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7 Paintings You Have to See at the Art Institute of Chicago

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The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the world’s great encyclopedic art museums. Its collection of more than 300,000 artworks covers the history of art across multiple cultures and eras. Among its strengths is its European and American art; this list highlights just a few notable works from that tradition.


Earlier versions of the descriptions of these paintings first appeared in 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die, edited by Stephen Farthing (2018). Writers’ names appear in parentheses.

  • American Gothic (1930)

    Iowan Grant Wood was a member of the Regionalist movement in American art, which championed the solid rural values of central America against the complexities of European-influenced East Coast Modernism. Yet Wood’s most famous painting is artificially staged, absorbingly complex, and irresolvably ambivalent. Its most obvious inspiration is the work of Flemish artists such as Jan van Eyck that Wood had seen on visits to Europe, though it may also show an awareness of the contemporary German Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement. Wood noticed the white house with its Gothic pinnacle in the small town of Eldon, southern Iowa. He used his sister Nan and his dentist Dr. B.H. McKeeby as models for the couple standing in front of it. The pitchfork suggests the man is a farmer, although whether this is a husband and wife or a father and daughter is unclear. They are a tight-lipped, buttoned-up couple. The farmer’s pose is defensive, the pitchfork planted to repel trespassers. The woman’s sideways glance is open to any reading. Some have found in it, as in the stray hair curling at her strangely elongated neck and the brooch at her throat, hints of a strictly repressed sensuality. Superficially simple and naive, the image is rich in visual puns and echoes, for example between the pitchfork and the bib of the farmer’s overalls. Wood consistently rejected suggestions that American Gothic was a satire of the Midwest and its conservative values. An icon of American popular culture, it remains as ambiguous as its title. (Reg Grant)

  • Still Life with Game Fowl (c. 1602)

    Juan Sánchez Cotán, born at Orgaz in the province of La Mancha, is perhaps most closely associated with a conception of still life inherited from classical antiquity. According to Pliny the Elder, the rival painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius tried to outdo one another through displays of technical virtuosity. To this end, Zeuxis painted a still life of grapes so convincing in their verisimilitude that some birds swooped down and tried to peck at the apparent fruit. Parrhasius then asked his rival to draw back a pair of curtains so that Zeuxis might see Parrhasius’s own painting. When Zeuxis attempted this, he realized that Parrhasius had painted a pair of curtains so lifelike that they were able to deceive the eyes of an artist. While Cotán’s still lifes perhaps fell somewhat short of such an ambition, the artist, who often went to meticulous lengths to arrange a few objects in a sparing and highly selective manner, was concerned with getting his paintings as close to reality as possible. Still Life with Game Fowl places a number of objects within a shallow, boxlike space. Either suspended or resting upon an apparent ledge, each object carries its own integrity, while collectively working in harmony to instill an overarching design or arrangement. In a display of artistic virtuosity, Cotán suspends the duck in front of the actual frame and toward the space occupied by the viewer. As well as instilling the palpable nature of the objects, Cotán’s approach is more widely indicative of the artist’s singular approach to the genre of still life. (Craig Staff)

  • Woman at Her Toilette (c. 1875)

    Berthe Morisot is the only female painter who is consistently included in discussions about the Impressionists. The supposed grand-niece of the Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard, she was born into a wealthy family and grew up in an artistic home, but she nonetheless shocked her family by choosing to become a professional artist. While in her teens she was sent to the école des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where she studied for three years. In 1860, she became a pupil of Camille Corot, whose work was her chief influence until she met édouard Manet in 1868. Theirs was to prove a lasting friendship; she was accepted into his social group and went on to marry Manet’s brother in 1874.

