On Exhibit: learning where to draw the line | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Exhibit: learning where to draw the line 

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Intrigued by two etching books her husband had given her, which reminded her of works she'd seen at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Bertha Jaques began experimenting in the art. Using an old dentist's drill, she scratched images into copper plate. The first time she tried to make a print she let the acid burn too long and ruined the plate. The second attempt worked.

Eventually Jaques, who learned her craft mostly through trial and error, began making prints with an etcher's press--the only one in Chicago--that her husband had made from an old printing press. One of the first American woman etchers, she would create nearly 500 etchings, drypoints, and aquatints, often of plants and landscapes she saw during vacations around the United States, and in Europe and Asia.

Jaques was born in Covington, Ohio, in 1863. After her father died she worked as a secretary and reporter for newspapers and magazines to support her invalid mother. She moved to Chicago in 1883 and married William Jaques six years later. All three of their children died in infancy. Later Jaques served as mentor to hundreds of younger artists. In a 1935 Chicago Daily News profile a reporter wrote, "Childless, she regards as 'her boys' scores of artists who have sought her help and her advice, and these artists are even more sentimental about her as 'mother.'"

Jaques gave numerous talks and demonstrations on printmaking, and in 1910 she helped found the Chicago Society of Etchers, serving as secretary and treasurer until 1937. She also wrote several books, including Concerning Etchings, Life of Helen Hyde, Artist, and A Country Quest, a memoir of a vacation at the summer home in Michigan she shared with her husband.

In 1929 Lawrence College, in Appleton, Wisconsin, awarded her an honorary doctorate in fine arts. In 1939 one of her works, Jimson Weed, was the print the CSE presented to new members. During an exhibition of her work in New York in 1940, the year before she died, a reviewer for the New York Times wrote, "A real and deep appreciation of oriental stilllife prints is implicit in this work, and her arrangements are carried out with taste and sureness."

One of Jaques's "boys" was James Swann, whose work will be exhibited with hers in a new show at the Frederick Baker gallery. She met the young Texan at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition, held along the lakefront, and he moved here in 1936. With her help, he joined the CSE and the Society of American Etchers, exhibited 50 works at the Smithsonian, and traveled abroad. He became a fixture on the local art scene, succeeding Jaques as secretary-treasurer of the CSE. His Night in Chicago, which depicts Lake Shore Drive on a stormy night, was the CSE's presentation print in 1940.

In Concerning Etchings Jaques made clear her love of the art of etching. "Requiring, as it does, a high degree of artistic perception, its followers comprise the few who cannot be said to represent either public opinion or popular taste," she wrote. "But the senses once made captive will always remain willing prisoners."

Work by Jaques and Swann will be exhibited at Frederick Baker, 1230 W. Jackson, through October 15. The gallery is open 10 to 5 Monday through Friday and by appointment. For more information call 312-243-2980. --Michael Marsh

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