Art Institute and Chicago

August 5th:

          Heading west, from Indiana, Chicago’s skyline rose in the distance as we battled toll roads, traffic, and roadwork.  Chicago traffic is one of the most painful driving experiences of my life, but we’ll focus on the positive for today.

          Chicago is the third largest city in the US with a storied history and culture from art, science and industry, gangsters, Great Fire, World’s Fair, architecture, and education.

          The region has drawn sojourners and travelers for centuries due the area’s access to the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. The Chicago River is important because it is a portage from the Great Lakes and onward to the Mississippi River Basin.  Chicago was the traditional homeland to many tribes including: Hoocąk (Winnebago/Ho’Chunk), Jiwere (Otoe), Nutachi (Missouria), and Baxoje (Iowas); Kiash Matchitiwuk (Menominee); Meshkwahkîha (Meskwaki); Asâkîwaki (Sauk); Myaamiaki (Miami), Waayaahtanwaki (Wea), and Peeyankihšiaki (Piankashaw); Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo); Inoka (Illini Confederacy); Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe), Odawak (Odawa), and Bodéwadmik (Potawatomi).

 Geographically, Chicago is a confluence, seated atop a continental divide.  A continental divide is a juxtaposition where the flow of water shifts (think Atlantic or Pacific).  On the west side of the divide, waters flow to the Des Plaines River, down to meet the Illinois River near Joliet, to the Mississippi and finally the Gulf of Mexico. Historically, on the east side, the water would flow into Lake Michigan and eventually to the North Atlantic.  However, due to issues with drought and other economic and environmental factors, the Chicago Rivers flow was reversed inland in 1900.  This was a feat in engineering and continues to run counter to its natural course in modern day.

Chicago’s first permanent non-indigenous resident was a trader named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. Known as ‘The Founder of Chicago,’ du Sable was a free black man from Haiti, whose father was a French sailor and mother an African slave.  He came to Chicago in the 1770s via the Mississippi River from New Orleans with his Native American wife.  Their home stood at the mouth of the Chicago River.  Just goes to show, Chicago has always been a place of diversity and perseverance.

In 1803, the U.S. government-built Fort Dearborn at what is now the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive.  The Fort was destroyed during the Battle of Fort Dearborn in 1812.  It was rebuilt in 1816, but permanently demolished in 1857.

Incorporated in 1837, Chicago grew rapidly as a Midwest trading center and city of industry. This was nearly wiped out by The Great Fire of 1871, which all but burned Chicago to the ground and left over 100,000 residents homeless.  However out of the ashes a phoenix rises, and it can be argued the ‘Great Fire,’ became a blessing of sorts – leading the city on a path of planned city development and innovation unlike any other.

Chicago rebuilt quickly.  Much of the debris was dumped into Lake Michigan as a landfill, forming the underpinnings of what is now Grant Park, Millennium Park, and the Art Institute of Chicago. 

The fire led to an electrifying rebirth as Chicago hosted the World’s Fair in 1893, which has become the stuff of legend.  The fair, officially known as ‘The Columbian Exposition’ was held to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus landing in the New World (although the fair was delayed by a year).

Visitors came from all over the world, and Chicago earned the nickname, ‘The White City,’ due to the beautiful and cohesive white stone neoclassical buildings built for the fair.  It was this ‘White City’ that inspired L. Frank Baum’s ‘Emerald City’ in the Wizard of Oz.

Famed landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, laid out the grounds and created a system of lagoons around which over 40,000 skilled laborers constructed the fair’s buildings.  Over 50,000 objects on display at the fair became part of the Anthropology collections at the Field Museum. 

The fair introduced products like Shredded Wheat, diet soda, Aunt Jemima syrup and Wrigley Juicy Fruit gum.  At night the fair was lit by hundreds of thousands of electric light bulbs creating a mystical experience – for many their first experience with electric lightbulbs. 

           Chicago’s is particularly known for its architectural history, and the starting point of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School.  The city is home to some of the world’s tallest buildings including The Wills Tower (formerly Sears Tower).  I’m not a big fan of skyscrapers – I prefer the Art Deco influence or Frank Lloyd Wright style architecture in downtown.  At times it feels like the Tower of Babel with so many tall buildings.  For me, I enjoyed the brownstones and older homes as we explored several neighborhoods.

Quick fun facts about Chicago:

  • It’s known as ‘The Windy City’ – because of the intense winds coming off Lake Michigan in the winter and also because of Chicago politicians and businessmen having been said to speak ‘hot air’
  • Home to over 60 museums and 200 art galleries
  • Wrigley Field was built in 1914 and is the second oldest stadium in baseball
  • To learn more click here

My mom and I originally planned to spend four days in Chicago sightseeing but given some logistical issues (parking at our hotel) and a desire to explore more of Lake Michigan scenery – we decided to spend one day in Chicago at The Art Institute.

