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:


The Life of Otis Kaye - Notes for a Future Biographer

by James M. Bradburne and Geraldine Banks


Let's start at the beginning. Kaye, and probably even Otis, were only the names by which the artist was known later in life to his family and friends -- his German baptismal name is unknown. This makes writing Kaye's biography a challenge. Kaye's father, Werner Kaye (b.1850? - d.1903), is said to have immigrated to Illinois from Dresden in the early 1880s and married a Czech woman, Freda Kozlik (b.1865? - d.1915?). Werner's surname was also not Kaye; his baptismal surname is unknown. Like many immigrants, Werner simplified his name when he arrived in America, and, like many immigrants, he did not formally register the change of name.[1] Werner and Freda returned to Dresden where Otis was born in 1885, and returned to America in 1888, to Nahma, Michigan.[2] It is said that Werner had a lumber business there that prospered, where Werner and his partner were subcontractors. Nahma, north of Escanaba and near the Hiawatha National Forest in northern Michigan, was a company town founded by the Bay De Noquet Lumber Company in 1881. At the peak of the lumber industry 800 people lived in the town and 1500 men were employed at the mill and in the lumber camps.[3] In 1903, Werner Kaye died in a mill accident, although an extensive search has not turned up the death certificate. His wife sold their share of the business to his partner who suggested that the eighteen-year-old Otis study engineering rather than work in the mills because of his drafting skills. None of Kaye's childhood artwork exists. The Kayes left Nahma, stopped in Chicago, then moved to New York City for a brief time.

Kaye and his mother returned to Germany sometime around 1904, where they presumably found support from Werner's family. In Germany it is assumed Otis studied engineering, possibly at Dresden's famous Gewerbeschule (Technical University), where he learned to be a technical draftsman, engineer and engraver. In 1910 Otis married Alma Goldstein (1886 - 1937), a Jewish girl from Munich. According to the family, Alma's parents were wealthy business people, in banking and gems, and Alma was attractive, well educated, opinionated, and had a beautiful voice. Alma and Otis shared a love for classical music and in later life he listened to it constantly as he painted. They had two children, Freda (named after his mother) in 1911 and Oskar (possibly after himself) in 1913.

Up to this point, there is almost no documentation to confirm the simplest facts of Kaye's life: no birth certificate, no record of entry into America, no record of his father's death, no trace of his time in New York, where he may or may not have studied art, no trace of his return to Germany, no university degree, no marriage certificate. While perplexing, this in itself is not exceptional given the sporadic nature of data collection in late 19th-century America. As early as 1815 Germans leaving for America had to register to ensure they were not avoiding military service, but the lack of Kaye's father's surname makes research difficult. Passports were not required of American citizens until 1941 (with the exception of the brief period from 1918 to 1921), foreign names were often changed or mis-spelled, and the regular US census, although thorough, was not a model of accuracy when it came to family names. So when it comes to Otis Kaye, with the exception of knowing that he was the son of Freda Kozlik, the elder sister of Anna Kozlik who later would marry Paul Bancak, even the rough contours of his formative years are highly speculative. Otis Kaye starts to come into focus only when he returns to America, presumably with his wife Alma and two young children.

Probably sometime after the end of the First World War in late 1918 the Kayes returned to America with their two young children, now around seven and five years old. Although America only entered the war in 1917 it would have been difficult during the war given the dangers to trans-Atlantic travel and the quota on German immigration. The family moved to Philadelphia, then an important center for engineering in the US, where Otis was able to find engineering work and profited from investing his wife's money in the active stock market of the 1920s. They visited Chicago periodically, and a number of cityscapes in gouache -- some dated -- remain.[4] These, along with several small money trompe l'oeils and a sketchbook from the Philadelphia period, allow us to fix Otis Kaye in time and space for the first time.

In the 1920s Kaye began painting small trompe l'oeil oils of currency for his own amusement, money trompe l'oeil having been made illegal in 1909. He included puns and literary devices, and used the currency's faces to provide metaphorical comments on the state of the country. Possibly influenced by painters in Philadelphia, Kaye at first followed existing trompe l'oeil examples, which had been made popular in the late 19th century by artists such as William Harnett, John Haberle, John Frederick Peto and N.A. Brooks.[5] Their most famous works were widely diffused in the form of chromolithographs, and were known well before Edith Halpert's rediscovery of Harnett in 1935, which marked a revival of interest in the genre. The first signed work by Otis Kaye, Hidden Assets (I), is dated 1920. For the next fifty years Kaye's paintings are a major source of biographical information. Although many of Kaye's works are undated, the bills and coins shown, as well as numerous other details, provide details about the artist's own life. In 1929 Kaye lost all of their savings, borrowed in part from Alma's family, which had been invested almost entirely in the stock market. His trompe l'oeil oil entitled Holding the Bag from the 1930s includes a bank form with the following information: Otis Kaye, Dec. 2, 1929, Your account is closed. $102,635.12 Due IMM Utility Securities Company, 230 S. LaSalle St. Chicago. The amount, though possibly exaggerated, suggests the enormity of his loss, and many of Kaye's later paintings specifically document the impact of the 1929 stock market crash on his life.

