The Art Institute of Chicago, founded in 1879 and located in Chicago’s Grant Park, is one of the oldest and largest art museums in the United States. The museum is most famous for its collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, widely regarded as one of the finest collections outside of France. Highlights include more than 30 paintings by Claude Monet, including six of his Haystacks and a number of Water Lilies. Post-Impressionist works include Paul Cézanne’s The Basket of Apples, and Madame Cézanne in a Yellow Chair. At the Moulin Rouge by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is another highlight. The pointillist masterpiece, which also inspired a musical and was famously featured in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte—1884, is prominently displayed. Highlights of non-French paintings of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection include Vincent van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles and Self-portrait,1887.
The Art Institute was founded as the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in 1879. The name was changed in 1882, and shortly after, the institution was already in need of a new home for its expanding collection and growing student body.
As the city prepared to dazzle the country as host of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the Art Institute’s trustees negotiated with the city’s civic bodies for a new structure located on a park site at Michigan Avenue and Adams Street. The design of the classical Beaux-Arts building by the Boston firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge allowed for the institution’s ambitious goals. The new building was the site of the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions where Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda gave his famous “Sisters and brothers of America” speech. The Art Institute officially opened on December 8, 1893, with a reception where the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Theodore Thomas, its first music director, performed.
In 1906 and 1908, the Art Institute of Chicago exhibited Frank Lloyd Wright’s collection of Japanese prints.
Over the years, the Art institute expanded with new buildings to accommodate a growing collection and new methods of presentation.
Spurred by the ever-growing permanent collection, the Art Institute began planning another major expansion at the turn of the 20th century. Originally intended as an addition to Gunsaulus Hall sitting over the railroad tracks on the south side of the museum, those plans were abandoned as construction began on Millennium Park, Chicago’s great urban centerpiece to the north of the museum. Working with the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, the museum broke ground on the site of the Goodman Theater in 2005 to build the Modern Wing, directly facing Millennium Park. This addition holds the museum’s collections of 20th and 21st century art, architecture, design, and photography as well as the Ryan Education Center, the Bluhm Family Terrace for commissioned installations of contemporary sculpture, and the Nichols Bridgeway, which links the third floor of the Modern Wing to Millennium Park.
The original building, the Allerton Building, its entry flanked by the two famous bronze lions, remains the “front door” of the museum from Michigan Avenue even today.
The exhibits in the Allerton building include photography, paperweights, Thorne Miniature Rooms, Asian art, African art, Indian art of the Americas, prints and drawing, European painting, sculpture, and decorative arts. And a grand staircase!
The Allerton Building is connected to the Modern Wing via a “bridge”, also an exhibition space for Indian and Southeast
Asian art and Impressionism and Post-Impressionism art.
The Modern Wing of the museum opened on May 16, 2009, and the Art Institute became the second-largest museum in the US (after the Met). You could spend years getting to know this encyclopedic institution, which owns more than 300,000 artworks and artifacts from all over the world and every era from antiquity to the present. Puffles and Honey spent an hour around the Art Institute with Paula, a very knowledgeable docent, and a big fan of Brâncuși!
Henri Matisse considered Bathers by a River to be one of the five most “pivotal” works of his career, and with good reason: it facilitated the evolution of the artist’s style over the course of nearly a decade. Originally, the work was related to a 1909 commission by the Russian collector Sergei Shchukin, who wanted two large canvases to decorate the staircase of his Moscow home. Matisse proposed three pastoral images, though Shchukin decided to purchase only two works, Dance II and Music (State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg).
Four years later, Matisse returned to this canvas, the rejected third image, altering the idyllic scene and changing the pastel palette to reflect his new interest in Cubism. He reordered the composition, making the figures more columnar, with faceless, ovoid heads. Over the next years, Matisse transformed the background into four vertical bands and turned the formerly blue river into a thick black vertical band. With its restricted palette and severely abstracted forms, Bathers by a River is far removed from Dance II and Music, which convey a graceful lyricism. The sobriety and hint of danger in Bathers by a River may in part reflect the artist’s concerns during the terrible, war-torn period during which he completed it.
