Artwork You Must See in My Favorite Chicago Museum
Any trip to downtown Chicago museums is a good trip
The Windy City. Chi-town. Second City. Paris of the Prairie.
Whatever you call Chicago, it’s one of my favorite cities in the world. Luckily, my dad hails from the western Chicago suburbs so growing up I spent a fair amount of time in Chicagoland. As a rural northern Minnesota kid, I’m forever grateful that trips to visit family took me to CHICAGO. While my peers schlepped down I-35 to the Twin Cities, my family headed to the land of Michael Jordan, the Sears Tower, and Jewel-Oscos.
I spent most of my early years in Chicagoland in the ‘burbs. That made it extra exciting if we headed downtown for a day of exploring Chicago museums, buildings, and parks. Favorite downtown Chicago haunts included the Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, and Field Museum. Sometimes we’d take an elevator to whiz up to the observation deck of the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) or drive Lake Shore Drive towards Navy Pier. But if it was the very best downtown Chicago day, we went to The Art Institute of Chicago.
The best museum in Chicago
I feel happy just walking by the two bronze lions standing sentry over the Art Institute of Chicago’s main entrance on Michigan Avenue. (And you know I have a soft-spot for a good art museum: Example 1, Example 2 . . . )
Sarah Vowell writes that she gets excited every time she sees the National Park typeface because she knows she’s about to experience something really good. I get that same feeling when I see a couple lions guarding an entrance. I mean, how could there be anything other than goodness inside?!
I’ve passed those lions (nameless survivors of 1893 Chicago World Fair) and made my way up the Art Institute steps many times. With more than 300,000 artworks inside, it’s going to take a lot more visits if I’m ever going to feel I’ve seen everything in this Chicago museum. Despite its vastness, the Art Institute manages to feel accessible, even to a first-time visitor. Over the years, I’ve found so many favorite pieces of art that each trip feels like visiting an old friend.
My favorite Art Institute of Chicago artworks don’t align with your typical top 10 list for the museum. Yes, you should go see American Gothic, Hopper’s Nighthawks, and Van Gogh’s Bedroom, but those aren’t the pieces I personally seek out. My personal top five must-see artworks at the Art Institute of Chicago will have you tromping up and down the Grand Staircase and sinking down to the lower level. Although my favorites might not be your favorites, I hope this list inspires you to make your own favorites during your visit.
America Windows – Marc Chagall
Chagall’s America Windows makes most top 10 lists of Art Institute of Chicago artwork . . . and not just because it serves as the backdrop for Ferris Bueller kissing Sloane in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Made specifically for the Art Institute, Chagall gave this six-window installment to the Chicago museum in 1977.
In part, the windows celebrate the United States’ bicentennial. If you look closely, you’ll spy the Statue of Liberty as well as a bit of Chicago’s skyline. Chagall also wanted to honor America’s vibrant art scene. The installment devotes a panel each to music, painting, theatre, literature, architecture, and dance.
But more than evoking an “American feeling,” the windows just feel BLUE. A known master of color, it seems Chagall squeezed the very essence of the color blue into these windows. The windows cast a blue glow into the airy museum room where they’re housed. Step in front of them and soak up simultaneously joyful and calming effect achieved with this work from Chagall’s later life.
Want more Chagall? Swing by his Four Seasons mosaic in the Chase Tower Plaza just a few short blocks away from the Art Institute main entrance.
Stacks of Wheat – Claude Monet
Chicago earned the nickname “Paris of the Prairie” for good reason. For one thing, the two cities (Paris and Chicago) both underwent significant rebuilding projects after major fires in 1871. For another, the Art Institute of Chicago has one of the largest collections of impressionist art in the world. (The two cities also duked it out for World’s Fair host in the 1890s.)
I’m hesitant to single out one painting to represent the magnitude of the Institute’s impressionist collection . . . so I didn’t.