[Figure 1. Holding the Bag c. 1930, #133]



While living in Philadelphia, Otis and his family visited the Bancak (Banks) family in Chicago periodically, Anna Kozlik (1882 - 1939) -- Freda's older sister -- having married Paul Bancak (1873 - 1913) in 1905 and given birth to their son, Paul Banks II three years later.[6] Alma also had a cousin in Chicago, Margot Goldstein, who owned a small jewellery shop in the city at 522 South Michigan Avenue.

In the late 1920s Kaye lost his job in Philadelphia and may have worked for a while in Detroit before moving with his family to Chicago where they found support from the Banks family. The Kayes survived on Otis's part time work in the city and thanks to the cheap rent from his relatives on Ruble Street.[7] His cousin Paul Banks II (1908 - 1967), twenty three years younger than Kaye, was beginning a career in engineering, and provided Kaye with information on job opportunities. Paul Banks III (1935 - ) remembers that his father attended Lewis Institute (later the Illinois Institute of Technology, IIT), where he graduated in the early 1930s.[8] In Chicago the Kayes also formed a bond with Alma's cousin Margot Goldstein. They felt a close connection with Paul II's wife, Bessie Hoffman Banks (1905 - 2007) whom Paul married in 1931, because Bessie was also German; however, they were living in a predominantly Czech Catholic family and neighbourhood. The Banks family was to play a fundamental role in Kaye's life, and much of what we know about Otis Kaye as an artist and as a person is based on the memories of Banks family members: Paul Banks II, who assumed the responsibility of preserving Kaye's legacy, his wife Bessie Hoffman, and their son, Paul Banks III and his wife Geraldine Banks.

According to family recollections, Otis and Alma had different ideas about religion, not surprising given Kaye's scepticism and Alma's Jewish roots. Alma was also unhappy with their frugal lifestyle. With their savings gone, Otis, who was working as an engineer part time making $25/week, could only provide for the bare essentials, with no extra funds for the children's education. Alma was equally disappointed with the decision Otis made in 1930, following the market collapse the year before, to spend more and more of his free time painting. By 1932 Kaye was 47, Alma 46, Freda 21, and Oskar 19. Alma, increasingly isolated and unhappy, decided to return to Germany with the children for an arranged marriage for Freda, while Kaye stayed in Chicago. Alma returned to America briefly in 1933 or 1934, but she and Kaye soon officially separated, and sometime after 1935 Alma returned to Germany to live with her family and children. [9] Tragically, Alma and Freda were killed in an accident in 1937, although no documentation of the incident has been found. The same year Kaye went to Munich to try to convince Oskar to return to America, but Oskar decided to stay with the Goldstein family. Otis sent a letter from Munich to Paul II and Bessie: 37 Munchen Freitag 8:20 AM. Sold 2 paintings ($l and $5 bills with puns) to Mr. Kisselman.[10] These were the only two money paintings Kaye ever sold. [11]

From his increasingly extensive output, Kaye clearly spent all his free time drawing and painting, mostly trompe l'oeil compositions featuring money -- a central theme of his life's work. He painted whenever he could, on whatever material he could find -- wood from old discarded furniture was often cheaper than canvas. With time he created larger, more detailed compositions on increasingly complex social and historical themes, often taking contemporary events as a starting point. Kaye was also doing etchings and remained very aware of contemporary artists including Burchfield, Benton, Browne, Curry, Hurd, Soyer and Wood, about whom he kept and annotated Life Magazine articles, as well as reports of the 1937 Carnegie Show and the Frick Collection. [12]

