Jessie Arms Botke was widely known for her decorative paintings that featured ornate birds in lush settings. Linked to California Impressionism, her work was valued for its attention to detail, rich colors, and metallic-leaf backgrounds. Her murals and tapestry designs also drew acclaim.
Botke was born in Chicago in 1883, and studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She was also a pupil of John Johanson and Charles Woodbury, and exhibited her work for the first time at the Art Institute’s American Annual in 1904. The Art Institute continued to show her work consistently over the years. In 1909 she went on a grand tour of Europe, and studied the Old Masters while taking in modern art.
Botke moved to New York City, where she worked for the design and textile firm Herter Looms. She prepared tapestry cartoons, and studied Japanese and Chinese art while painting decorative patterns on furniture. An assignment to paint a peacock frieze led her to make a research trip to the Bronx Zoo, and she became captivated by the birds there. Botke returned to Chicago, and went on to feature blue and white peacocks prominently in her work. Beyond her focus on birds, Botke retained an interest in medieval and renaissance tapestries, as well as elements of Japanese design and composition.
In Chicago, Botke and her husband Cornelius, a painter and etcher, were part of the Fifty-seventh Street art colony in Hyde Park. She received a high-profile commission to produce murals in the Ida Noyes Theater at the University of Chicago, which were well received by critics. The couple traveled west in 1927, immersing themselves in the Carmel, California, art colony. They later settled on a ranch near Santa Paula, where Botke remained until her death in 1971. She made regular trips to zoos in major American and European cities, as well as Catalina Island, to study birds. In Santa Paula, she also established her own aviary complete with blue peacocks, silver and golden pheasants, pigeons, and ducks.
During her lifetime, Botke’s work was exhibited at major institutions, including the National Academy of Design, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Palace of the Legion in San Francisco. She was an active member of the California Watercolor Society, the California Art Club, the National Association of Women Artists, and the Foundation of Western Artists.
Written by Zenobia Grant Wingate