Some of the best known works at the Art Institute of Chicago include: Henri Matisse’s Bathers by a River, Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day; Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on the Isle of La Grande Jatte; Grant Wood’s American Gothic; Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks; Pablo Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, René Magritte’s Time Transfixed and Constantin Brâncuși’s Golden Bird.
In his masterpiece, Paris Street; Rainy Day, Gustave Caillebotte brought an unusual monumentality and compositional control to a typical Impressionist subject, the new boulevards that were changing the Paris cityscape. The result is at once real and contrived, casual and choreographed. With its curiously detached figures, the canvas depicts the anonymity that the boulevards seemed to create. By the time it appeared in the third Impressionist exhibition, held in April 1877, the artist was 29 years old, a man of considerable wealth, and not only the youngest but also the most active member of the Impressionist group. He contributed six of his own canvases to the exhibition; played a leading part in its funding, organization, promotion, and installation; and lent a number of paintings by his colleagues that he owned.
Impressed by René Magritte’s submissions to the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition, the collector Edward James invited the artist to paint canvases for the ballroom of his London home. In response, Magritte conceived On the Threshold of Liberty (also in the collection of the Art Institute) and his now-famous Time Transfixed. The artist later explained this picture: “I decided to paint the image of a locomotive… In order for its mystery to be evoked, another immediately familiar image without mystery — the image of a dining room fireplace — was joined.” The surprising juxtaposition and scale of unrelated elements, heightened by Magritte’s precise realism, gives the picture its perplexity and allure. The artist transformed the stovepipe of a coalburning stove into a charging locomotive, situating the train in a fireplace vent so that it appears to be emerging from a railway tunnel. Magritte was unhappy with the English translation of the original French, La Durée poignardé, which literally means “ongoing time stabbed by a dagger.” He hoped that the painting would be installed at the bottom of the collector’s staircase so that the train would “stab” guests on their way up to the ballroom. James installed it over his fireplace instead.
Depicting a forest landscape at sunset, with the bright red sun pasted onto the trees, Le Banquet is a magnificent example of two key elements of Magritte’s art: the influence of papiers collés on his painterly technique, and the juxtaposition of the visible and the invisible. In a letter dated 9th November 1956, Magritte wrote that the subject of Le Banquet was one of his two latest ‘trouvailles’ (‘finds’), and described the image as “trees against a reddish sky at sunset. The red sun is visible on the mass of the trees hiding it”. The brightly coloured and sharply defined image of the setting sun, which would normally be hidden behind the trees, evokes the paper cut-outs that Magritte first developed in his early drawings and papiers collés of the 1920s.
In 1893, three years after buying property at Giverny, Claude Monet began transforming the marshy ground behind his home into a pond, on the narrow end of which he built a Japanese-style wood bridge. Adding both exotic and domestic plantings, including his famous water lilies, the artist created the garden that would be one of his principal subjects for the rest of his life. Water Lily Pond was among the 18 similar versions of the motif that he made in 1899–1900; their common theme was the mingling of the lilies with reflections of other vegetation on the pool’s surface.
During World War I, after several years of inactivity because of bad health and grief over the death of his second wife, Claude Monet embarked on a period of intense work. Building a large studio and improving his garden, he began a group of monumental paintings of water lilies that he would later offer to the French state. Alongside this project, he painted a suite of 19 smaller canvases, including this one.
Pablo Picasso painted numerous portraits of the many women in his life. Often the circumstances surrounding his relationships or the distinct personalities of his sitters seem to have precipitated stylistic changes in his work. Marie-Thérèse Walter came into the artist’s life around 1925. Though twenty-eight years her senior, Picasso was smitten and began making furtive references to her blond hair, broad features, and voluptuous body in his work. Perhaps acknowledging the double life he and she were leading, he devised a new motif: a face that encompasses both frontal and profile views.
