose family’s farm was directly across the Mississippi from Seven Oaks. “Lee was always seen in Aitkin as loosely put together, sort of Ichabod Cranish,” Holm says. “When he returned later in life, he was never honored despite all of his success. We’d like to help correct that. The art center, if Lee were growing up here now, is where he would find his people.” Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine that he would have sought haven there, the lonely taxidermist who once couldn’t seem to find his way out of town.

An influx of retirees to the upper Mississippi lake country over the past decade has created a demand for amenities, and Aitkin has cleverly sought to plant deep the Jaques legacy. The Friends of Jaques, a local group to which Holm and her husband belong, began to curate shows of his work in a local bank in the 1980s. When the group purchased the former Carnegie Library from the city for a dollar, it rescued a significant local building from oblivion; half of the libraries built by the Carnegie foundation in Minnesota have been demolished. Now restored as the Jaques Art Center, the building hosts various arts workshops, in addition to a rotating display of its namesake’s art.

“There are plenty of Jaques paintings in private hands that we don’t know about,” says Holm, “and we would love an opportunity to share them with the world.” She recently learned of a home in the region that is filled with never-cataloged Jaques paintings.

Lee died in 1969 at age eighty-one, a few months after a heart attack had slowed him down. Florence was devastated, yet endeavored to finish his biography. She had set out to edit his memoirs and ended up retelling his life story. Francis Lee Jaques: Artist of the Wilderness World gave him the due his diffident prose denied, and included dozens of color plates, excerpts from their other books, and passages from Lee’s journals. Lee had been concerned for years that it took too large a toll on her, but this project, in addition to securing the future home of so many of Lee’s works, was crucial to Florence.

She told her confidantes that when the book was finished, she wanted her life to end. She died on New Year’s Eve in 1971. Her body was found in bed, clutching a red rose, according to Jaques biographer Patricia Condon Johnston. She had left several notes to her closest friends and relatives, stating that she could no longer endure without Lee.

One of Lee’s most unique paintings—he may have thought it had only personal appeal, and Florence didn’t include in the biography—is an elegant 1940s portrayal of their global travels, both together and alone. His lines were blue, hers red, and purple traced their partnered journeys.