From "Rube Town" to Modern Metropolis:

The Growth and Public Acquisition

of Modernist Art Collections in Chicago, 1913-1933


Christine L. Roch

Mount Holyoke College 1996

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.

The Armory Show, 1913

In 1913, the Association of American Painters brought several hundred of the most avant-garde works of art to New York's 69th Regiment Armory (hence, the "Armory Show"). Interestingly, the Trustees and Director of the Art Institute in Chicago decided to bring the show to their city, stressing the public's right to see a range of art. (At the time, the Art Institute owned only two twentieth-century works in its entire collection.) The very same public-minded officers of the Art Institute, such as Charles Hutchinson, President, and William French, Director, decried artists such as Matisse, Picasso, and Duchamp. In fact, both Hutchinson and French conveniently find themselves out of town when the show runs in Chicago. The public, including schoolteachers, ministers, and local art critics, were, at the least, intrigued by the art in the show--and more often than not, outraged. Walt Kuhn, influential member of the Association of American Painters, wrote of Chicago's crassness, "It's a rube town!"

A Study of the New: Arthur Jerome Eddy's Collection, 1912-1920

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 Cubists 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 collection.

Joseph Winterbotham and the Winterbotham Fund at the Art Institute of Chicago, 1921-1924

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.

Rue Winterbotham Carpenter and the Arts Club of Chicago, 1916-1924

In 1916, 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.

"An Adequate Expression of Modern Art": The Birch-Bartlett Collection, 1923-1927

In 1923, 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 collection remain as a unit, representative of a certain time period in French art.

Transistion, 1927-1931

During the 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.

Completion, 1931-1934

By 1930, 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 collection. 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 the 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 extensive collection of European post-impressionist and modernist art, but the first museum to have fully incorporated such art into its permanent collection.

Included Images:

1. Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation no. 30 (Cannon), 1913. Oil on canvas. Arthur Jerome Eddy Memorial Collection, The Art Institute of Chicago.
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 Institute of Chicago.)

Last updated 16 November 1996 by Chris Roch
clroch@midway.uchicago.edu

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