Otis Kaye is considered the last of the great trompe l'oeil painters, recognized primarily for his pictures of American currency. Born in 1885 to European immigrants Kaye lived briefly in the United States before enrolling in engineering school in Dresden, Germany. Although Kaye sustained a successful engineering career up until the great stock market crash of 1929, his short stay in New York City from 1904-1905 sparked a life-long passion for art, specifically tromp l'oeil.
Otis Kaye continued the tradition of the great nineteenth century trompe l'oeil painters, William Michael Harnett, John Frederick Peto, John Haberle and Nicholas A. Brooks. He even went as far as signing two of his own works "N. A. Brooks." His explanation lies under our nose in his painting entitled Trompe L'Oeil for Bessie Hoffman: "To the critic the artist replied, 'Imitation was the highest form of compliment to art, man, or nature.' One critic rose to complain of mere deception; however, he quickly sat down when the painter offered him a brush." The presence of this clipping not only explains the signature of Brooks, Kaye's "mentor"; it also strongly suggests that Kaye knew of the existence and meaning of Haberle's Imitation..." (B.W. Chambers, Old Money: American Trompe L'oeil Images of Currency, New York, 1988, p. 88)
It is no surprise that Harnett, Peto and Haberle explored the subject of American currency at length through tromp l'oeil. It was only at the end of the nineteenth century, during their lifetime, that the Federal Government began issuing paper money which could not be redeemed in precious metal. As Bruce Chambers writes, "It is easy today to overlook the passion with which not only bankers and industrialists but also farmers and factory workers approached the subject of paper money a hundred years ago. Monetary value for us is as often contained in a coded plastic rectangle or a series of electronic signals sent to a computer as it is in the bills we carry in our wallets, and over fifty years have passed since anyone could show up at a nationally-chartered bank and actually obtain gold in exchange for those bills." (Old Money, p. 14) Kaye, born only one year before Harnett stopped painting currency, preferred the subject of money thirty years later, continuing the tradition of his predecessors.
Kaye commonly utilized currency as anthropomorphic symbols to illustrate social or historical events, past and present. Joshua's Horn is an allegory for Joshua's triumph over the city of Jericho. "And seven priests shall bear before the ark seven trumpets of rams' horns: and the seventh day ye shall compass the city seven times, and the priests shall blow with the trumpets. And it shall come to pass, that when they make a long blast with the ram's horn, and when ye hear the sound of the trumpet, all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city shall fall down flat, and the people shall ascend up every man straight before him." (Holy Bible: King James Version, Illinois, 1991, p. 257) Within Joshua's Horn Kaye reveals a narrative of pictorial clues. The significance of the number "7" in the Book of Joshua is reiterated by the five dollar bill together with the two one dollar bills. The same bills, folded to a point, with the ribbons form the points of the Star of David. The star is repeated again on the stock certificate emanating from the horn. A Notice of Eviction mailed to the Jericho City Manager sits in the lower right corner with a return address of Himmlisch (heavenly) Realty Co. The picture is replete with biblical metaphors, other items include an improvement bond issued to the City of Jericho, bundles of cash from the "Last Bank of Jericho," a stock certificate for Yahweh Power and Light (issued to Otis Kaye) and a King of Diamonds with a falling tear. All of these metaphors together reiterate the central theme of a fallen pagan culture to one God.
Joshua's Horn incorporates a variety of Kaye's conceits; narrating social or historical events with pictorial clues, visual puns, anagrams, word play and multiple interpretations in the details. "As we have seen, however, there is more to trompe l'oeil money painting than meets the eye. It is not only an art of mischievous replication; it is also an art of real content. It possesses an iconography, a structured symbolic language, that draws from and addresses the events and beliefs of a historically verifiable culture." (Old Money, p. 96)