During the Second World War, Kaye along with Paul Banks II and another engineer with connections in Washington, Charles Ashe, formed the civil engineering firm of JJ Byllesby & Co. at 14 S. LaSalle St. in Chicago (perhaps an allusion to H.M Byllesby & Company, the Chicago-based engineering firm and one of the large utility holding-companies of the pre-Depression era).[13] They had minor military contracts and when he was ten years old, Paul III sometimes cleaned the Byllesby offices on Saturdays for 35 cents. He remembers seeing blueprints for gyroscopes used in torpedoes that Byllesby developed, and pistols with red stars on the handgrips for Russia. Apparently Byllesby was successful, due in part to the work of Ashe, although neither he nor his wife were well-regarded by his two associates. [14]

Otis Kaye was a frequent visitor at the Banks home at 7729 S. Seeley on the southside of Chicago when Paul and he were in business together. [15] Three engineers, Otis, Paul II and "Toddy" J. Toman, a chemist, would meet there and discuss philosophy, science, and government, often complaining of rampant institutional corruption. Kaye continued to copy the work of artists he admired -- a gridded clipping from this period of Gainsborough's Blue Boy bears witness to his practice.

[Figure 2. Life Magazine gridded illustration of Gainsborough's Blue Boy]

His trompe l'oeil paintings of the 1940s became independent from the earlier American trompe l'oeil masters such as Harnett and Haberle, and he now only used other artists' paintings as references when he wanted to make a humorous or ironic point. Kaye's range of figurative imagery in other media -- watercolor, etching, pastels -- takes him beyond most trompe l'oeil practitioners of the time. During this period Kaye's cousin and partner's surname often figures in Kaye's obsessive punning, and Kaye repeatedly uses the fictional name "P. J. Sknab" in the signatures on his banknotes in recognition of the ways in which the Banks family supported him. [16]

Kaye lived at various times in Tremont, Illinois, about a three-hour drive southwest of Chicago, where Bessie Banks's mother Edith Hoffman and Bessie's three brothers Ed, Albert and Frederic (Fritz) lived in a farmhouse. Here Kaye had the opportunity to work alongside Fritz Hoffman, an accomplished printer. Kaye used the engraving skills he presumably learned in Germany in his youth to meticulously copy Rembrandt, Dürer, Goya, Whistler, the Impressionists and Picasso from editions of the artists' work, and he often added his own wry visual twists in gouache. In most cases Kaye's copy is the exact size of the original, as they were made from publications of masterpieces of engravings, which Kaye then gridded (he never used photo-mechanical methods to create his etchings). He copied directly in reverse onto the metal or copper plates from which the prints were then pulled. Assistance was provided by Hoffman, although his facility suggests Kaye had been familiar with the technique much earlier than 1925, the year of his earliest dated etching, Woman with Mirror.

[Figure 3. Woman with a Mirror 1925 (engraving) E178]

[Figure 4. Chalk figure studies]

Under the supervision of an exacting, demanding and often irrascible Kaye, Hoffman would pull a print from the inked plate. Kaye used a copper plate for copying Rembrandt's The Stoning of St. Stephen and cheaper zinc plates for copying Dürer's Adam and Eve.

[Figure 5. Adam and Eve, after Dürer 1949 (engraving) E222]

Kaye is such an expert engraver that even when compared to the originals, a trained eye is hard pressed to spot the differences. After the war Kaye and Banks sold JJ Byllesby, although they remained close friends until Banks's death in 1967. Kaye now devoted most of his time to painting, drawing and etching and stored his paintings in the Banks's garage, standing them in rows, wrapped in old sheets and newspapers taped tightly and in boxes. He frequented art studios in Hyde Park, and Paul Banks III recalls that one Sunday in the 1950s on their way to the Museum of Science and Industry, Kaye told Paul II to turn into a street where there were bookshops, art supply stores and studios. He pointed out some spots under a bridge on the Midway near the museum where he had worked with models. Now in his sixties, Kaye remarked that although the instructors had nothing they could teach him, working with the models was worthwhile, and -- ever the sensitive artist -- that there were some "beauties" among them. During this time Kaye was also experimenting with watercolor nudes, clearly painted from life. Some are dated and include the model's name, such as Mich. Dunes, Laura, 1950.

[Figure 6 Mich. Dunes, Laura, 1950]

For larger works Kaye sometimes used the art facilities at St. Procopius College where a sister of Paul Banks II, Sister Laurencia, lived, to whom he had given several paintings, including a Crucifixion.