I am an art lover and am willing to travel just to experience and support the arts.  The Art Institute in Chicago, along with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and National Gallery (among others) is one of the premier art museums in the world.  Stepping into The Art Institute is journey into ‘art paradise.’  It was my main goal in coming to Chicago – I longed to see the vast collection with my own eyes. 

With the help of GPS, my mom and I found a parking lot near Millennium Park in the downtown Loop area.  The Loop is a central walkable and drivable area that is home to many famed city attractions – including ‘The Bean,’ ‘Art Institute,’ Grant and Millennium Park and more.

          We arrived at The Art Institute just after 1 p.m. and except for a bathroom break we did not stop walking the extensive galleries until 5 p.m. 

          Words cannot express the excitement and experience of our day at The Art Institute. 

Stepping into the Impressionism wings a state of euphoria rushed over me as my eyes saw Gaugin and Cezanne paintings. 

Cezanne is one of my favorite painters. I named my adorable orange tabby cat after Cezanne.  Paul Cezanne was the greatest still-life painter of the 19th century.  He is celebrated as a post-Impressionist, and as a forefather of Fauvism and a precursor to Cubism.  He influenced Pablo Picasso and many artists.

The Art-Institute has eleven Cezanne paintings, including ‘The Basket of Apples’ and ‘The Bay of Marseille, Seen from L’Estaque.’  

From Cezanne we meandered to Van Gogh.  Van Gogh’s bright colors and vivid other worldly imagery as inspired artists for over a century. The Art Institute is home to a dozen Van Gogh’s showcasing his breadth as an artist.

To stand face to face in front of beloved paintings like ‘The Bedroom,’ with its blues, teals, yellows, and ruddy reds– is surreal and amazing.  Other favorites were a self-portrait and ‘Fishing in Spring, the Pont de Clichy.’

“Did you know that the Art Institute is home to the largest collection of Impressionism outside of France,” I mentioned to my mom as we entered what I’ll call ‘Monet’s Garden.’ The Art Institute has a gallery dedicated to Monet from his water lilies series to Haystacks and beyond.  The paints hanging within these walls are ones I’ve admired in books and online since childhood – to see them face to face…I had to stop a minute praise God’s grace. 

Seeing the glow of Monet’s Haystacks series – orange and red hues perfectly blending from across the room – I felt as thought I could travel into the paintings – the texture so rich. The Waterloo Bridge of London – with thick fog, pierced by the warmth of sun told a story in color and light.  The waterlilies paintings that you just meditate on – taking in the deep hues of greens and blues.  I could spend days just in this portion of the gallery.

We spent another forty minutes exploring the remainder of the Impressionism wing.  The collection includes famous works from Renoir, Pissarro, Manet, Degas, Sisley, and Morisot. One particular highlight was Caillebotte’s Paris Street on a Rainy Day.

 My mom and I were blown away by the scale of Georges Seurat’s ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.’  I have seen Seurat’s work in London (National Gallery) – but nothing could prepare me for this lifestyle scene. ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,’ is Seurat’s best known and largest work.  Seurat shared with the impressionists an interest in the effects of light, but his approach was unique – developing his own style of pointillism.

We continued our tour into the European wing.  I really enjoyed seeing the hundreds of renaissance religious pieces.  As a Catholic Christian – I said a rosary silently as I took in the spiritual meaning and artistic beauty in the icons. 

It would take hundreds of pages to write about all the treasures in the European wing – but one of the highlights for me was Rembrandt’s Old Man with a Gold Chain.  This Dutch Master of light and dark – brings the subject to life.  As you peer into the eyes of the ‘Old Man’ half of his face is illuminated – the other in darkness…I see this as a reflection of the human condition.  We are in the light and yet how we battle with the dark.

En route to lower level of the Arts of North America, we salivated over the Tiffany Window, which displays the crossroads of spirituality and art. 

More than 100 years ago, Agnes F. Northrop designed the window for Tiffany Studios as a commission from Mary Hartwell in honor of her husband, Frederick Hartwell, for the Central Baptist Church of Providence.  It remained housed in the sanctuary of the church until 2018, when the congregation decided to relocate the window to the Art Institute of Chicago for conservation and public enjoyment.

          The Arts of North America spans two floors.  The lower-level features early American art from Copley and other masters as well as a vast collection of antique furniture (Colonial to Art Deco) and decorative arts. 

          This wing’s highlights feature some of my favorite painters – including Thomas Moran – whose artwork helped lead to the creation of Yellowstone National Park. 

          We made our way to the second floor of the Arts of North America to meet America’s favorite farmers.  American Gothic by Grant Wood adopts the precise realism of 15th century northern European painters but with the artist’s native Iowa as his subject matter.  Painted in the middle of the Great Depression, the image of the stern farmer and spinster daughter with his rake is seeped into our cultural heritage.