Pablo Picasso produced The Old Guitarist, one of his most haunting images, while working in Barcelona. In the paintings of his Blue Period (1901–04), of which this is a prime example, Picasso restricted himself to a cold, monochromatic blue palette; flattened forms; and the emotional, psychological themes of human misery and alienation, which are related to the Symbolist movement and the work of such artists as Edvard Munch.
The tragic themes and expressive style of Picasso’s Blue Period began after a close friend committed suicide in Paris. During this time, the artist was sympathetic to the plight of the downtrodden and painted many canvases depicting the miseries of the poor, the ill, and those cast out of society. He knew what it was like to be impoverished, having been nearly penniless during all of 1902.
Picasso presented The Old Guitarist as a timeless expression of human suffering. This bent and sightless man holds close to him a large, round guitar. Its brown body represents the painting’s only shift in color. Both physically and symbolically, the instrument fills the space around the solitary figure, who seems oblivious to his blindness and poverty as he plays. At the time the painting was made, literature of the Symbolist movement included blind characters who possessed powers of inner vision. The thin, skeletonlike figure of the blind musician also has roots in art from Picasso’s native country, Spain. The old man’s elongated limbs and cramped, angular posture recall the figures of the great 16th century artist El Greco.
Brâncuși had as big an impact on sculpture as Picasso did on painting. In his works of 1905-1907, particularly the series Children’s Heads, he was still using Rodin’s impressionistic system of modeling, in which the planes bounding the volume are fragmented to suggest the transitory expressions of the physiognomy.
By 1910 Brâncuși’s art took on the characteristics which were to revitalize sculpture. He started worked directly with his materials, pioneering the technique of direct carving, rather than working with intermediaries such as plaster or clay models. The materials Brâncuși used – primarily marble, stone, bronze, wood, and metal – guided the specific forms he produced. He paid close attention to his mediums, meticulously polishing pieces for days to achieve a gleam that suggested infinite continuity into the surrounding space – “as though they proceeded out from the mass into some perfect and complete existence.”
The material chosen for his first version of Sleeping Muse was stone. Further reducing and abbreviating form, Brâncuși revised some the work by casting it in metal with a fine finish. Sculptures as this version of Sleeping Muse are self-sufficient, archetypal modern forms.
Constantin Brâncuși is often regarded as the most important sculptor of the 20th century. His visionary sculptures often exemplify ideal and archetypal representations of their subject matter. Bearing laconic titles such as Fish, Princess X, and Bird in Space, his sculptures are deceptively simple, with their reduced forms aiming to reveal hidden truths.
Constantin Brâncuși’s art focused not only on the medium and form of his sculptures, but also on the relationships between his works and the light and space around them. His atelier became the site of groundbreaking experimentation, as he regularly combined and recombined the component parts of individual works and rearranged their placement within groups. The complete ensemble of Brâncuși’s White Negress II unites the natural elements of stone and wood into an exploration of modern, abstract form, weight, and mass balanced with great lightness and delicacy. The artist avoided having a dealer and instead preferred to show his work to clients and friends in his studio. By the 1950s, his groupings were so critical to his aesthetic goals that he began to refuse to sell his works so that they could remain in their carefully orchestrated installations.
Brâncuși believed the material with which he worked had its own life, a uniqueness and essence that he had to seek out in order to reveal the form contained within. In Leda, sculptural metamorphosis became the very subject of the work. According to classical mythology, the god Zeus changed into a swan in order to seduce the beautiful Leda. Brâncuși explained to visitors to his studio that he chose to transform the transformation—changing Leda, rather than Zeus, into a swan. He explained, “I never could imagine a male being turned into a swan, impossible, but a woman, yes, quite easily.” Brâncuși envisioned the form “ceaselessly creating a new life, a new rhythm,” which he enhanced by its circular concrete base, a type that he designed by 1916 and used in various sizes for many different sculptures.