[Figure 7 Crucifixion]

Since the 1930s, Kaye had always lived very cheaply, although for a while he had some money from the sale of JJ Byllesby. He did consulting, got room and board from relatives, and did odd jobs for them, as he was not only a trained engineer but a competent handyman. He travelled cheaply in Eddy Hoffman's truck. After he lost his family in 1937, he seems to have been totally absorbed by art, witnessed by the range and number of his works. After the war he lived and worked in Chicago, Indiana and Tremont. He travelled west and wrote about it enthusiastically, made trips to Nahma and to New York. At the beginning of the 1960s, Paul II and Kaye took some of the landscapes and still life paintings that were stored in the Seeley Avenue garage to Margot Goldstein, Alma's cousin, who had a small gallery in downtown Chicago. Established in 1945, the La Borie Gallery was owned by Margot and her nephew Henri La Borie. Since it was still technically illegal to depict money, it was decided not to offer the money trompe l'oeil for sale, and in the end they were able to sell only a very few works.

[Figure 8. Landscape with mountains]

Kaye, now in his seventies and still in robust health, frequently stayed in Dyer, Indiana with Ada Hoffman (Bessie's sister) and her husband Frank Riordan, who was a carpenter. Otis gave Ada some landscapes and pastels and for Frank he created designs for small home engineering projects. Not recognising the fragility of the pastel medium, Ada once inadvertently dusted a still life into oblivion. In 1966 Kaye promised the large oil painting Heart of the Matter -- which makes direct reference to Rembrandt's Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer -- to Paul Banks III [cat. no. 32] as a wedding gift, along with his drafting tools. Kaye was not present at the wedding but offered the gifts later. Kaye presumably saw the Rembrandt in Chicago, where it was shown at the Art Institute Century of Progress in 1933, although he could have also seen it in New York in 1961 when it was shown at the Metropolitan Museum.

Throughout his life Kaye remained obsessed with trompe l'oeil currency and continued to depict currency in every medium. The money paintings became increasingly complex and reflect Kaye's ideas on American life and major social issues. He also painted many landscapes in the Tremont, Illinois area: farm scenes with an artist -- probably himself -- in the corner of the composition, sometimes sketching and often wearing a signature red shirt. He also did lakeshore watercolors in Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin and made a sketchbook during his travels in the American West. He did portrait sketches that later appeared in his etchings and paintings, and continued to experiment with pastels in drawings that include hot dogs and beer mugs along with his trademark currency. As his eyesight began to fail in his eighties Kaye took longer to create his highly detailed trompe l'oeil oil paintings but continued to work in watercolor and pastel, using oils for large landscapes. One rural scene includes a blind man sitting under a tree, probably a self-reference.

[Figure 9. Detail from landscape showing blind Kaye in corner]

Paul Banks II passed away in 1967, when Kaye was 82, and Kaye sent a note of condolence to Bessie Hoffman in which he speaks of plans to return to Germany.[17] Kaye did not return to Chicago, but sometime after 1969 he acted on his long-standing plan to travel to Germany, with the idea of returning to Dresden, in the then Warsaw-pact German Democratic Republic (East Germany), a plan he had formulated before Paul Banks II's death.[18] In 1975 Bessie Hoffman got word from the Goldstein family that he had died in Germany, at the age of 89 or 90, having fulfilled his wish to return to the country of his birth. [19] We do not know if Kaye ever made it to Dresden.



As early as the 1950s Kaye and Paul Banks II brought the etchings and plates from Tremont to Paul II's basement on Seeley Avenue. Many were water damaged. There were also boxes of Life Magazine with annotations by Kaye on various topics including the work of other artists. There were books and miscellaneous papers in addition to the artwork. Most of Kaye's personal effects were later discarded because of mildew. The very few surviving letters and notebook pages provide the only remaining autograph documentation of Otis Kaye's life. Paul Banks II was aware of the uniqueness of all of Kaye's paintings and believed some day they would be valued, if not as art, at least for their technical mastery, and he made a conscientious effort to preserve them and advised his son of the need to care for them. Kaye's paintings were moved from the Banks's home garage on Seeley Avenue in Chicago to Oak Lawn storage when Bessie Hoffman moved to the suburbs. Watercolours, pastels, oil paintings and etchings and plates were stored in a large private commercial storage shed and in the homes of Bessie Hoffman and Paul Banks III, who were both living in Oak Lawn, Illinois. Family members, for the most part, did not hang the money paintings, as they were not considered sufficiently decorative. Some said they were strange, putting too much emphasis on money. As for the nudes, they wanted no part of them at all, calling them shameful. When Otis Kaye's death was reported, the Banks family became the stewards of Kaye's entire legacy.

1 Otis Kaye to Paul Banks 24 May 1944: "And you were right to push him to make the name change legal. I wish my father had done it." MSS, Archive, Otis Kaye Estate (Appendix XX p.XX).

