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Painter Francis Lee Jaques found his inspiration depicting Minnesota’s natural world

Birds, especially ducks, were a favorite subject.

photo of Grace Lee Nute and Francis Lee Jacques
Historian Grace Lee Nute and Francis Lee Jacques look over Jacques' oil painting titled "Picture Rock at Crooked Lake."
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Francis Lee Jaques emerged from rural Minnesota in the 1930s and 40s to become a nationally known wildlife artist. After two decades at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, he returned to his home state to paint a much-loved series of habitat dioramas at the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum. His images of Minnesota are a valuable record of the state’s natural history.

Generations of museum-goers across the country have seen his paintings, but few recognize his name. Yet Francis Lee Jaques helped shape America’s vision of nature in the twentieth century.

“Lee” Jaques (JAY-kweez) was born in Geneseo, Illinois, in 1887. After several lean years in Illinois and Kansas, the family moved to a farm north of Aitkin, Minnesota, in 1903.

As a young man, Lee tried many jobs: taxidermist, railway fireman, electrical engineer. But he was always drawn to art, especially wildlife art. Rural life in Aitkin County offered him opportunities to draw and paint local plants and animals, including game the Jaques family hunted.

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Upon returning from service in World War I, Jaques worked in Duluth as a commercial artist. After some informal training and much practice, in 1924 he sent three paintings to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. The museum swiftly hired him as a staff artist.

For eighteen years at the AMNH, Jaques specialized in painting backgrounds for habitat dioramas. Combining taxidermy mounts, plants, and realistic painted backgrounds, habitat dioramas were—and remain—a central feature of natural history museums. Jaques painted dozens of dioramas for the AMNH, many still on display. He also traveled throughout the world with the museum’s scientific expeditions.

In 1927, Jaques married the writer Florence Page. The spent their honeymoon in what is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, sparking a lifelong love of this area and a commitment to its preservation. Florence wrote about their experiences in Canoe Country (1938), which Lee illustrated. The couple would publish five more books about their travels exploring nature.

Birds, especially ducks, were a favorite subject. In an era before high-speed photography, Jaques was noted for his accurate images of birds in flight. In 1940, his design of black ducks was used for the annual Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp, better known as the Federal Duck Stamp.

The same year, Jaques was invited to work at the University of Minnesota’s natural history museum. The museum (later named the Bell Museum, for benefactor James Ford Bell) was creating a series of dioramas depicting the state’s natural diversity, and curator Thomas Sadler Roberts felt Jaques was a natural first choice as artist.

Jaques’s first Bell diorama depicted wolves at Lake Superior. Moose, elk, cranes, shorebirds, and more followed. Between 1940 and 1964, the artist painted nine large and eleven medium-sized dioramas for the Bell Museum.

The 1940s and 50s also saw Jaques in demand as an illustrator of popular natural history books. These included three works by Minnesota naturalist and conservationist Sigurd Olson, who became a personal friend.

For Jaques, artistic appreciation and conservation went hand in hand. Late in life, the artist wrote, “The shape of things has always given me the most intense satisfaction…Everything one sees and senses.” He added that “the keenest sense of all has been in wildlife, and that includes its habitat. Such beauty one wants to preserve—to make it available, as far as one can, to others.”

Jaques’s paintings and illustrations continue to be at once beautiful works of art and accurate sources of information about the natural world. And in an era of rapidly changing climate, his faithful depictions of Minnesota landscapes take on new importance as records of change over time.

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Francis Lee Jaques passed away in 1969, and Florence Page Jaques in 1971. Florence donated the couple’s art collections to the Bell Museum. Her donation forms the core of the museum’s Jaques archive.

In 2018, the Bell Museum opened in a new building in St. Paul at 2088 Larpenteur Avenue West. All of Jaques’s large diorama paintings remain on permanent display.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.