The Art Institute of Chicago

High on my list of things to do in Chicago was a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago. It was so great that I went twice, so I could spend extra time with some of the works I found to be most fascinating. First, I have to say that I was actually surprised by the scope of the collections at the Art Institute. Sometimes we (or maybe I should say I) make the mistake of thinking about artists through their most familiar works and need to be reminded that most artists made works that, while not as well-known, are still masterful. The Art Institute has its share of the most famous, like American Gothic, Nighthawks, and A Sunday on La Grande Jatte – 1884, but it is crammed full of lesser known delights from Winslow Homer, Auguste Renoir, and many others.

I could write about the collections at the Art Institute of Chicago for days, but I’ll be limiting this review of my visit to things mainly of interest to textile and clothing fans.

This work by American artist Charles Demuth is titled Spring. Can you guess why?

This is actually a painted collage of textile samples of the sort that were sent to makers and designers to advertise the new season’s fabrics. The year was 1921, and Demuth was commenting on how the changing seasons were now marked by what people could buy rather than by nature.

John Singer Sargent is best known for the wonderful society portraits he painted, so this work, The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frescati, Italy, 1907, was a delightful surprise. I love pictures that show women actively involved in crafts. And I would love to see what Jane von Glehn, the woman portrayed, was herself painting.

It seems as if a woman sitting with her sewing has always been a popular theme for painters. Maybe because having the work helped the sitter hold the pose. Anyway, here’s a pretty example from Renoir, Young Woman Sewing, 1879.

This portrait, Madame Pastoret and her Son, was painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1791/2. I usually find works by David to be gloomy, but this one seems to be cheered a bit by the reddish-brown furniture.

The unmistakable work of Mexican artist Diego Rivera, The Weaver shows weaver Luz Jimenez using a traditional loom with a back strap.

I think my favorite gallery was one containing several works by Winslow Homer. The painting above, Croquet Scene from 1866, might be familiar to readers of fashion history books.  It is commonly used to illustrate the dress elevator, a device that drew up the skirt to protect it while the wearer was participating in outdoor activities.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I have never seen the above painting by Homer, Mount Washington.

When this was painted in 1869, a type of nature tourism had taken hold in the eastern United States. While real pioneers were roughing it on their way west, wealthy Easterners could experience nature while staying in grand hotels and wearing fashionable clothing.

Peach Blossoms, from 1878 is another example of the types of outdoor scenes Winslow Homer created. The placard notes pointed out how the manner in which the blossoms were painted shows how he was influenced by Japanese prints.

Is she wearing pants? I could not tell. This is Nouvart Dzeron, A Daughter of Armenia, painted in 1912 by Chicago artist Ralph Elmer Clarkson. It wasn’t just Paul Poiret in Paris who was pushing “exoticism” in 1912.

Another favorite was Paris Street, Rainy Day, by Gustave Caillebotte. The painting is so large that you feel yourself being drawn into it. The artist used math to figure the perspective, but the wet stones give an air of complete immediacy.

So often parodied, but still, so very good, Hopper’s Nighthawks is one of the best known works in the Art Institute.

Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 better known as Whistler’s Mother, was there on loan from the  Musée d’Orsay. The Art Institute does have large holdings of Whistler’s work, which were displayed along with his mother in a special gallery.

Another example of the influence of Japanese printing, The Child’s Bath by Mary Cassatt was painted in 1893. The museum has a large collection of Japanese prints, and it was interesting to view them after reading about how so many Western artists in the late Nineteenth Century were influenced by them.

And finally, another American woman artist, Georgia O’keeffe, was well-represented. I’ve seen reproductions of this painting, Sky Above Clouds, IV many times, but I had no idea of the magnitude of it.  The painting is twenty-four feet long and is hung above a stair landing.

I just found out that a major exhibition Georgia O’keeffe: Living Modern will be traveling to Winston-Salem, NC later this summer. If you are in the New York area, better see it before it closes at the Brooklyn Museum in July. In December it travels to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA.

8 Comments

Filed under Museums

8 responses to “The Art Institute of Chicago

  1. Sarah Owens

    THis is a beautiful post and an enjoyable read, to say the least. I appreciate all the details! Now I have to get back to Chicago! It’s been way too long since I’ve been to the Art Institute. Thanks for taking me back 🙂

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  2. Nann

    So glad you enjoyed our art museum!

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  3. Linda

    Reading this wonderful post took me back to the day in the Summer of 1994 when I spent the day at this Museum. When I came upon “Paris Street, Rainy Day” I was awestruck, initially by the size but then felt as if I was walking the streets of Paris and feeling the mist on my face. The beauty and overall experience brought tears to my ears. A gentleman standing nearby actually asked me if “I was with child” since he noticed how moved I was. That brought me back to earth!!

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  4. Isn’t it amazing? We often went twice on every visit…and we visited a lot when our daughter was living in Chicago. She just moved to Boston, so we will have to get to know the museums there.

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