2 According to family accounts Otis Kaye was not born in Nahma, Michigan, as is stated in several accounts but was probably raised there. The family's account of Kaye's childhood in Nahma is given credence by the fact that Otis went back up there to see the town in 1949 and that he saved a Life magazine article about the town. Nahma receipt, miscellany 1949 MSS, Archive, Otis Kaye Estate (Appendix XX p.XX).

3 Nahma is north of Escanaba and near the Hiawatha National Forest. At the peak of the lumber industry in the late 1800s over 800 people lived in the town and 1500 men were employed at the mill and in the lumber camps. In Sept. 1951 Big Bay de Noc sold the entire town, all of its buildings, to American Playground Device Co. for $250,000.

4 Some of the gouache Chicago city scenes are dated 1928, others are not dated, and therefore could have been done either when Kaye visited Chicago or when he settled on Ruble Street.

5 Kaye's work Breakout, 1930, contains references to Haberle, Harnett and Peto.

6 There may also have been a third Kozlik sister, Vera, born circa 1892.

7 In the 1950s the city of Chicago began work on the Dan Ryan Expressway that cut through the old Ruble Street neighbourhood, and many of the houses were torn down. The houses on the east side of the street still exist but the expressway runs over the west side where Kaye once lived.

8 Founded in 1895, Lewis Institute was the first institution to provide adult education programs, offering courses in engineering, sciences, and technology.

9 Kaye's painting Amor vincit omnia (1950) includes an envelope from A. Goldstein, 1908 Union St. Chicago Ill to Otis Kaye c/o Frank Becker, PO Box 36, Tremont, Ill The envelope includes a poem: "Roses are red, violets are blue, lost your money. Lost me too" and Alma's photo. Significantly the postmark is Jun1, 6:30PM 1937 ILL.

10 MSS, Archive, Otis Kaye Estate (Appendix XX p.XX).

11 In 1998 two fake Kaye paintings were authenticated by Bruce Chambers as the paintings Kaye sold in Germany. Kaye's description of his paintings of a one dollar bill and a five dollar bill in his letter of 1937 proves that the trompe l'oeil paintings in question are false. These two fakes are nevertheless currently circulating in Europe as Kaye originals (Fifty Dollar Bill and One Hundred Deutschmark Note).

12 Several magazines with Kaye's annotations still belong to the Banks family: see Appendix XX p.XX.

13 The records from the 1940s appear to have been have been destroyed. Paul Banks III remembers talking about JJ Byllesby & Co. and seeing printed stationery. A handwritten draft letter written by Otis Kaye 6-4-42 lists Paul Banks as President and Otis Kaye as consulting engineer: MSS, Archive, Otis Kaye Estate (Appendix XX p.XX).

14 A letter from Kaye to Paul Banks II 22 May 1944 1944 is not highly complimentary to Ashe and his wife: MSS, Archive, Otis Kaye Estate (Appendix XX p.XX).

15 Paul Banks II moved his family from their home on Ruble Street to a house on the south side of Chicago at 7729 S. Seeley Avenue after severing ties with his family due to a dispute about inheritance.

16 Kaye often refers to Paul Banks II as "Sknab" in letters: MSS, Archive, Otis Kaye Estate (Appendix XX p.XX).

17 Otis Kaye to Bessie Hoffman Banks 29 May 1967: MSS, Archive, Otis Kaye Estate (Appendix XX p.XX).

18 An undated letter written to Paul and Bessie Hoffman mentions his intention to "settle" in Dresden: MSS, Archive, Otis Kaye Estate (Appendix XX p.XX).

19 Letter: June 19, 1975 Dear Mrs. Banks, It may be of interest to you that my relatives in Europe have recently informed me of the demise of Otis Kaye. That is all the information I have at this time. Sincerely, Margot Goldstein. MS, Archive, Otis Kaye Estate (Appendix XX p.XX).

About the authors

Geraldine Banks is Research Coordinator for the Otis Kaye Family Trust. For two decades Banks has been preparing a catalogue raisonné of Kaye's oil paintings, etchings, watercolors, pastels and drawings. She has graduate degrees in Education and was recognized by the Golden Apple Foundation for Excellence in Teaching and for her book All of Us Together (Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1994).

Dr. James M. Bradburne, Director General, Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, Italy, is an architect, designer and museologist educated in Canada and England, graduating in architecture with the Architectural Association and completing his doctorate in museology at the University of Amsterdam. Over the past thirty years he has produced exhibitions and organized research projects and conferences for UNESCO, national governments, private foundations and museums in many parts of the world.


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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