    Morisot’s The Cradle (1873), showing an exhausted mother rocking her baby’s crib, was included in the very first Impressionist exhibition, in 1874. The Impressionists’ desire to perfect the ways in which light was portrayed is apparent in Woman at her Toilette: the manner in which the light changes when it falls upon the lady’s skin, in contrast to the way it falls upon her dress, is masterful. Edgar Degas once wrote, “The fascinating thing is not to show the source of light, but the effect of light,” and this seems to be the technique that Morisot used in this painting. Like Manet, Morisot was slightly more reserved in her method than the other Impressionists, preferring to work in a more accurate, less abstract style. Her paintings often concentrate on women, either as portraits or, like this one, as more general studies of women and their everyday domesticity. (Lucinda Hawksley)

  • A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884 (1884–86)

    In the 1880s the lower-middle classes flocked to the Grande Jatte in suburban Paris for a riverside stroll and a picnic on Sunday afternoons. This was the kind of subject matter that the Impressionists had made fashionable, but Georges Seurat was far from embracing that art movement’s pursuit of the fleeting and spontaneous. He made more than 70 preliminary oil sketches and drawings for this formalized image, with its careful composition and stress on simplified geometric forms. During his two years working on La Grande Jatte, Seurat was also developing the pointilliste technique of applying color in dots that were intended to fuse when seen from a distance, and it coexists here with his more conventional earlier style. Some 40 figures crowd the canvas, mostly in profile or full face. They appear static and frozen in an uncommunicative proximity. Many figures have been identified as known Parisian stereotypes. For instance, the woman standing in the right foreground, with the striking bustle, is identified by her pet monkey—symbol of lasciviousness—as a woman of loose morals. The seated man with the top hat on the left is a fashionable stroller of boulevards. The shift from a shaded foreground to a bright background creates a strong sense of depth to which the recession of figures contributes, although there are some disorienting shifts in scale. Seurat said that his aim was to represent modern life in the style of a classical Greek frieze. The overall effect, intended or not, is dreamlike, haunting, and utterly unreal. (Reg Grant)

  • Portrait of Pablo Picasso (1912)

    Juan Gris left Madrid for Paris in 1906. Six years later, when he was working close to Pablo Picasso in a dilapidated studio block, Gris painted one of the great masterpieces of Spanish art. It depicts the artist looking out at the viewer in a relaxed and confident manner. In his left hand, he is shown holding a palette bearing elliptical smears of black and the three primary colors. The painting is made up of a series of facetted planes, the edges of which are delineated with a decisive clarity. The artist constructs these planes out of blocklike touches of warm and cool color, a technique adopted from Picasso and Georges Braque, although Gris places them on the surface of the canvas with a regularity rarely employed by the other artists. (Paul Bonaventura)

  • Champs de Mars: La Tour Rouge (1911–23)

    A few years before he created the Cubist piece Champs de Mars: La Tour Rouge, Robert Delaunay was painting in the Impressionist style of the 19th century. The artist chose a fitting subject for his new style: the Eiffel Tower. This is one of a series of paintings of what was then the world’s tallest human-made structure. In 1911 Delaunay exhibited his work with the Munich-based Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) group. Under the group’s Abstractionist influence, Delaunay’s work began to evolve. His red tower rises like a phoenix, as if in a flame or a plume of smoke, from among the drab Parisian apartment blocks. The gray cityscape serves to frame Delaunay’s subject and objects are broken down on the canvas. The interest of Champs de Mars is his treatment of light. Delaunay subjects the air around the tower to similar analysis, deconstructing the atmosphere into an array of vibrant color. (Alix Rule)

  • Nighthawks (1942)

    Curved geometric forms accentuated by an Art Deco facade and angular light provide an almost theatrical setting for a group of insulated and isolated figures. The Phillies cigars advertisement on top of the diner shows this is not an upmarket location, since Phillies was a brand of American-made popular, cheap cigars commonly sold at convenience stores and gas stations. These “nighthawks” are bathed in an oasis of fluorescent light in an all-night diner in an otherwise dark urban street: it’s a film noir, Chandler-esque setting. There is no doubt that American Edward Hopper’s expressive use of artificial light playing upon the simplified shapes gives Nighthawks its beauty. The Bogart-and-Bacall couple stare at the bar boy bending below the counter while their hands almost touch—a tableaux that makes the solitary diner across the counter, and with his back to the viewer, look even more conspicuous. Hopper claimed that the street itself wasn’t particularly lonely, but perhaps unconsciously he was conceptualizing the crushing loneliness of a large city. In any event, there is no visible diner’s entrance, the viewer is shut out from the scene, making it more intriguing. The diner itself was inspired by one in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, where Hopper lived for more than 50 years. Hopper’s practice was to make sketches while he was out and about in New York and then come back to his studio and sketch a combination of poses together with his wife, Josephine, as he did here. His vision has become one of the iconic images of the 20th century. (James Harrison)

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