Capturing the wild

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Egret in Florida Pond, by Francis Lee Jaques

Image courtesy of the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History

It is the curious charge of the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History (known to most people as simply “the Bell Museum“) that it showcase both science and art as it pertains to the natural world. So while many associate the Bell Museum with the stuffed birds and animals that fill its glass display cases, Curator of Exhibitions Don Luce is particularly proud of the art on the walls behind those creatures – dioramas depicting different ecologies by the painter Francis Lee Jaques.

Part of our mission is to encourage people to study nature, and through Jaques’ art you get an idea of how he did this, not as a scientist but as an artist. The foundation of science, and his art, is to observe carefully.

The Bell Museum owns approximately 20 dioramas by Jaques (pronounced “jay-kweez”), along with 100 paintings and scratchboard drawings, bequeathed by his wife Florence upon her death. His work is the core and foundation of the natural history museum’s art collection, and is the subject of a new exhibition, “The Shape of Nature: The Art of Francis Lee Jaques,” on display through September 5.

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Lee and Florence Jaques, standing in the backyard of their North Oaks, Minnesota home in the 1960s. Photograph courtesy of the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History

It’s fitting the largest collection of Jaques’ artwork resides in Minnesota, for his drawings and paintings played a large role in the conservation of Minnesota lands. Born in Illinois, and raised partly in Kansas, Jaques moved with his family to Aitkin, Minnesota as a teenager. He fell in love with the Boundary Waters in 1913 while working on a steam engine, bought himself a canoe and began exploring the wilderness. He and a friend made some of the earliest maps of the lakes.

Over the years Jaques worked as a lumberjack, a taxidermist, a railroad fireman and an electrical engineer at the Duluth power company. He served in the first World War, returned to work in the Duluth shipyards, but soon left them in favor of a job as a commercial artist. He continued to develop his artistic talents, but wasn’t inspired much by the subject matter. It was the memory of a diorama of a mule deer in a snowy forest he saw at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco while serving in the army that finally inspired him to pursue a career as a wildlife artist.

Ironically he first applied for a job at the Bell Museum, and was turned down. But he persisted, and was taken on by the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

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The Road West, by Francis Lee Jaques

Image courtesy of the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History

Don Luce says what sets Jaques’ work apart from his peers is how he painted wildlife within the context of its environment.

Roger Tory Peterson said Jaques was the first bird artist NOT influenced by J.J. Audubon. Unlike most artists of the time, who were very interested in miniature anatomical detail of scales, feathers, etcetera, Jaques knew animals from experiencing the outdoors; he knew them in their environment, and in motion. He distilled the bird or animal down to its essential shape, and captured the experience of witnessing that animal in its environment.

Luce says Jaques is considered one of the top three diorama painters of all time. His job at the American Museum of Natural History took him all over the world. He sailed the South Pacific for months at a time, discovering new birds and painting them in their natural setting.

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Mallards Dropping Fast, by Francis Lee Jaques

Image courtesy of the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History

When Jacques married Florence in 1927, he took her back to the Boundary Waters for their honeymoon. She later wrote the first book on “recreating” in the northern lakes, “Canoe Country” which Lee illustrated. Over the course of their marriage they partnered this way on several books, including a sequel titled “Snowshoe Country.” The Jaques used proceeds from the sales of the two books to help preserve Susie Island in Lake Superior. It’s now known as the Francis Lee Jaques Memorial Preserve in his honor.

A few years after Jaques retired from the American Natural History Museum, he and Florence settled down in North Oaks, Minnesota, and he joined the staff of the Bell Museum. Jaques soon became good friends with environmentalist Sigurd Olsen, and illustrated several of his books, including “The Singing Wilderness.”

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Caribou on Ice, by Francis Lee Jaques

Image courtesy of the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History

Curator Don Luce says Jaques’ artwork – in more than 40 books and on the walls of several natural history museums – did more than just convey what it was like being in the great outdoors; it planted the seeds for the environmental movement.

I think of Rachel Carson [author of "Silent Spring"]. Would she have been as effective if there hadn’t already been this background of nature artists who helped people connect to the natural world? Jaques laid the foundation for a “wilderness ethic.” By conveying their beauty, he convinced the public that these landscapes merited protection.

“The Shape of Nature: The Art of Francis Lee Jaques” is on display through September 5 at the James Ford Bell Museum on the University of Minnesota campus. If you’re in Aitkin, you can see more of his artwork at the Jaques Art Center, located in the old Carnegie Library.