Editor's note: The following essay was published in Resource Library on March 18, 2015 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the New Britain Museum of American Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Introduction for Otis Kaye Catalog

by Douglas Hyland


For thousands of years, artists have aspired to capture two dimensionally what nature has created in the round. The goal is to give life to an inanimate object. People have been entranced by paintings that trick the eye since the very dawn of civilization. Related by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, the rivalry between two competing Greek masters of the 5th century BCE, Zeuxis and Parrhasius, illustrates how keenly they vied to establish pre-eminence in the genre of still life painting. Observers saw birds pecking at fruit painted by Zeuxis and were amused to realize the deception had succeeded so convincingly. But, when Zeuxis told Parrhasius to part the curtain obscuring his still life, Zeuxis was compelled to cede the victory to Parrhasius because the cloth was itself an illusion and while one artist had fooled a few birds, the other had tricked a human being.

Since its founding in 1903, the New Britain Museum of American Art consistently has acquired significant trompe l'oeil paintings for our permanent collection, among them examples by Raphaelle Peale, Frederick John Peto, William Harnett, Ken Davies, and dozens of others. The Museum also has mounted exhibitions which have championed the genre. The pioneering art historian Alfred Frankenstein, who devoted his expertise to uncovering little known practitioners, collaborated with my predecessors over many years. Founding director Sanford Low was one of the first to discover and display major examples by Connecticut artist John Haberle; when he acquired Time and Eternity, in 1952, Low was given the artist's watch and rosary beads by Haberle's grateful daughter, who was overjoyed that her father's genius would be appreciated at the oldest museum of American art in the nation. In 2009, the Museum mounted a Haberle retrospective, which traveled to the Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine.

In 2004, the New Britain Museum assembled 59 trompe l'oeil paintings and sculptures in what proved to be one of our most enduringly popular shows, and in 2008 we recognized the extraordinary skill of Michael Theise (b. 1959), another Connecticut artist who continues the venerable tradition of Zeuxis and Parrhasius.

Thus, we were readily receptive to Geraldine Banks, who is in charge of the Otis Kaye estate, and James M. Bradburne, Director General, Palazzo Strozzi, when they communicated their wish to work with the Museum on the first major museum exhibition and catalogue devoted to Otis Kaye, a brilliant trompe l'oeil artist. We are very proud to own Win, Place, Show (1958), by Kaye, a gift from the Otis Kaye estate. The painting hangs next to works by Peale, Peto, Haberle, Harnett, and others. Kaye deserves to be better known because his mastery of the art form, both in terms of technique and allegorical complexity, represents both innovation and fulfilment of his goal to add yet another chapter to a venerable tradition.

It goes without saying that this project is the result of years of study and devotion on the part of Geraldine Banks and James M. Bradburne, who have shepherded all aspects from the start. I am most appreciative. The essay written by Mark D. Mitchell, Associate Curator of American Art and Manager of the Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, "Hidden in Plain Sight: Otis Kaye and Trompe l'Oeil in America," places Kaye within the context of American art. All the staff- Stacy Cerullo, Anna Rogulina, Emily Misencik, John Urgo, Keith Gervase, Melissa Nardiello, Nick Artymiak, Claudia Thesing, Amanda Shuman, Jenna Lucas, Lacy Gillette, Tom Bell, Georgia Porteous, Melanie Carr, Terrance Regan, Sarah Rohlfing, Margaret Vaughan, Linda Mare, Heather Whitehouse, Katy Matsuzaki, and Michael Smith- have embraced Otis Kaye with enthusiasm and the results of their work are impressive. I would also like to thank Pamela Barr and Devorah Block for their editorial skills.

Of course, we are dependent on the many private collectors- Ron Cordover, Walter and Lucille Rubin, Richard Manoogian, Frank Hevrdejs, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and the Sheldon Museum, University of Nebraska- for their loans. Above all, I want to thank Ron Cordover for his generous contribution through the Cordover Family Foundation, which has allowed us to publish such an excellent monograph on Kaye with contributions by Geraldine Banks, James M. Bradburne, and Mark D. Mitchell, which are included in the catalog, Otis Kaye: Money, Mastery, and Mystery. This publication consists not only of the insights of the contributors, but also extensive interpretive explanations of many of his masterpieces. It will be distributed by the University of New England Press. Published for the first time is a complete list of his known oil paintings, mixed media works, etchings and engravings, drawings, watercolors, and pastels. Future researchers will benefit from the letters, transcriptions, and magazine annotations included in the appendices. Additional funding has been received from the David T. Langrock Foundation, which has supported now several of our important scholarly monographs.

Mystery about his origins and other aspects of his life and career has surrounded Otis Kaye since he first attracted notice. I am glad now that some of these questions have been answered. However, most importantly, with this exhibition and catalog we may feast our eyes on some of the most exquisitely beautiful and complex trompe l'oeil paintings ever created in this country.

About the author

Douglas Hyland is Director, New Britain Museum of American Art.


About the exhibition

The New Britain Museum of American Art is presenting a retrospective exhibition of artist Otis Kaye (1885-1974), entitled, Otis Kaye: Money, Mystery, and Mastery on view from January 17, 2015 - May 10, 2015. The exhibition will display Kaye's mastery of trompe l'oeil technique and invites the viewer to ponder and explore the mystery that surrounds Kaye and his work. The French term trompe l'oeil translates to "fools the eye," as the genre is defined as an artistic technique that creates the illusion of objects that seem to break out of the picture plane.

Thirty-four oil paintings, watercolors, pastel works, and etchings are accompanied by various materials from the Otis Kaye Archive and Trust. Visitors are asked to uncover the riddles within Kaye's works and life. Although visitors are presented with Kaye's trompe l'oeil paintings, almost no record of the artist himself exists. Kaye did not exhibit or sell any of his paintings during his lifetime, but rather gave his work to family and friends. Kaye's paintings are steeped in mystery, containing currency, letters, and other symbolic items that allude to politics, gambling, and the economic turmoil in 20th century. The Museum invites viewers to help answer the question of who was Otis Kaye by offering interpretations of the artworks and ideas about the artist's origins.

Douglas Hyland, Director of the New Britain Museum of American Art, states, "Among the most compelling genres of American Art is trompe l'oeil and after a hundred year tradition of American paintings, including John Haberle, John Pieto, and dozens of other masters, this art form reaches a new high with the extraordinary canvases of Otis Kaye. In terms of his technical skills and sophistication, Otis Kaye has no equal. It is astonishing to contemplate the complexity of his multiple layered allusions."

The works featured in the retrospective are some of Kaye's most masterful creations, generously loaned from various private collections and the Otis Kaye Archive and Trust. James M. Bradburne, Director General of the Palazzo Strozzi in Italy, and Geraldine Banks, Research Coordinator for the Otis Kaye Family Trust, have worked tirelessly to help produce this expansive retrospective. Ron Cordover's generous contribution through the Cordover Family Foundation has allowed the Museum to produce a fully illustrated catalogue with contributions by James M. Bradburne, Mark D. Mitchell, Associate Curator of American Art and Manager of the Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Geraldine Banks.


Resource Library editor's note

The above essay was published in Resource Library on March 18, 2015 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art, granted to TFAO on March 18, 2015.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Claudia Thesing and Emily Misencik, New Britain Museum of American Art for their help concerning permission for publishing the above essay..

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