Few artists can develop a style of their own and at the same time be accepted as part of a group of artists or art movement. Yet, Jessie Hazel Arms Botke did just that. She was a woman artist at a time when the art world was dominated by men. She was strong and outspoken, yet much of her work was gentle and demure. Today, Botke is recognized as an influential part of the California School of Impressionism, but a large body of her work doesn’t exactly fit that category. Through her paintings, she created her own unique world filled with peace, harmony, and beauty.
Jessie Hazel Arms was born in Chicago on May 27, 1883. Her parents were Martha Cornell and William Aldis Arms, both of English descent. Her father’s family roots date back to 1630 Colonial America as among the earliest settlers in Massachusetts.
After graduating from Lakeview High School, Jessie Arms received a scholarship to Chicago University, but at age nineteen chose to attend the Art Institute of Chicago. At the Institute, she studied under portrait, landscape, and interior scene painter John C. Johansen (1876-1964) who was trained under American academician Frank Duveneck (1848-1919). Johansen also studied in Paris at the Académie Julian and James Whistler’s Académie Carmen. Arms also took a summer class in Ogunquit, Maine where she studied with plein-air artist Charles Herbert Woodbury (1864-1940) who had the distinction of teaching more than 4,000 students, in addition to being the youngest artist ever elected to the Boston Art Club and a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The lure of the West attracted Jessie Arms when in 1906 the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway offered her a round-trip passage to Arizona and California in exchange for paintings representing the West. She created scenes depicting Native American life and the California missions. Among the paintings that the Railroad acquired were Hopi Indian Life and California Missions for reproduction purposes to promote commercial travel to the West. Her recently completed western genre paintings were included in one of the annual exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago Museum. In 1909 she traveled to Europe for three months with her mother and a fellow student, Dudley Crafts Watson, who organized a group to take the Grand Tour. When Jessie returned to Chicago she was aesthetically inspired.
In 1911 Jessie Arms moved to New York City where she was hired by artist Albert Herter (1871-1950) to work in his designing firm, and it was here that she began painting images of birds and became a specialist in tapestry cartoons. Albert Herter had studied painting at the Art Students League in New York and at the Académie Julian in Paris under Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921). While in Paris Herter met fellow American artist Adele McGinnis (1869-1946) and the couple were married in 1893. Together, Albert and Adele founded Herter Looms in 1909, a tapestry and textile design and manufacturing firm that specialized in elegant patterns for those with refined taste and financial means. To a certain degree, Albert Herter was following in his father’s footsteps. His father Christian Herter (1839-1883) and uncle Gustave Herter (1830-1898) were founders of Herter Brothers, the foremost cabinet-making, upholstery manufacturing, and interior designing firm of La Belle Époque and the early Gilded Age, operating from 1864 to 1906.
In New York, Arms was independent and outspoken. In 1911 and 1912 she marched up Fifth Avenue passionately demonstrating in the women’s suffragette parade for the right to vote. Her work ethic was also strong. She was a Christian Scientist who believed in the teaching that she is “entitled to express energy, vitality, and joy.”
At Herter Looms, Jessie Arms was immersed in French academic painting skills and the burgeoning Art Deco style. Additionally, she was inspired by Japonism, the aesthetics of incorporating Japanese art, primarily Japanese screens (byobu) and woodblock prints from the Edo period (1615-1868), into European design. Many of these types of screens feature birds in nature with gold leaf backgrounds. Herter’s artists were given the task of creating a peacock frieze for the dining room of the famous Broadway star Billie Burke for her magnificent estate, renamed Burkeley Crest, located in Hastings-on-Hudson. Burke married the Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. of the Ziegfeld Follies in 1914, and later starred in numerous motion picture films, including Dinner at Eight (1931), Topper (1937), and Wizard of Oz (1939) in which she portrayed Glinda the Good Witch of the North.
