Creative Immersion: The Art Institute of Chicago

Since I last posted on this blog about my Amsterdam trip a lot has happened. The main thing is that I officially started school at the University of Chicago and completed a full trimester of studies (at UChicago we don’t do the semester thing). Life as a college student definitely keeps me busy – classes require a lot of writing and puzzling over problem sets and my work in a lymphatic immunology lab takes up my remaining free time. Here and there I participate in the ballroom dance and equestrian clubs, work as an associate editor for UChicago’s scientific publication and attend meetings of smart women securities, an organization for women in business. It’s great to be able to pursue all my scattered and varied interests though unfortunately this doesn’t leave much time for blogging, sleeping or exploring the exciting city of Chicago.

I’m always amused that even though the urban nature of UChicago was one of the things that attracted me to the school, as a student I barely have time to tour downtown Chicago. A friend of mine who also goes to UChicago once joked that the good thing about attending a college that’s in “the middle of nowhere” must be that you don’t constantly feel guilty for not taking advantage of a metropolitan city because of all your other obligations. Interestingly, the University itself is somewhat isolated from the really urban parts of Chicago since it’s located in the Hyde Park neighborhood of the city which somewhat feels like a suburban bubble. You have to really travel downtown to get to know the truly bustling city that most people associate with Chicago.

The one place I have visited (in fact 3 times) is the Art Institute of Chicago. This is probably one of the most amazing museums I’ve been too – the variety and richness of its art collections is really incredible and also very well organized. Anyway, I feel that I could visit this museum another 3 times and still find something new to see.

The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the oldest and largest art museums in the United States, second only to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Art Institute had a turbulent history – it was originally founded in 1866 as both an art museum and a learning institution but was destroyed and thrown into debt during the Great Chicago Fire. In 1879 the original institution was abandoned and the Art Institute of Chicago as we know it today was established. It’s current building on the lakefront was constructed in the Beaux-Arts style for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1892-93. The main entrance in guarded by two bronze lion statues created by Edward Kemeys, each weighing over 2 tons. Since I was there around Christmas season the lions were also wearing evergreen wreaths. The Art Institute has a vast collection of more than 300,000 works in 11 curatorial departments. In this post, I will talk about some of my favorites.

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The Renaissance collection of the Art Institute is extensive with a lot of well-known and wonderful paintings. One is El Greco’s The Assumption of the Virgin, a massive religious composition painted as part of the artist’s first major Spanish commission  for the church of the Cistercian convent of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo.

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Additionally, there is a room in the Art Institute dedicated to Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s paintings of scenes from the epic poem Jerusalem Delivered by Italian poet Torquato Tasso. For opera fans, Giovanni Rossini’s opera Armida is also based on this poem. The poem chronicles the 1st crusade while the opera focuses more on the love story between the poem’s hero and the sorceress Armida. Since the friend I was with was studying Jerusalem Delivered in literature class we spent some time enjoying these paintings.

In general, the Renaissance collection of the Art Institute is huge and way more than I could possibly cover in this blog post. But once again here are some fun snapshots.

Georges Seurat’s iconic painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is in fact housed in this museum. This is one of those paintings that most people, even those not too into art, would recognize. Seurat created the painting in the 1880s and it depicts people relaxing in a suburban park on the Seine river. The artist also used a technique called pointillism to paint it – basically it’s composed completely of dots (as opposed to the brushstrokes preferred by the impressionists). Though I wouldn’t call this painting one of my favorites, it’s still remarkable to look at. It’s so hard to wrap your mind around the amount of work that must have gone into creating something so large, nuanced, and colorful with only dots.

The Institute has a wonderful collection of Claude Monet’s paintings. They dedicate half a room to his series  Stacks of Wheat and have other iconic works sprinkled throughout the impressionist halls. The Stacks of Wheat all next to each other are very pretty and convey the feeling of a melancholy and warm summer night in the fields. Of course, Monet’s paintings of nature generally have that effect of transporting you to a beautiful mental space.

There is also an entire room dedicated to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings and many of them are very famous and easily recognizable. Amongst those are At the Moulin Rouge and Equestrienne (at the cirque fernando). Lautrec definitely captured in his paintings exciting action of people vigorously enjoying life and music. Something new that I learned about the artist was that Lautrec was fascinated by Lesbian culture in Paris and was one of the few artists to portray Lesbian relationships as loving and romantic rather than deserving of moral condemnation.

Auguste Rodin’s commemorative statue of French writer Honore de Balzac is also displayed at the Art Institute. Rodin sculpted the author as a heroic nude with an aggressive stance and did not gloss over his ungainly physique. The sculpture was met with disapproval when it first premiered but is now an icon of modern art.

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There are many other fabulous impressionist and post-impressionist works by artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Paul Cezanne and Camille Pissarro at the Art Institute of Chicago (to name only a few). Here are a few snapshots I took.

Amongst the even more modern art the museum there are beautiful pieces by Henri Matisse, Renee Magritte, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani and Andy Warhol, to name only a few. Some more snapshots for your perusal are below.

Finally, one of the most impressive pieces in the Art Institute are Marc Chagall’s America Windows. These are lovely 36 panel stained-glass windows crafted by Marc Chagall in the 1970s to commemorate America’s bicentennial. The images celebrate America as a place of religious freedom and cultural flourishing. These windows also made an appearance in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The windows are huge (8ft by 30ft), full of vibrant colors and possess the artist’s signature ability to make you feel like you are in a dream. It’s a surreal experience to stand in the dimly lit room and study the beautiful details of the artwork.

The one painting I didn’t have a chance to see is Grant Wood’s iconic work American Gothic. Apparently it is now touring Europe for the first time ever but hopefully it will be back soon (just in time for another trip to the Art Institute). If you are ever in Chicago be sure to dedicate a lot of time to exploring this fabulous museum – you won’t regret it.

As usual all the photos in this post are originals so I apologize for the poor quality of some of the pictures of the paintings. I will try to post again soon and not have another 3-month delay. Thanks so much for reading!