Top 10 Things to See at the Art Institute of Chicago

Photo of the Arts of Africa gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the most respected art museums in the world and 2nd largest in the US., which is why my Hun and I went to visit the museum during our trip to Chicago! In this blog, I’ll share my top 10 things to see at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Quick History

Photo of the exterior of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The beautiful entrance to the Art Institute of Chicago.

Are you ready for a little art history? I know I’m always down! After the Great Fire of 1871, Chicago entered into a time of rapid expansion. Local leaders and patrons identified the arts as an essential part of metropolitan life where culture and learning were prominent.

Eight years later in 1879, the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts was established as an art and design school that showcased artistic works. In 1882 it was renamed to the Art Institute of Chicago and in 1893, a new building was redesigned for the World’s Columbian Exhibition (aka – “World Fair”) which, later that year, was turned into the art museum we have today.

The museum now boasts over 300,000 artworks, is the 2nd largest museum in the U.S., and, impressively, one of the top 20 largest museums in the world. The Art Institute of Chicago is easily accessible by public transportation and has an extensive American art and impressionist collections, with one of the biggest collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art outside the Louvre in Paris. You’ll find photography, textiles, sculpture, and so much more. Want specifics? Keep reading.

Top 10 Things to See at the Art Institute of Chicago

1. American Gothic , Grant Wood, 1930

Photo of the American Gothic painting at  the Art Institute of Chicago.
Farm life is serious business, especially during the Great Depression.

Wood, an American artist, left the U.S. and studied Flemish Renaissance art in Europe. When he returned to the U.S. he settled in his home state of Iowa and found himself in the middle of the Great Depression.

Inspired by the small towns in Iowa, he intended the piece to be a positive statement about rural values and resiliency amongst the turmoil that was the Great Depression.

Wood used his sister and dentist as models for the “Farmer and Daughter”. This classic American painting was first showcased at the Art Institute of Chicago. Wood won instant fame and a whopping $300 prize which is the equivalent of $4,500 today.

2. Arts of Africa & Arts of Asia Galleries

Photo of the Arts of Africa gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Hun walking through the culturally diverse Arts of Africa gallery.

These two sections took my breath away and are a must see!

The African Art gallery “Illustrates the vastness and diversity of the African continent as well as the relationships between neighboring cultures, Northern Africa and the Sahel, Coastal West Africa, Central Africa, and Eastern and Southern Africa.” You’ll find ornate masks, impressive jewelry, statues, and so much more.

Similarly, the Arts of Asia gallery boasts sculptures, masks, textiles, and prints spanning a millennia! With so much culture and beauty between these two sections, I couldn’t help but add these as ranked #2 on my top 10 things to see at the Art Institute of Chicago list.

3. A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat, 1884 – 1886

Close up of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte painting at  the Art Institute of Chicago.
Seurat must’ve taken forever and a lifetime painting the tiny dots that make this masterpiece!

Did you know people actually hated this painting in the 1800s? Nowadays, this beautiful piece is considered Seurat’s greatest work and one of the most remarkable paintings of the 19th century.

I love it because Seurat helped develop a whole new technique that is similar to today’s images shown on printers, televisions, and computer screens! The Pointilist technique he used is based on research in optical and color theory. He painted in tiny dots of color in a pattern that, through optical blending, formed an image and what he considered a more brilliant hue.

“The technique relies on the ability of the eye and mind of the viewer to blend the color spots into a fuller range of tones.” Can we say BRILLIANT?!

4. Thorne Miniature Rooms by Narcissa Niblack Thorne (aka “Mrs. James Ward Thorne”)

Photo of a man looking at one of the Thorne Gallery rooms at  the Art Institute of Chicago.
Hun leaning in to take in the incredible details of this room.

Are y’all old enough to remember the Montgomery Ward store? Welp, I sure am. Narcissa was Mr. Montgomery Ward’s wife, a socialite, and world traveler. The Thorne Miniature Rooms are 68 miniature, shoe-box sized rooms inspired by her extensive world travels, specific historical eras, and popular movies. Each box could be a kitchen, living room, the bedroom of royalty, or something in-between; but each is a fascinating glimpse into the living spaces of people across the globe.

The rooms are often said to be “two parts fantasy, one part history—each room a shoe box–sized stage set awaiting viewers’ characters and plots.”

I added this entire gallery to my top 10 things to see at the Art Institue of Chicago because, typically, most art pieces physically draw you away (or make you take a few steps back step beck) in order to view the entire scene. However,  Mrs. Thorne’s works do just the opposite, they draw you in to the box in order to observe the tiniest detail.

These rooms were one of my favorite galleries at the museum due, in large part, to the craftmanship and attention to detail. Mrs. Thorne was so dedicated to creating these rooms that she hired carpenters, weavers, glass makers, and designers to ensure the room was precisely as it should be. As a matter of fact, she even sourced the exact type of wood and yarn used in the real-life historical rooms. Yeah…she went ALL out!

5. The Bedroom, Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

Photo of Vincent Van Gogh's "The Bedroom" at  the Art Institute of Chicago.
The colors were meant to be calming…what do you think?

What is the bedroom? This painting literally shows the interior of Van Gogh’s bedroom at the “Yellow House” – the first home of his own – located in Arles, in the south of France.

Being Van Gogh’s 1st home, he wanted the house to be a welcome studio for like-minded artists and was very eager and enthusiastic about decorating it. So much so that he exhausted himself and spent 2.5 days in bed! Thus, the inspiration for this painting.

