Exploring attitudes in Chicago towards modernist art between 1913 and 1933
is a vehicle for understanding this city's commercial development and
cultural self-definition. The assimilation of
modernist art into a cultural center in contrast to New York City also
provides a glimpse of American attitudes
towards European modernism during this critical interwar period. From the Great Fire of 1871,
through 1893's Columbian Exposition, to the Century of Progress World's
Fair in 1933, Chicago became one of the preeminent metropolises in the
U.S., as reflected in the Art Institute's acquisition of European
modernist collections for public display and ownership.
But there were supporters of the Armory Show's exhibition in Chicago.
Art Institute Trustee Arthur Aldis and influential member Arthur
Jerome Eddy belonged to this group. Eddy prided himself on being
the first Chicagoan to have ridden a bicycle and the first to own a car.
A man of self-made means, his twenty-seven purchases at the Armory Show were second only to New York's John Quinn. After the
show, Eddy continued his adamant support of the new in art, through
additions to his collection (he eventually owned thirteen Kandinskys,
including Improvisation no. 30 ), the publication of his 1914 book
and Post-Impressionism , and his encouragement of the Art Institute's
1915 exhibition of Albert Bloch's paintings. Upon his death in 1920,
however, the museum was not prepared to acquire such an avant-garde
Perhaps realizing that influential members of the Art Institute's Board
and Administration were hesitant about displaying European modernist art
for fear of inciting Armory Show-like public ire, Joseph Winterbotham
donated a unique gift to the Institute. Having long desired to bring
the benefits of European culture to his city, but not having developed an
art collection of his own, this businessman donated a fund of $50,000
towards the purchase of European art. In order to make the Fund as
useful as possible, he included a clause in the deed which allowed works
to be sold or exchanged as the collection developed. This flexibility
was exactly what the museum's new Director, Robert Harshe, needed to begin
building the Institute's collection of European modernist art.
The initial purchases included the Institute's first van Gogh and first
Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Cirque Fernando: The Ring Master.
a group of elite Chicagoans founded the Arts Club of Chicago,
an organization designed to provide private display and support of the fine arts for the public good.
In 1918, Rue Winterbotham Carpenter, daughter of Joseph Winterbotham,
became President of the Arts Club. Sympathetic to European modernism
and painfully aware of the Art Institute's hesitancy to exhibit such
art, she strengthened the Club by bringing modernist art to the
city. By 1922, the Club had outgrown its exhibition space and had
secured a gallery for its own use in the Art Institute. Trustee Minutes
show that museum leadership realized the potential vehicle which the
Arts Club's gallery space could become for the display and acquisition of
European modernist art at the Institute. The museum was not let down: in
1923, the Arts Club installed Chicago's first exhibition of Picasso.
Frederic Bartlett was named a Trustee of the Art Institute. At this
time, he and his wife loaned their collection of French
post-Impressionist and modernist art to the museum. The Bartletts
sincerely desired to bring the best of modern French art to their city,
believing in the invaluable cultural worth of viewing art which was both
new and European. What set
Bartlett apart from Eddy or Winterbotham in building their collections,
however, was his focus on developing a group of paintings which would hang
harmoniously as a unit.
After their purchase of Seurat's Grande Jatte in 1924 and Helen
Bartlett's death in 1925 (at which time the collection was bequethed to
the Art Institute), Frederic became zealous in his search for the pieces
which appropriately complimented the rest of the collection. Towards this
end, Bartlett had set down strict
stipulations in the deed of gift regarding his involvment in
the continued development of the collection and insuring that the
remain as a unit, representative of a certain time period in French art.
late 1920s, several developments took place at the museum which
indicated the Institute's increasing assimilation of modernist art into
its permanent collection. Often considered by scholars as further proof
of the museum's ambivalence towards European modernist art, these
developments make more sense when examined in the broader context of
Chicago's cultural history. By the mid-1920s, Chicagoans realized that
they could not equal New York's national importance by emulating the
cultural traditions of the past century. Chicago began to look within
itself for direction as it approached the 1930s, and the answer it found
was the commercial, the technological, the modern. The Art Institute was
not immune to this trend. In fact, with the death of Charles Hutchinson
in 1925, the museum's administrators were able to rectify the lack of
modernist art shown since the Armory Show of 1913. Exemplifying this
trend, in 1927, the Institute asked for jurisdiction
over the Arts Club gallery space in the museum. This was less an
antagonistic move and more an assertation of confidence on the
Institute's behalf. The museum no
longer needed to rely on an outside organization to bring European
modernism to Chicago. Such confidence in supporting recent and
contemporary European art was also reflected by increased purchases made
through the Winterbotham Fund and for the Birch-Bartlett Collecction. By
the time New York's Museum of Modern Art opened in
1929, Chicago's major public institution dedicated to the support of
fine art could boast one of the most significant collections of European
modernist art in the country.
Chicago announced its answer to the deepening Great Depression: a
world's fair which would both commemorate the fortieth anniversary of
the the legendary Columbian Exposition and the city's own centennial.
It would be no less than a celebration of a "Century of Progress". Chicago,
and the rest of the world, was ready to take up the mantra of modern
technological progress as the solution to twentieth century ills. Once
again, the Art Institute both reflected and propagated the city's
cultural leanings. In fact, the museum was so integral to the
ciy's cultural landscape that it was the host of the 1933 Exposition's
Exhibition of Fine Arts, rather than a separate exhibition hall built
exclusively for the Fair. For the Exposition, Art Institute Director Harshe
planned not only a
spectacular special exhibition which included Whistler's Study in Black
(Mother) , but he also wished to showcase Chicago's own remarkable
For several years the museum administration had hoped to install the
permanent collection in chronological order, rather than by the
traditional method of hanging collections as they were donated in
galleries named for the Institute's benefactors. Harshe viewed
Century of Progress Exposition as the perfect opportunity to undertake
such a plan. Not only did it make sense to rearrange the collection in
preparation for the Fair, but by 1933, most of those who
had donated important collections to the museum were no longer living.
As a result, by 1934, the Art Institute of
Chicago was not only the first major public institution to possess such an
collection of European post-impressionist and modernist art, but the first museum to have fully incorporated such art into its permanent
1. Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation no. 30 (Cannon), 1913. Oil
on canvas. Arthur Jerome Eddy Memorial Collection, The Art Institute of
2. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Cirque Fernando: The Ring Master, 1888. Oil on canvas. Joseph Winterbotham Collection, The Art Institute of Chicago.
3. Constantin Brancusi, Portrait (Rue Winterbotham Carpenter), 1927. Graphite. The Art Institute of Chicago.
4. Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte, 1884-1886. Oil on Canvas. Birch-Bartlett Collection, The Art Institute of Chicago.
5. Paul Gauguin, Mahana No Atua (Day of the Gods), 1894. Oil on canvas. Birch-Bartlett Collection, The Art Institute of Chicago.
6. Poster. The Century of Progress Exposition, 1933.
(N.B. Copies in full are available through the Mount
Holyoke College Library and the Archives of the Art
Last updated 16 November 1996 by Chris Roch
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