Francis Lee Jaques in Black & White: Part II

Bison: Jaques illustrated his wife’s book, "Snowshoe Country."

by Brooke Chilvers

Few artists can create a landscape not only on the flat surface of the canvas, but also on the confined curved walls of a natural history museum diorama, ingeniously recreating an entire three-dimensional panorama of everything above and below the horizon.

The completely self-educated artist, Francis Lee Jaques (1887– 1969), instinctually perceived wild animals and flying birds within their greater habitat, their stretch of prairie or autumn sky. He knew immediately how to convey the connection between a species and its life-space, his photographic memory recording the morning mist and the patterns of different wildfowl moving through it.

Some say Jaques (see Part I: was the first wildlife artist to envision nature as an entire ecological system. Critics describe his ability to put the animal into its fully expanded environment instead of simply against it. “His flying birds are never trapped within tight compositions filled with extraneous detail. They have air around them and space from which they have come and space into which they are about to move,” as one author described it. 

Deer: The artist contrasts the black mountains against the white snow and sky.

Jaques was equally talented in the small-scale, rare art of scratchboard. That is, working in black and white by scratching, or rather incising, lines with a knife or sharp tool, through the surface of dried black ink, revealing the white chalk or clay-coated board below. The result is something between a wood engraving and a pen and ink drawing; it makes for especially elegant book illustration. 

In fact, his success in illustrating some 40 books with scratchboard drawings helped revive this castaway technique, which gave publishers the advantage of using a photo-mechanical printing process rather than requiring engravings by the artist. 

Pack Horses: Jaques illustrated My Wilderness: East to Katahdin by Chief Justice William O. Douglas.

The titles include the six books written by his wife, Florence Page Jaques, starting with their now classic Canoe Country (1938), about their time on the Minnesota Boundary waters, Snowshoe Country (1944), which was awarded the John Burroughs Medal for nature writing, and Canadian Spring (1947), about their nature-observing journey across the prairies and Canadian Rockies, from Manitoba to British Columbia. 

Jaques also used scratchboard to illustrate the travel book, My Wilderness: East to Katahdin (1961), by Chief Justice William O. Douglas, the longest serving justice (1939–1975) in the history of the Supreme Court, and A Paddling of Ducks (1959) by ornithologist and conservationist Sidney Dillon Ripley. Especially stylish are his illustrations for three titles by his friend, the North Country’s “Muir and Thoreau,” naturalist Sigurd Olson (1899–1982), including Singing Wilderness (1956) about his travels in the lands and waters north of Lake Superior.

Moose: Snowshoe Country won the John Burroughs Medal for nature writing.

From his time as a commercial artist drawing bicycles and lamps for labels and brochures with the Duluth Photo-Engraving Company, Jaques could rely on his sense of design, his eye for a definitive detail, and his ability to draw the finest lines to create eye-attracting compositions of surprising depth. 

In his scratchboard narratives of outdoorsmen and animals in the landscapes of wild places, Jaques contrasts dark patches of forest or water or rock against the naked whites of snow and sky. As one author writes: “His large white spaces give a sense of openness and depth for the eye to explore.”  To create contour, mass and distance, he lays down patterns of lines in different directions, which creates an almost sculptural effect on his rock formations and animals. His careful balance of shapes and patterns of finely scratched lines “capture the distilled essence of the natural objects they represent.”

If many of Jaques’s works are classic depictions of cabins and canoes, others are eye-popping in their originality of design, and their ability to express the different seasons and their changing shadows. 

Scratchboard somehow suggests Jaques’s rugged, self-reliant youth in Kansas and Minnesota during the last pioneer years on the prairie. He was born in Genesco, Illinois in 1887, in his grandfather’s white frame house; when the boy was 12, his father, Ephraim Parker Jaques, of French Huguenot descent, moved his small family to his wife’s people in Elmo, Kansas. There, daily chores included making soap, churning butter, and cutting hay. By age 14, Francis was working 10 hours a day, six days a week, feeding and milking cows for $7 a month plus room and board.

Landscape: Jaques used scratchboard to illustrate some 40 books.

Ephraim wasn’t much of a farmer, but he sure could hunt, and he fed his family prairie birds and wildfowl, and earned cash guiding duck hunters. When it looked like they would never inherit his father-in-law’s farm, in 1903, Ephraim moved them on again, to the sawmill town of Aitkin, Minnesota, traveling overland by a covered farm wagon, like a miniature prairie schooner. His mother and sister rode, while his brother Alfred drove the four-horse team. It took Francis and his father six weeks to walk the 650 miles. They settled on a 73-acre farm they called Seven Oaks, and built a log cabin with $100 of material, on an oxbow of the Mississippi River. 

Francis and his father worked, floating log rafts of elm, ash, and maple downstream to the mill. They hauled railroad ties and supplied the firewood to the courthouse. At one point, while studying surveying, locomotive firing, and electrical work, Francis stoked 12 to 15 tons of coal a day into railroad steam engines. Eventually, he went to work for a local taxidermist, buying out his boss for $10 of backpay. He was already 30 when he was drafted into the Great War, attached to a U.S. Army Coastal Artillery Corps, and served in France. 

It was during training in San Francisco, on Christmas Day, 1917, that Jaques saw his first real art exhibition, in the Palace of Fine Arts. When he saw his first animal habitat diorama, of a mule deer in a snowy forest, at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, he decided there and then to become a museum artist. Yet, after the war, he worked in the Duluth shipyards; then finally, at age 34, as a full-time commercial artist.

Only in 1924, at age 37, did his life take a turn and take off when he shot a black duck, painted it in flight, and sent it, along with two other oil paintings, to Dr. Frank M. Chapman, Curator of Birds at the American Museum of Natural History of New York.

The rest is wildlife art history. As Stephen Quinn, the Museum’s Senior Project Manager for Exhibitions, writes of the uneducated farm boy, “Jaques, with no formal art or science training, was nothing less than a genius…to this day no artist is thought to paint birds in flight as well as Jaques.”  And also on scratchboard, in black and white.

Brooke Chilvers remembers her mother, Natalie Chilvers, loving the horse in the Teddy Roosevelt sculpture – and the hotdog stand – in front of the AMNH.