          I was determined to scour the gallery for Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.  The painting has always spoken to me – it reminds me of late nights after a show – grabbing a meal.  The image of a night diner with a soda jerk and three customers invites viewers to step into the scene and imagine their own role in the story.

          My feet were beginning to hurt, but nothing could stop my mom from taking the elevator to the third floor to tour the contemporary art galleries. Highlights included: Matisse, Picasso, and Warhol.   Matisse is another favorite of mine because of his unique colorful style that is not confined to any artistic boundary. 

          The Institute has several Picasso’s but the most famous is the ‘Old Guitarist.’  It comes out of his Blue Period, where he explored a monochromatic blue palette.  This image of a withered guitarist – clutching his instrument demands the viewers empathy.  The painting explores themes of human misery and alienation and yet is calming.  As a musician, I see the man – bitterly hurt in spirit, still having hope in the sound of his instrument – an extension of his life itself.

          We capped off our whirlwind tour with Marc Chagall pieces.

          “Oh wow,” I stuttered, at a loss for words. “Chagall’s White Crucifixion – this is one of my favorite paintings.” Chagall was Jewish, but this painting breaks barriers between Christians and Jews.  Painted in 1938 as a warning and call to action as the Nazis, this image of Christ crucified, and devastation of pogroms speaks to the Jewish identity of Christ.  It demands action from the viewer – as we are all children of God.  By linking the martyred Jesus with the persecuted Jews and the Crucifixion with contemporary events – he passionately identifies the Nazis with Christ’s tormentors and warns of the moral implications of their actions.

          Another highlight is Chagall’s famed stain glass windows.  Known as the America Windows, this glorious stain glassed display tells a unique story of America post World War II.

          My mom and I wrapped up our tour in the gift shop just before five. Unfortunately, the museum is so expansive we missed several wings, like the Asian art, but hopefully we can tour the museum again in the future.

          “What a wonderful museum,” My mom commented as we exited the main entrance. 

          “Amazing,” I enthused as I stopped to take pictures of the famed Art Institute lion statues that guard the museum; the Chicago Skyline jutting into the clouds like something out of a science fiction movie.

          “I’m starving – let’s find somewhere to eat.”

          “What about the Palmer a Hilton?” I recommended. “It is a historic hotel with a great restaurant,” I suggested. “Not to mention it is only a block from the museum.”

          An icon of downtown Chicago for 150 years, The Palmer House is situated in the heart of The Loop area and theater district. The charming historic hotel is the longest continuously operating hotel in the U.S.

          The first Palmer House was built as a wedding present from Chicago business magnate, Potter Palmer for his socialite bride, Bertha Honoré. The extravagant hotel was destined for greatness, but unfortunately tragedy hit Chicago. Two weeks after opening the hotel it was destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire. The Chicago fire burned thousands of structures and decimated Chicago.

          Despite the tragedy, the city rebuilt – and Mr. Palmer was determined to rebuild his hotel. On November 8, 1873, the new Palmer House welcomed its first guests. 

          Bertha Palmer was a patron of the arts. After befriending Claude Monet in France, Bertha began decorating the Palmer House and other pieces inspired by her French heritage. She eventually accumulated the largest collection of impressionist collection of art outside of France. She decorated the Palmer House with garnet-draped chandeliers, Louis Comfort Tiffany masterpieces, and a gorgeous ceiling fresco by French painter Louis Pierre Rigal.

          The Palmer House became the liveliest place in Chicago-hosting prominent figures, including US presidents to Charles Dickens to Oscar Wilde. Legendary entertainers Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald performed in the Empire Room.

          It continues to be a gathering space – a part of the heartbeat of Chicago.

          With COVID the hotel restaurants were not open, but we were able to enjoy the ballroom and bar.

          My mom and I were seated in a nook in the gilded lobby, under the Greek mythological frescos and glow of Louis Comfort Tiffany Winged Angel candelabras.

          I ordered a Shirley Temple and my mom opted for a glass of wine. Famished, we settled on homemade chips as an appetizer. For our main course we split the burger and fries. Our waiter was excellent, and we enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere.

          I loved the gorgeous tapestry of design styles from gilded to essence Chicago deco and old-world charm. I imagined sitting listening to Judy Garland or have a conversation with Mrs. Palmer about her friendship with Claude Monet…the stories this lobby can tell.

          “We better get going,” I noticed the time. “It’s nearly seven and we need to drive to South Bend Indiana.”

          Long story short – we originally were going to stay in Chicago, but my mom and I realized we wanted to explore more of the Michigan side of Lake Michigan. We planned to spend the night in South Bend, then figure out the rest of the itinerary from there.

          South Bend is roughly 90 minutes east of Chicago. We are Catholic so seeing Notre Dame was of interest plus and it would allow room for more adventure we could explore a different area. I was able to get a room off Hotwire at the Hilton Garden Inn across from Notre Dame.

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