In 1990, the Art Institute sold 11 works at auction, including paintings by Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Maurice Utrillo and Edgar Degas, to raise the $12 million purchase price for the bronze sculpture, Golden Bird, by Constantin Brâncuși. At the time, the sculpture was owned by the Arts Club of Chicago, which was selling it to buy a new gallery for its other works. While the Art Institute has resisted selling works to purchase others in the past, it made an exception in this case.
More than any other theme, Brâncuși’s series Bird summarizes his quest for a self-sufficient form. “All my life, I have sought to render the essence of flight,” the artist once said. He began the first of twenty-seven Bird sculptures around 1910 and completed the last in the 1940s. He called the earliest variations Maiastra, referring to a bird in Romanian folklore that leads a prince to his princess. In the Art Institute’s Golden Bird, details such as feet, a tail, and an upturned crowing beak are only suggested in an elegant, streamlined silhouette. Brâncuși perched this refined shape on a rough-hewn, geometric base, contrasting the disembodied, light-reflective surface with an earthbound mass. The central polyhedron was cut from the middle of a tree trunk, and its circles (indicating the tree’s age) rotate like a sun, as if radiating light over the bird.
You know you’ve made it as an artist when Google makes you a Doodle 🙂
The special relationship between Georgia O’Keeffe and the Art Institute began in 1905, when she enrolled briefly as a student at the School of the Art Institute. Her first museum retrospective was organized here in 1943. Later, as the executor for the estate of her husband, the pioneering American photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe presented the Art Institute with an important group of Modernist works, including a number of her own. She continued to make significant additions to this bequest until her death, at age 98, in 1986.
Painted in the summer of 1965, when Georgia O’Keeffe was 77 years old, Sky Above Clouds IV culminates a series based on the artist’s experiences as an airplane passenger during the 1950s. Working in Abiquiu, New Mexico, O’Keeffe began around 1963 to capture the endless expanses of clouds she had observed from airplane windows during trips all over the world. Beginning with a relatively realistic depiction of small white clouds on a three-by-four-foot canvas, she progressed to more stylized images of the motif on larger surfaces, ultimately extending her idea across a canvas that spanned the entire 24-foot width of her garage. Given its scale and the predominance of rounded shapes in the composition, Sky Above Clouds IV has often been compared to Claude Monet’s famous water-lily murals. O’Keeffe wrote:
I painted a painting eight feet high and twenty-four feet wide — it kept me working every minute from six a.m. till eight or nine at night as I had to be finished before it was cold — I worked in the garage and it had no heat — Such a size is of course ridiculous but I had it in my head as something I wanted to do for a couple of years so I finally got at it and had a fine time — and there it is — Not my best and not my worst.
In 1970 a retrospective of O’Keeffe’s work was scheduled for installation at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the San Francisco Museum of Art; Sky Above Clouds IV was never shown in San Francisco, however, because it would not pass through any door of the museum! The painting thus remained on loan to the Art Institute for more than a decade, while the artist and public-minded collectors of her art arranged for it to become one of the highlights of the museum’s permanent collection.
In 2017, the Art Institute of Chicago will debut the museum’s first permanent installation dedicated to 20th and 21st century architecture and design. This mini-exhibition, a precursor to the future permanent installation, focuses on an exploration of the modern chair. Beginning in the Machine Age with the promise of industrial production, chair design took off in new directions dynamically engaged with contemporary forms. Furniture design moved out of the realms of the carpenter and the decorator as architects and industrial designers took on the chair as a problem of engineering, materials research, and the scientific study of the human body. With this new attitude, one of the most important drivers of modern chair design became new materials — from tubular steel in 1920s Europe to the later largely American development of plywood and fiberglass chairs. This mini-exhibition presents iconic examples from throughout the 20th century by makers including Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand (Chaise Lounge, designed 1928), Harry Bertoia, and Charles and Ray Eames (“LCW” Lounge Chair, designed 1946), all of whose work contributed to the evolution of a new, modern ideal.
No Gaudi chair in this exhibition. Not a modern chair, but very comfortable 🙂
After such a grand adventure, a little smackerel…