Otis Kaye, Heart of the Matter (1963). Oil on canvas 127 x 108 cm (50 x 42 1/2 in). © The Art Institute of Chicago

Otis Kaye, Heart of the Matter

In this painting from 1963 the German-American painter Otis Kaye reflects on Rembrandt's Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (1653), which the New York Metropolitan Museum had acquired two years earlier for the then record-breaking sum of $2.3 million. Kaye employs layering and optical illusions to comment on money's disruptive deceptiveness while placing it in multiple temporalities that stretch from Aristotle to the Dutch Golden Age to the uneven affluence of postwar America. The result is a witty commentary on the sublime nature of paper money coupled to a critique of Western art.

Kaye only painted for himself and friends. In 1909, Congress had passed a law that prohibited any nonofficial copies of currency. This rendered all trompe-l'œil paintings of paper money — once a wildly popular genre in nineteenth-century American art — illegal. Undeterred, or perhaps rather attracted by the illicit genre, Kaye dedicated himself to producing some of the finest trompe-l'œil depictions of currency, usually embedded in cryptic commentaries about the social meaning of money. Kaye never exhibited or sold any of his paintings during his lifetime. Instead, he often gave them to friends and family as gifts. It was only after his death in 1974, just as money was fully decoupled from metal, that Kaye's paintings themselves started to sell at auctions at previously unimaginable prices.

Kaye gave Heart of the Matter originally to friends as a wedding gift. The Art Institute of Chicago received it as an anonymous gift in 2015.

For more information, see Otis Kaye: Money, Mystery, and Mastery, ed. James M. Bradburne and Geraldine Banks ,‎ with an essay by Mark D. Mitchell (New Britain CT: New Britain Museum of American Art, 2014).

Header: Athenian tetradrachm (5th century BC). Left: head of Athena. Right: Owl, olive sprig, and moon, inscribed: ΑΘΕ, abbrev. ΑΘΗΝΑΙΩΝ (“of the Athenians”)