Bertha Jaques (1863-1941), Bittersweet, 1920, hand colored etching, gift of the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation, 89.3.98.
Born Bertha Clausen in Covington, Ohio in 1863, Bertha Jaques lived in Cedar Rapids from 1885 to 1889. She did not come to printmaking until she was in her 30s when, in 1893, she attended the Chicago Columbian Exposition where she saw prints by such notable artists as James Abbott McNeil Whistler, James Tissot, and Anders Zorn. She became immediately interested in the etching technique and her surgeon husband (an 1883 graduate of Cornell College whom she met in Mt. Vernon, Iowa) fashioned tools out of surgical instruments so she could etch copper printing plates. With the purchase of a printing press, Jaques made her first etching in Chicago in 1894. Her interest in the print never waned and her home and studio were the setting of many artistic events. Jaques was one of the founders of the Chicago Society of Etchers in 1910, serving as its secretary/treasurer for 27 years. During her 46-year career, she created 461 prints and more than 1,000 cyanotype photographs. Although largely self-taught, Jaques was an influential teacher and mentor, authoring a book, Concerning Etchings, in 1912. She was also an accomplished poet and self-published a number of volumes of her poetry.
As a graphic artist, Jaques’ body of work can be divided between black-and-white prints of landscapes—both Midwestern and from her foreign travels—and her botanical prints, many of which were hand colored. In all of her etchings, Jaques betrays a sensitivity to the power of line as a communicator in the image. Jaques’ own close attention to the world encourages her viewers to look anew at the beauty, subtlety, and fragility of the world around them.
Jaques is perhaps best known for her prints of wildflowers and ferns. Her interest in this subject matter grew out of her desire to present something that was not only beautiful to behold but also promoted wildflower preservation. Jaques’ interest in environmental issues was only one way in which she was a pioneering woman artist. Not only did Jaques succeed in a field dominated by male artists, but she also helped popularize etching in America. Jaques’ full impact on printmaking and photography at the dawn of the twentieth century is still under-recognized and ripe for reappraisal.