Van Gogh made three versions of this painting: The 1st is located at the VanGogh museum in Amsterdam; the 2nd is at the Art Institute Chicago; and the 3rd is at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. If you can’t spend six jours in Paris or Amsterdam to see this piece, come right on down to Chicago!

6. Nighthawks, Edward Hopper, 1942

Photo of "Nighthawks" at  the Art Institute of Chicago.
An eerie foreshadowing of pandemic life brought to you by the 1940s!

This painting is one of the best-known paintings of the 20th century. Hopper was inspired by a restaurant in NYC’s Greenwich Ave. Fluorescent lights were considered a “new thing” in the 1940s and he explored the use of artificial light inside the restaurant. Not to mention his wife, Jo, was the model for the red-haired woman! Today, most people see it as a symbol of isolation but Hopper denies this…and at the same time admits, perhaps unconsciously, that he was painting the loneliness of a large city. This is another iconic piece of American art and easily made my top 10 things to see at the Chicago Institute of Art.

7. Nightlife, Archibald J. Motley, Jr., 1943

Photo of "Nightlife" at the  the Art Institute of Chicago.
I wish every gathering I went to was as lively as Archibold Motley Jr.’s Nightlife!

In contract to the solitary nature of Nighthawks, Archibald, a Chicago-born painter, depicted the vibrant nightlife of young, sophisticated city dwellers of the southside of the city.

Compared to Hopper’s Nighthawks, Motley’s figures are tightly connected and colorful. They are intertwined, dancing, drinking, and having the best time of their lives – together – in the city of Chicago.

8. Special Exhibitions, various artists, various eras

Photo of Toulous Lautrec's exhibit at  the Art Institute of Chicago.
Whimsy typography, bold images, sharp angles? “Yes, please!” said the graphic designer!

Before you head to the museum, check for exciting, limited time exhibitions. For example, when spent three days in Chciago, we stopped by the museum and saw the “Toulouse-Lautrec and the Celebrity Culture of Paris” exhibit. This exhibit showcased the work of Toulouse-Lautrec through various posters of the 1880s. Lautrec made a career depicting colorful personalities in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, known for lively nightlife and cabarets, using large scale posters – a “new” invention at the time. I studied graphic design and was delighted by his use of typography, scale, and balance.

The length of time an exhibition is available varies from 3-4 months to a year, so definitely check the website for the latest exhibit for your next visit.

9. Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida, Ivan Albright, 1929-30

Photo of Ida at  the Art Institute of Chicago.
Definitely sit down for this painting, it’s a lot to take in.

Wow! What can I say about Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida?! This painting is located on the opposite of Hopper’s barren Nighthawks scene and I so wasn’t ready for this!!

Abright was a medical illustrator during WWI, which heavily influenced his “haunting portrayals of aging and decay”. Further, he portrayed of the body’s vulnerability to age, disease, and death. This includes a haunting series of self-portraits, one of which the artist made in his hospital bed three days before he died. Eerie.

These painting are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Shock and awe for sure! Ida was a beautiful 20yr old model that Albright transformed into this a sorrowful, flesh drooping, older woman. Every wrinkle and fold is illuminated in this painting. You can tell he was deeply impacted by the horror and tragedy of war by the intensity of the paintings. A must see and a must add for my top 10 things to see at the Art Institute of Chicago!

10. Two Sisters (On the Terrace), Pierre August Renoir, 1881

One of the most popular paintings in the Art Institute, Renoir’s charming, bright, happy, and hopeful painting is sure to delight. The two girls featured in the painting were not actually sisters, but this impressionist artist showed us the radiance of these girls on a warm and beautiful day. How sweet and so fitting to see on your visit to the museum.

Notable Mentions

I’d be remiss without mentions just a few more artworks that didn’t quite make my top 10 things to see at the Art Institute of Chicago list.

The Deering Family Galleries of Medieval and Renaissance Art, Arms, and ammo. This gallery boasts art from 1200 to 1600, we’re talking monumental altarpieces, exquisite jewelry, and the arms and armor collection. Field Armor for Man and Horse (on left), South German, Nuremberg, about 1520 is one of my favs!

Photo of a Medieval knight in armor riding a horse at  the Art Institute of Chicago.
Is he going to save the day…or going to mess up someone’s day – you tell me!

The Old Guitarist, Pablo Picasso, 1903 – 1904. There’s something sad yet familiar to all human beings when I look at this blue painting. The image reflects the twenty-two-year-old Picasso’s personal struggle and sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden; he knew what it was like to be poor, having been nearly penniless during all of 1902. It’s cold, emotionless, blue, and a very good reminder to show empathy to all because you never know what someone is going through.

These are my top 10 things to see at the Art Institute of Chicago, but it is certainly, by no means, the ONLY things to see! I could spend days soaking in all the art and culture, but there is so much more to do in Chicago that I had to spend my time wisely.

Youtube Thumbnail for the Top 10 Things to See at the Art Institute of Chicago.
For of a visual person? Watch my Top 10 Things to See at the Art Institute of Chicago YouTube video, premiering Nov 13 @ 2pm ET.

Did any of these pieces stand out to you? What would you add to this list? Drop your top things to see (or what you look forward to seeing) at the Art Institute of Chicago!

Antoinette | Frolic & Courage

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