The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 23, Number 28, July 12, 2020, Article 6


While looking for other things this week I came across a great book I'd missed before on the work on trompe l'oeil artist Otis Kaye; I added it to my growing shelf of books on money artists such as William Harnett and J.S.G. Boggs. It's the catalog from a 2015 exhibit of Kaye's works at a museum in Connecticut. Here's an excerpt from a Wall Street Journal review. -Editor

D'-JIA-VU?' (1937), by Otis Kaye
D'-JIA-VU?' (1937), by Otis Kaye.

Otis Kaye—you've probably never heard of him. Even many art historians do not recognize his name. But “Otis Kaye: Money, Mystery, and Mastery,” a small exhibition here at the New Britain Museum of American Art, shows this eccentric artist, who sold only a few pictures in his lifetime (1885-1974), to be well worth knowing.

The exhibit heralds Kaye as a master of the still-life genre known as trompe l'oeil (which uses hyperrealistic images and shortened perspective to “fool the eye” into seeing the painted objects as real) and a less-successful practitioner of landscape and figurative art. Judging from the 34 works on view, though, there's a reason for that: Kaye seemed to be less interested in the latter kind of paintings. In contrast, he threw his heart into the meticulous, highly detailed, often autobiographical trompe l'oeil pictures, filling them with illusions and allusions. They are spiced with humor, too—sometimes silly, sometimes clever, usually sardonic.

Much about Kaye remains unknown. Even his birth name and that of his father, a German immigrant who settled in northern Michigan in the early 1880s, are uncertain. Around 1904, Kaye moved to Germany with his mother, studied engineering and draftsmanship, and then came back to the U.S., where he worked as an engineer, ending up in Illinois.

Sometime in the 1920s he began to paint, focusing on the subject that would course through virtually all of his output: money. At first, he emulated the great American trompe l'oeil painters of the 19th century, such as William Harnett and John Frederick Peto, making comparatively simple compositions of paper money and coins.

But as his own fortunes changed, Kaye created more complex, layered works that convey his thoughts on the stock market, luck, morality, corruption and capitalism. The title of one work, from 1940, says it all: “Face It, Money Talks.”

Money talks loudest, perhaps, in Kaye's “D'-JIA-VU?” (1937), the painting that first interested James M. Bradburne, the departing director of the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, who curated this exhibition with Geraldine Banks, research coordinator for the Otis Kaye Family Trust. In 2010, the Palazzo Strozzi presented “Art and Illusion,” a survey of trompe l'oeil from antiquity to the present that included “D'-JIA-VU?” It set Mr. Bradburne “on the trail” of Kaye.

Though Kaye is an unrestrained jokester, he is a learned one—dropping in ancient coins and early American ones as well as common nickels and pennies. “Seasons Greetings II” refers to “C. Dickens” and includes a letter from Solomon to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the biblical characters saved from a fiery death by an angel. Nearly every painting is loaded—possibly overloaded—with similar examples.

For even the closest viewers of his works may miss some meanings. Kaye, a semirecluse in his later years, painted for himself. A critic of his times whose messages are still relevant, he made very original works that have received scant exposure and demand more decoding. This exhibit, Kaye's first in a museum, is a welcome step in that direction.

To read the complete article (subscription required), see:
Review of 'Otis Kaye: Money, Mystery, and Mastery' at the New Britain Museum of American Art (

I found a copy at the Hamilton Book site at a great discount from the original $25 price. -Editor

OTIS KAYE book cover OTIS KAYE: Money, Mystery, and Mastery
J.M. Bradburne & G. Banks

Exhibition catalog. This exhibition delves into the intricate details and mysteries of Kaye's life and works. A beautiful resource for anyone seeking to learn more about trompe l'oeil and this fascinating artist. Fully illustrated in color.

Format: Paperbound
Pages: 187
Publisher: New Britain Museum of Ame
Size: 11x8½ inches
ISBN: 9780972449755
Item #: 2786168

For more information, or to purchase, see:
OTIS KAYE: Money, Mystery, and Mastery (

For more information on the exhibit, see:
Otis Kaye: Money, Mystery, and Mastery (

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Wayne Homren, Editor

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