Today, we finally get around to honoring greatness.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Here's a fine photo. It's a
woman -- maybe in her 50s -- with iron-gray hair
and no makeup. Clear, steady eyes and strong
features. She's Bertha Jaques -- born in 1863 and
died in 1941.
On the surface of things, she lived an ordinary
enough life. She was married to a Chicago surgeon.
She liked to paint. Then, when she was thirty,
something happened. She saw an exhibition of the
new French etchings at the Chicago Columbian
It was an important moment. Jaques went home to try
this new medium. She bought a copper plate at the
hardware store. She found wax, pitch, and nitric
acid. She wrapped a paint roller with leather and
located an old dentist's drill.
She was transfixed as the nitric acid carved out
her first picture. She let it destroy the image
completely. But her learning curve was fast. Her
second etching is on museum display today. She
improvised, failed, and succeeded. Her husband
helped her fashion etching equipment from surgical
She got a press from Milwaukee. Then, in 1897, she
gave us the first etchings in the Midwest. She
eventually left over 400 prints. And they occupy a
peculiar place in American art.
The prints are lovely -- really lovely. Most are
scenes -- locations. They are places in reality,
but they're also places in her mind. They
romanticize reality, yet they show an almost
classic order and discipline. Jaques makes powerful
use of perspective. She wields space with an
We see her genius as she rapidly creates a new
control of texture. We trace the etchings
chronologically. Here's where she learned to
capture industrial steam and smoke with a
scratching needle. There she's caught the
reflection of moonlight off water.
All the while, in outward shape and form, she was
the typical turn-of-the-century upper-middle-class
wife. Never mind that she founded and ran the
Chicago Society of Etchers. Never mind that she
mentored the whole field of etching in America.
Only today do artists see her work for its
pioneering artistic and technical genius. I
personally tire of success stories -- of people
honored in their time. The more I look at the
things we make and do, the surer I am that real
greatness rises slowly, like cream in milk -- the
way Bertha Jaques did in the arena of American art.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds