Art Institute of Chicago

Along with the Science and Industry Museum and the Field Museum of Natural History, the Art Institute of Chicago is probably among Chicago’s top 3 museums.  Additionally, it probably ranks among the best art museums in the United States.  Fortunately, for Illinois residents, the Museum is participating in Illinois’ free museum days.  That means that admission for Illinois residents will be free there until March 4th.  However, throughout the entire year, the Museum also has a free evening each week for Illinois residents.  Although the free evening has not always been the same day of the week, currently, it is on Wednesdays from 5:00 to 8:00 P.M.

The Art Institute of Chicago originally began as the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in 1879, which provided both art education and art displays.  When Chicago won the bid to host the 1893 World’s Fair, known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, it decided to build the current structure of the Art Institute of Chicago, in order to impress visitors.  Ever since then, the Museum’s collection and reputation has continued to grow, as has its affiliated university, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).

The Art Institute of Chicago’s strongest collections are from Europe and the United States.  For example, the Art Institute of Chicago probably has the largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings (such as Monet and Van Gogh) outside of France.  Despite the majority of the art being from Europe or the United States (including some Native American art), there are some sections specifically focused on East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa.  Additionally, there is an even smaller section with archaeology.  These are all on the main floor.

If you visit the Art Institute of Chicago, you must visit the Thorne Miniature Rooms.  They are made up of 68 dollhouse-like rooms, each with extensive details of homes from different time periods.  A wealthy woman named Narcissa Thorne designed them between 1937-1940, and donated them to the Museum.  This collection is located in the basement of the Museum, so is often overlooked by visitors.  It is also worth visiting the Arms and Armor room on the second floor. 

Grant Wood’s famous painting, “American Gothic” can be found at the Art Institute of Chicago on the second floor.  You can also visit the painting used in the 1945 film The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is based on the 1891 novel of the same name, by the Irish author Oscar Wilde.  I will not provide further information about it, because it is worth reading and watching. 

In 2009, the Art Institute of Chicago added a Modern Wing, which houses most of the contemporary art.  My favorite art piece there is “White Crucifixion,” which was painted by the French-Jewish artist, Marc Chagall, in 1938.  What I especially find fascinating about it is that it was painted in 1938, right before the outbreak of WWII and the Holocaust.  The painting depicts Jesus in the center, with a Jewish prayer shawl (tallit) as a loincloth, thus emphasizing his Jewishness.  Surrounding him are difference scenes of Jewish persecution in Europe.  One way to interpret this painting is that Chagall was reminding people that, if they are persecuting Jews, it is like persecuting Jesus, who was himself Jewish. 

If you like art, and are in Chicago, then the Art Institute of Chicago is worth the visit.

Sources and Further Reading

“American Gothic.” Art Institute of Chicago. https://www.artic.edu/artworks/6565/american-gothic (accessed January 25, 2020).

Dillon, Diane. “Art Institute of Chicago.” Encyclopedia of Chicago, 2005. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/79.html (accessed February 23, 2020).

Kogan, Rick. “Thorne Rooms Full of Small Wonders.” Chicago Tribune, December 3, 2012. https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-xpm-2012-12-03-chi-kogan-sidewalks-thorne-rooms-20121130-story.html (accessed February 23, 2020).

“Mission and History.” Art Institute of Chicago. https://www.artic.edu/about-us/mission-and-history (accessed January 25, 2020).

“Picture of Dorian Gray.” Art Institute of Chicago. https://www.artic.edu/artworks/93798/picture-of-dorian-gray (accessed February 23, 2020).

“Thorne Miniature Rooms.” Art Institute of Chicago. https://www.artic.edu/departments/PC-15/thorne-miniature-rooms (accessed January 25, 2020).

“White Crucifixion.” Art Institute of Chicago. https://www.artic.edu/artworks/59426/white-crucifixion (accessed February 23, 2020).

Chicago World Fairs & Chicago Museum Free Days

The coldest months of the year in Chicago, January and February, are also when Chicago’s museums have the lowest number of visitors.  Because of this, Chicago’s most famous museums usually have a large number of free admission days for Illinois residents.

Here is the list of free days offered at Chicago museums in 2020:

https://www.chicagoparent.com/learn/museums/free-museum-days-chicago/

Two of the top three museums in Chicago (in my opinion), which generally have pricey admission, are offering generous free day options for Illinois residents in February.  These museums are the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field Museum, and the Museum of Science and Industry.  The Art Institute of Chicago is not actually offering free days in February, although Wednesdays from 5-8 PM are always free to Illinois residents throughout the entire year.

Coincidentally, I realized that all three museums have a connection with the Chicago World Fair of 1893.  Known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, the Chicago World Fair of 1893 was supposed to commemorate 400 years since Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Western Hemisphere in 1492 (preparation for the Fair delayed it to 1893 instead of 1892).  There had been many World Fairs prior to 1893, and many more to follow, although Chicago’s probably ranks as one of the more famous ones.  People from all over the world came for Chicago’s World Fair. 

I will discuss each of the three museums in separate posts, but here is a brief summary of how each museum was connected to the 1893 World Fair.  The Museum of Science and Industry was one of the many Classical-style buildings built for the World Fair.  However, it is the only one that still survives.  The Field Museum started out as a museum that housed artifacts from the 1893 Chicago World Fair.  Finally, the Art Institute of Chicago was built in 1893 because of the World Fair, although it was not directly part of the Fair. 

Most of Chicago’s 1893 World Fair took place in the South Side of Chicago, specifically in the Jackson Park area.  Today, the area has an abandoned and eerie feel to it, although the future Barack Obama Presidential Center is supposed to be built there soon.  Significant legacies from the Fair include the introduction of the Cracker Jack snack, the zipper, and Wrigley’s chewing gum.  Additionally, the first Ferris wheel was built for Chicago’s World Fair as a rival to Paris’ 1889 World Fair, which introduced the Eiffel Tower.  The original Ferris wheel was demolished soon after the Fair, but Navy Pier in Chicago now has a Ferris wheel to commemorate the first one.

This statue is located near Jackson Park, and was built in 1918 to commemorate 25 years since the 1893 World Fair. The originally statue was demolished soon after the Fair ended, was much taller, and was located in the Fair’s center.

If you want to learn more about the 1893 World Fair, I recommend the following two resources.  The first is the book, The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson.  It juxtaposes the story of the construction of the World Fair (nicknamed the “White City” because of its massive white buildings) with the story of H. H. Holmes (the devil).  During the Chicago World Fair, Holmes went about murdering people, and is known as the first serial killer in the United States.  A second resource is the film The Current War (released in 2019), which portrays the electric current race that occurred between Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and less directly, Nikola Tesla, and their competition to illuminate the 1893 World Fair. 

As a bonus, I want to mention that Chicago also hosted another World Fair in 1933 and 1934, known as the Century of Progress Exposition.  It helped boost morale and bring new job opportunities during the Great Depression.  This Fair was held a little further north, on Chicago’s Museum Campus area, where the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, Soldier Field, and the Shedd Aquarium are located.  The theme of the 1933 World Fair was to promote industrial progress and commemorate Chicago’s 100th birthday, since it was incorporated in 1833.  Unlike the 1893 World Fair, the second World Fair’s architecture was more modern and included a lot of Art Deco style.  Unfortunately, none of this Fair’s buildings still remain.

I found two flagpoles from the 1933 Chicago World Fair at two Chicago suburb schools. I wonder if they were originally a part of that Fair’s “Avenue of Flags” walkway.

This flagpole is outside of Main East High School in Park Ridge, Illinois. It is where both Hillary Clinton and Harrison Ford attended high school.
This flagpole was set up at Niles Township Community High School in Skokie, Illinois, which no longer exists. It is now Oakton Community College’s Skokie campus.

Recommended Books

Bancroft, Hubert Howe. The Book of the Fair: An Historical and Descriptive Presentation of the World’s Science, Art, and Industry, as Viewed through the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893. New York: Bounty Books, 1894.

Buel, James W. The Magic City. New York: Arno Press, 1974.

Ganz, Cheryl R. The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair: A Century of Progress. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008.

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2002.

Sources and Further Reading

Adams, Barry. “On Wisconsin: An End for Little Norway and the Possible Return Trip for Its Signature Building.” Wisconsin State Journal, December 7, 2014. https://madison.com/wsj/news/local/columnists/on-wisconsin-an-end-for-little-norway-and-a-possible/article_7b584af9-fb7f-584d-ab29-876febb948c0.html (accessed January 25, 2019).

The Current War. DVD. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. Dallas: Lantern Entertainment, 2019.

“Free Days for Chicago-Area Museums.” Chicago Parent, January 2, 2020. https://www.chicagoparent.com/learn/museums/free-museum-days-chicago/ (accessed January 25, 2019).

LaTrace, A.J., “A Look at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair in Color.” Curbed Chicago, May 12, 2017. https://chicago.curbed.com/2017/5/12/15629342/1933-chicago-worlds-fair-color-film-footage (accessed January 25, 2019).

McNamara, Chris. “Remnants of the White City. Chicago Tribune, July 2, 2004 https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2004-07-02-0407020064-story.html (accessed January 25, 2019).

Rydell, Robert W. “Century of Progress Exposition (May 27, 1933-November 12, 1933; May 25, 1934-October 31, 1934).” Encyclopedia of Chicago, 2005. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/225.html (accessed January 25, 2019).

Rydell, Robert W. “World’s Columbian Exposition (May 1, 1893-October 30, 1893.).” Encyclopedia of Chicago, 2004. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1386.html (accessed January 25, 2019).

Wadsworth, Kimberley. “Relics of the World’s Fair: Chicago.” Atlas Obscura, January 10, 2014. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/relics-of-the-world-s-fair-chicago (accessed January 25, 2019).