The Peacock in the Hallway

On the second floor of Cranbrook House is a very lovely painting I’ve appreciated since I started here, but never knew much about.

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Jessie Arms Botke, The Mirror, 1926. Oil on Canvas. 32×26 in. Bequest of George Gough Booth and Ellen Scripps Booth to The Cranbrook Foundation.

I can confidently say I now know much more about the painting, even if I still know frustratingly little about how it got to be here in the house.

I wasn’t familiar with artist Jessie Arms Botke (1883-1971), even though in her lifetime she was considered the greatest decorative painter in the American West. Botke was prolific, painting six days a week and sketching on Sundays. She had a predilection for white birds (including pelicans, geese, ducks, and cockatoos), and our white peacock is a motif she returned to many times in her career.

Jessie Arms was born in Chicago and studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Modeled after Paris ateliers, students at the Art Institute were responsible for setting their own goals and objectives and worked among many teachers and classes to develop their individual skills. She noted that the basic curriculum was “practice, practice, practice.” In the summer of 1903, she enrolled in John C. Johansen’s outdoor painting classes in Saugatuck, Michigan.

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John Johansen’s Summer Art Class at Saugatuck, Michigan, 1903. Courtesy of the Botke Family Archives/William A. Karges Fine Art.

After training in Chicago, she began producing wall decoration and book illustration. Taking a grand tour of Europe in 1909 provided even more artistic influence and inspiration. Following her year aboard, Botke applied to work at the Herter Looms in New York. She applied and was rejected, however, determined to work for the firm, she reapplied directly with Albert Herter. Hired on her second attempt, she produced tapestry cartoons and decorations for the firm. Discussing her experience working for Herter in 1949, Botke reflected:

“Thus began what was a most educational experience. Mr. Herter could have imported trained tapestry cartoonists from Europe, but he wanted to make American tapestry and he filled the studio with young artists just out of school, untainted by stereotyped traditions, with ideals and enthusiasm. We all had to learn the technique of making the tapestry cartoon by doing it. When we were stuck, we were free to go to the Metropolitan and study the tapestries there [and] try to figure out how they did it and apply our conclusions to our modern problems.”

I find this insight into the workshop of Albert Herter fascinating, as Herter Looms would produce its masterpiece, The Great Crusade tapestry, for Cranbrook House Library in 1918 (four years after Botke left).

At Herter Looms, Botke also produced decorative interior schemes and painted panel decorations. A commission for the dining room of actress Billie Burke (famous for her later role as Glinda the Good Witch) led Botke to a lifelong interest in birds. As she recalled, “Mr. Herter came to me with the scheme for the dining room, it was to be in shades of blue and green and he wanted a peacock frieze using the same colors, with white peacocks as notes of accent. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a white peacock and went up to the Bronx Zoo to find out, and they had one. It was love at first sight and has been ever since.”

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Reprint of one of seven paintings by Albert Herter in the Mural Room of the Hotel St. Francis, San Francisco, with border attributed to Jessie Arms Botke. 1912. Courtesy of Tavistock Books.

Botke was also an activist, marching up New York’s Fifth Avenue in 1911 and 1912 in the suffragette parade. She also strongly advocated for the rights and representation of women artists.

In late 1914, Botke left Herter Looms and New York, moving to Chicago to marry Cornelis Botke, a Dutch artist and architectural renderer. They settled first in Chicago and then California, where they moved to the artist community of Carmel in 1919. It was at her Carmel studio where Botke likely painted the peacock now in Cranbrook House, in 1926.

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Jessie Arms Botke and Cornelis Botke, n.d. Courtesy of Carmel Art Association.

In 1928, the couple relocated to Los Angeles and then Wheeler Canyon. They continued to paint, with Jessie’s income providing the bulk of the couple’s wealth. In her California home, Botke kept an aviary with peacocks “where I can enjoy and paint peacocks to my heart’s content.” Cornelis died of diabetes in 1954, and Jessie continued to paint until a stroke in 1967. She died in 1971, aged 88, with an enormous body of work and awards to her name.

So how did this Botke peacock come to Cranbrook? After looking in the object records we keep for all of Cranbrook’s art objects, as well as through photo albums, slide albums, record books, and receipt books, I cannot find any records pertaining to when the Botke painting was purchased! On the back of the painting is written the title of the work, the artist, and “Price 750.00.” There is also a stenciled “CF” for Cranbrook Foundation. This might mean the work was purchased by the Foundation for use at Cranbrook, or, more likely, was accessioned by the Foundation directly from Cranbrook House at the time of the George Booth’s death.

