A Visit to the Art Institute of Chicago

In early December, before travelling to Canada for the holidays, I visited the city of Chicago. I’d never been but had heard quite a lot about the Art Institute. I remembered having seen slides of famous artworks during my art history classes, many with the familiar small print beneath noting that the work was part of the Art Institute of Chicago collections. In this post, I write about my visit and the works that moved me.

Unlike my enthusiastic partner, I (equally enthusiastic) didn’t do much research before our visit. I prefer to show up and see what is there. I knew the Institute boasts a large Impressionist collection and that there would be many works that I had studied, and which were on my list of “must-sees” (Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884) for one).

Due to the ongoing pandemic, I have visited few museums in the last two years. Lucky for me, the Art Institute was not crowded. The unusually uncrowded museum space gave a feeling of safety and of quiet, which made me feel comfortable to take my time with the paintings.

Taking a break in the Art Institute of Chicago after seeing a lot of art.

While there are many rooms with amazing paintings, my favourite room houses the Monets. Along two walls are his many versions of the haystacks. I had first seen reproductions of these paintings in my high school art history textbook. As I’ve written about here, it was these and other Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings that ignited my love for the study of art history.

It was Monet’s painting, Impression, Sunrise (1872) that caused a critic to deem this new, loose, light-inspired painting technique “Impressionistic”. Not meant as a compliment, Monet and his contemporaries, who exhibited their work together in the late nineteenth century, embraced this title and continued to develop this new way of painting.

What I, and so many, love about Monet’s series—haystacks, cathedrals, waterlilies—is the changes that occur to the object with the passage of time and the changes of natural light. One particular subject, one scene, is constantly changing (in colour and clarity) as the day goes on and the sun moves across the sky. Monet’s subject was light and he showed the world how light affects the way in which we see everything around us.

Taking in these paintings of haystacks by Monet. It was incredible to see them all together.

One painting that I have always loved, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s At The Moulin Rouge (1892-1895), is at the Art Institute. At one time, I’m sure I knew this, having made a presentation on this work in an early art history class. In preparation for my presentation, I soaked up everything I could about this painting and the man who made it. But I was surpirsed to see it as I turned a corner and was thrilled!

Overjoyed to be standing next to one of my favourite paintings, Toulouse-Lautrec’s At The Moulin Rouge.

I love the dance hall atmosphere depicted by the artist. The strong diagonal of the banister at the lower left side frames the image while allowing the viewer a peek inside. This orange, echoed in the hair of the woman sitting at the table, compliments the light greenish colour of the dance hall, its most startling application being on the garishly lit face of the woman in the lower right corner.

One painting that I had not expected to see, indeed hadn’t known of, was Lawren Harris’ Red Sleigh, House, Winter (1919). This painting, on loan to the Art Institute, is part of McGill University’s Visual Arts Collection. The bright blue winter sky and crisp white snow, offset by the orange decoratively curled foreground branches, stopped me in my tracks. I have always loved the work of the Canadian Group of Seven artists and was pleased to be standing in front of this new-to-me scene. This is an early work by Harris, who is well-known for his cool Arctic scenes which differ from this 1919 painting in palette and subject-matter. I might have spent the most time here. I stood there studying the colours of the shadows in the snow, the colour variation across the iron fence, and the thick and varied application of paint, which the McGill website notes was typical of Harris’ earlier work.

The perfect December painting – Lawren Harris’, Red Sleigh, House, Winter.

It felt good to be in a museum setting again, to see paintings in the flesh. And it was wonderful to see artworks that have played a big role in my love for the practice and study of art as well as to be surprised by captivating paintings over a century old.

I look forward to my next museum visit, wherever and whenever that may be!

Thanks for reading!   

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