The Art Institute owns six of Monet’s 25 famous paintings of haystacks. While I’d agree that his Water Lilies might be more immediately engaging, his haystack series become more captivating the more you look at them. I have fond memories of standing among Monet’s paintings in the second story Art Institute room while my dad pointed out how Monet captured different lights and temperatures depending on what season he was viewing the haystacks through his Giverny, France home window. Stacks of Wheat (End of Summer) is probably my favorite of the six, but I find each intriguing in its own way.
If stacks of wheat just aren’t your thing, don’t worry. At the Art Institute of Chicago, you’re surrounded by hundreds of famous Impressionist era paintings. Just wander over into the next room . . . you’re sure to see something that strikes your fancy. Maybe Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Rainy Day or Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884?
Elaine – Edward Rosenthal
Located right off the sculpture court, I remember wandering past this painting as a teenager and coming to a dead stop. For that reason alone, this is the one painting I try to see every time I visit the Chicago museum. Happily, the centrally located sculpture court makes it easy to “swing by.”
Sure, it’s a melodramatic Victorian painting. But when I first saw it, the story of Elaine’s body being ferried to Camelot after dying of a broken heart (damn you, Lancelot and Guinevere!) was fresh in my mind. At first glance, I instantly recognized the story Rosenthal was retelling. He captures the senseless tragedy Elaine’s wasted young life. The ferryman’s obscured face summons illusions of Charon paddling across the Styx in Hades. The painting screams Victorian Gothic moodiness with its dark pall punctuated with beautiful flower garlands.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poetry inspired Rosenthal to paint Elaine. In turn, this painting piqued many others’ interest in Elaine and Arthurian legend. If you’ve ever read Anne of Green Gables, you might remember Anne and Diana’s ill-fated trip down a river when they dramatized Elaine’s funeral barge. Although the (albeit fictional) girls credit Tennyson as the inspiration for their folly, it was actually this painting that caused a surge in Tennyson’s popularity in the late 1870s and 80s.
Narcissa Niblack Thorne’s miniatures
In my very first memory of the Art Institute, I’m standing on my tiptoes, peering into one of Narcissa Niblack Thorne’s gorgeous miniature rooms. So special they have their very own gallery in the museum’s lower level, Thorne’s miniature rooms depict perfect replicas of various western historical interiors. You’ll find English Great Halls in the Tudor style, French boudoirs, and California hallways all perfectly proportioned for someone Borrower’s size. More accurately, the miniatures are built on a scale of 1:1; aka each inch represents one foot.
Gallery 11 at the Art Institute of Chicago contains 70 of Narcissa’s miniature rooms. (I’m pretty sure on that first childhood visit, we barely made it out of that gallery.) While I can breeze through galleries filled with paintings, miniature rooms draw me in like a vortex. If you don’t linger at each one Narcissa’s detailed miniatures, you’ll miss something good.
If you had any affinity for dollhouses as a child, head straight to Gallery 11 once you’ve paid. Visiting with a kid? Please, please take them downstairs to visit Narcissa’s exquisite creations. You’re going to make Chicago museum memories that last a lifetime.
Art Institute of Chicago special exhibits
Maybe it’s a bit of a cop out to single out the Art Institute of Chicago’s special exhibits as a favorite. After all, the exhibits change many times a year and there’s bound to be a dud or two. However, I’ve always found them carefully curated and well worth the additional admission.
Every Art Institute’s special exhibit provides an excellent crash course in art history. Some exhibits, like the 2002 The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence, can save you an expensive plane ticket to Italy. (Although, you should still definitely put Florence and the Uffizi on your bucket list if you haven’t already been.) Other exhibits, like the 2015 Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, provide fresh perspectives no matter how well you think you know the subject matter.
If you’re making a first trip to the Art Institute, I might advise against hitting up the special exhibit du jour. There’s just so much to see in the museum’s permanent gallery that you don’t want to be all “museum-ed out” by the time you finish looking at the exhibit. However, if the current special exhibit calls to you, by all means, go see it. I promise it’ll be worth it. They’re usually only on display for three months tops, so why miss out?
Have you ever visited the Art Institute of Chicago? If so, what was your favorite piece of art?
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