Jessie Arms described how the Burke assignment was introduced: “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.” This is the point when she began her passion for birds and flora. In later years she was asked about her fascination for birds, and particularly for white peacocks. She explained, “…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. For a long time, I couldn’t get away from white and near white birds, geese, ducks, and finally cockatoos.”
While at Herter, Arms became a specialist in tapestry cartoons. Albert Herter recognized her particular skill at painting birds and in 1913 assigned her the project of painting all the birds for a commission from St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco to create seven murals for their dining hall. The mural project was titled Gifts of the Old World (1913-1914).
After completing the San Francisco project in 1914, Herter sent Arms to Santa Barbara to work on El Mirasol (The Sunflower). The original block of land for El Mirasol was purchased in 1904 by Albert Herter’s mother, Mary Herter, with the intent of building her home in a Mission Revival style, which Albert and Adele Herter decorated. After Mary Herter passed away in 1913, Albert inherited the estate and converted it into a resort-hotel named El Mirasol Hotel (it was re-dedicated in 1980 as Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens). Arms spent nearly one year on the project. On her return back east, while she stopped in Chicago to visit her parents, she met the Dutch-born artist, etcher, and block printer, Cornelis Botke (1887-1954). Jessie Arms continued studying and working with Albert Herter until 1915, the year she and Cornelis were married in Leonia, New Jersey on April 15.
Cornelis Botke had studied at the School of Applied Design in Haarlem and moved from Holland to Chicago in 1906 where he became an architectural draftsman, but longed to be a fine artist. The couple began their married life in Chicago, and within a few months, Jessie Arms Botke’s unique talent presented her with a mural commission from the Kellogg Company (1915) in Battle Creek, Michigan. Cornelis assisted on the project with his wife and the two discovered that they worked well together. In April 1916 their son and only child William Arms Botke was born. When William was one year old, they accepted a large mural project, The Masque of Youth (1918), this time for the University of Chicago, Ida Noyes Hall, the university’s second-floor theater, which took them nearly a year to complete. Mrs. Noyes was so delighted with their work that she tripled their pay. Jessie commented, “Though I got all the glory, Cornelis really did just as much as I did.”
In 1918 and 1919 Jessie exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York City, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1919, the Botkes resided briefly in Manitour, Colorado, then San Francisco, and settled in Carmel where they purchased a house. In Carmel, Cornelis taught at Carmel Arts and Crafts and the couple worked on major commissions together as well as their own fine art. In 1921 Jessie’s ability to work with gold metallics from her decorating days resulted in her creating perhaps her first oil and gilt painting, Peacock on Gold.
From 1923 to 1925 the couple traveled throughout Europe studying art, painting, and sketching. In 1929, the Botkes purchased a ten-acre ranch in Wheeler Canyon, California near Santa Paula. They eventually built two houses and converted the horse barn into their art studio. They also built several aviaries for Jessie’s collection of live peacocks and pheasants and called their ranch “Screaming Peacock Ranch.” Life at the ranch was productive for the Botkes. Aside from keeping busy with painting and etching, they also farmed and raised their son, and eventually, their grandchildren there.
Settling into the art community, Jessie Arms Botke became Secretary on the Board of Directors of the California Art Club (CAC) in 1929. Several of her paintings are recorded to have been exhibited with the club, including Dahouet and Bretagne at CAC’s headquarters at the Hollyhock House in Hollywood (August 31 – September 30, 1927); and in the CAC’s Gold Medal Exhibitions held at the Los Angeles Museum of Science, History, and Art in Exposition Park (now, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County), including White Herons (18th Gold Medal Exhibition, November 1927); Old Pelican (19th Gold Medal Exhibition, November 8 – December 16, 1928); Deep Sea Garden (20th Gold Medal Exhibition, November 8 – December 29, 1929); and Harlequinade (21st Gold Medal Exhibition. November 7 – December 31, 1930).