Although I’m currently unable to pin down who bought the painting and when, it was probably purchased by George Booth as a decorative piece for the home rather than part of the collection for Cranbrook Art Museum. This would explain why the painting isn’t in the Museum’s records (it is a Cultural Property, not a work in the Art Museum). Botke sold many of her pieces at Gump’s in San Francisco, from which Mr. Booth regularly purchased art, decorative objects, and furniture (and for which we have many receipts, none of which include the peacock).

Detail of The Mirror

In the 1980s, the painting was stored in the Cranbrook House attic. Was it moved there from one of the second-floor bedrooms, which were converted to offices in the 1970s? Sometime later, it was moved to Tower Garage, where the House and Gardens Auxiliary is located. In 2012, it was hung in its current location after the removal of the Cranbrook House vending machine.

I do love that the work features a peacock, as the bird was a favorite motif across Cranbrook and is found all across campus in gates, andirons, tapestries, and inlays. Although Saarinen (frustratingly) never wrote about why he loved the peacock, Jessie Botke did:

“My interest in birds was not sentimental, it was always what sort of pattern they made, and the white peacock was so appealing because it was a simple, but beautiful white form to be silhouetted against dark background, and the texture and pattern of the lacy tail broke the harshness of the white mass without losing the simplicity of the pattern.”

– Kevin Adkisson, 2016-2019 Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

For more information on Jessie Arms Botke, see Patricia Trenton and Deborah Solon, “Birds, Boughs, and Blossoms: Jessie Arms Botke, 1883-1971” (Los Angeles: William A. Karges Fine Art, 1995).

 

Welcoming Our Two Archives Assistants!

Prior to volunteering at Cranbrook Archives, I had been studying history and had become aware of the importance of primary sources for historiography, and the value of preserving heritage for the wider community. I began volunteering in 2012 which helped me decide to pursue a career in archives, and I began studying for the MA Archive Administration with Aberystwyth University in Wales (distance learning) in 2013. As part of a university assignment, I processed the HUB (Horizons-Upward Bound) Records, and am currently researching George Gough Booth’s interest in tapestries, which he purchased and commissioned for Cranbrook institutions and family members. I am interested in Booth’s involvement in the Arts and Crafts Movement, and the way in which the movement used medieval themes and techniques as a response to the social experience of the time. The Edgewater Looms, Herter Looms, and Morris & Co. tapestries are an ideal focus for exploring these ideas. I am looking forward to learning more about scanning/digitisation/digital preservation/cataloguing. The university modules emphasize access as the flip-side of preservation. I tend to have the latter foremost in my mind, so it will be great to see how the archive is used.

Laura MacNewman, Archives Assistant

Correspondence, George Gough Booth Papers, box 16, folder 11.

Correspondence, George Gough Booth Papers, box 16, folder 11.

As a graduate student mid-way through the Library and Information Science master’s program at Wayne State University, I’ve been given a healthy dose of libraries, archives, and the world of information over the past year. My interest in archives administration began while I was volunteering at the Cranbrook Archives last fall (2014). Here, I was introduced to the process of digitizing manuscripts, taking inventory of donated artist materials, and sifting through photographic negatives for future digital preservation and storage. I’ve also been working on the Cranbrook Archives’ Oral History Project. Much of my work at Cranbrook corresponds to my studies at Wayne State. In fact, this past week Head Archivist Leslie Edwards spoke about Cranbrook Archives’ oral history project in my oral histories course. As a new employee, I am keen to expand the number of digital images available online, help preserve the negative photograph collection, and understand what it really means to be an archivist.

Danae Dracht, Archives Assistant

From left: Carleton McClain, Henry S. Booth and Margaret Russell interviewing former Cranbrook School Headmaster, Harry Hoey at his home, 1964.

From left: Carleton McClain, Henry S. Booth and Margaret Russell interviewing former Cranbrook School Headmaster, Harry Hoey at his home, 1964.

Both Laura and Danae are working for us as part-time Archives Assistants, an entry-level archival position for graduate students. They will be working on a variety of projects during the coming year while gaining experience to propel them in their careers. Look for future blog posts from them in the upcoming months!

Cartoons and Crusades: Booth, Herter, and the Making of a Tapestry

If you’ve ever visited the Cranbrook House library, you’ve probably noticed The Great Crusade, a large tapestry hanging on the south wall.  Many people associate tapestries with medieval times, when they were used to keep drafty castles warm in winter.  Woven wall hangings were also popular as decorations, especially as a sign of wealth since the extensive labor and pricy materials made tapestries more expensive to produce than paintings.  While most of the tapestries that adorn Cranbrook House are fifteenth-century Flemish, The Great Crusade is a toddler; though it utilizes a historic technique, it was designed and produced in the early twentieth century.

Herter Looms, The Great Crusade, 1920.  Cranbrook Art Museum.

Herter Looms, The Great Crusade, 1920. Cranbrook Art Museum.

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