In the January 4, 1931 issue of the Los Angeles Times, art critic Arthur Millier described Jessie Arms Botke’s character as “ample, warm, motherly; her mind vigorous as a well-rooted oak, Rabelaisian chuckles in her throat.” The article also described the artist as “…a unique figure among American decorative painters. She paints panels filled with white peacocks, geese, pelicans and fish, with a rare combination of glowing imagination, exact and loving observation and meticulous craftsmanship.”
In addition to her ready models of birds at Screaming Peacock Ranch, Jessie Arms Botke made excursions down to the San Diego Zoo to do sketches of the rare birds. Just as in New York at the Bronx Zoo, she learned to utilize zoos as her source of living reference.
An article that appeared in the Oakland Tribune on December 31, 1933 encouraged people to visit Jessie Arms Botke’s exhibition of paintings held at Courvoisier Galleries in San Francsico, “They delight the eye; they give rest after the day's turmoil. …I suggest you drop in and view them [and] take yourself for a time out of the day’s difficulties. You will like well those two white peacocks perched among magnolia blossoms. The two geese, with [a] background of houses and hills, will shut off the noises of streets and soothe your nerves. And there are others, beautifully done, to give peace to mind. Don't forget, when you are there, to ask to see Mrs. Botke's portfolio of sketches. All her birds of the air and fishes of the sea are drawn from life.”
During the 1950s, as Jessie Arms Botke’s career flourished in demand, sadness came when on September 16, 1954 Cornelis Botke passed away from complications of acute Diabetes. The unique dynamics between the couple as husband and wife and as art partners cannot be overstated. They provided mutual career support as well as constructive criticism of each other’s work.
Jessie Arms Botke persevered and continued creating beautiful work. She held successful exhibitions in the important art centers of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. In Los Angeles she was represented by The Biltmore Galleries, in San Francisco, her work was shown at Gump’s Galleries, and in New York City she was represented by Grand Central Gallery. In 1937 eighteen of her new paintings of birds and flowers were exhibited at the Grand Central Gallery in New York City. As an artist, she reflected her times. She was one of the most celebrated decorative painters and muralists of the twentieth century. There is no other artist that equals her sense of bold two-dimensional design and accuracy in interpreting nature’s appeal in an elegant manner.
In addition to her involvement with the California Art Club, Jessie Arms Botke was a member of the Chicago Society of Artists, Chicago Society for Sanity in Art, Women Painters and Sculptors, California Water Color Society, American Watercolor Society, National Association of Women Artists, and Foundation of Western Art. Her works are held in important collections throughout the United States, including the Art Institute of Chicago; Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; Mills College, Oakland; The Irvine Museum; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and San Diego Museum. She
won numerous awards for her work, including high distinction from the Art Institute of Chicago. Jessie Arms Botke passed away in Santa Paula, California on October 1, 1971.
In creating her art, Jessie Arms Botke was bold and original. She explored various media and materials, including working with color woodcuts, gouaches, mural paintings, watercolors, oils, and she frequently combined gold and silver leaf in her backgrounds. Her most celebrated subjects depict various exotic birds in Edenic settings. In her works, Jessie Arms Botke had the ability to convey beauty, elegance, tranquility, and a sense of her own idea of paradise.
American Legacy Fine Arts
Daniela Ionescu, Director of California Art Club Library and History Research Center.
Birds, Boughs, and Blossoms by Patricia Trenton and Deborah Epstein Solon, published by William A. Karges Fine Art, Produced by Whitney Ganz, Los Angeles, circa 1995.
The Peacocks Are Gone, but Artist Staying Close to the Family Nest by David Kelly, Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2002.
Botke Paintings Go To New York Art Exhibition, Piru News, March 4, 1937.
Artist Studies Bird Life at San Diego Zoo, Coronado Citizen, May 8, 1941.
Collecting California: The Gardena High School Art Collection is on View Once Again, Southwest Art, September 17, 2019.