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1879–1913: The Formative Years

The Art Institute was founded as the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in 1879. The name was changed in 1882, and shortly after, the institution was already in need of a new home for its expanding collection and growing student body.

As the city prepared to dazzle the country as host of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, the Art Institute's trustees negotiated with the city's civic bodies for a new structure located on a park site at Michigan Avenue and Adams Street. The design of the classical Beaux-Arts building by the Boston firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge allowed for the institution's ambitious goals. The new building was the site of the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions where Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda gave his famous "Sisters and brothers of America" speech. The Art Institute officially opened on December 8, 1893.

Within a year, the Art Institute had received its first major gift, a collection of French paintings presented by Mrs. Henry Field. Two significant improvements to the building followed: Fullerton Auditorium (1898) and Ryerson Library (1901). In 1913 the museum startled the city by hosting the Armory Show, a sprawling exhibition of avant-garde European painting and sculpture. Exceptional purchases from that controversial exhibition launched the museum's collection of modern art.

Mary Cassatt. The Child's Bath, 1893. Oil on canvas. Robert A. Waller Fund, 1910.2.


Domenico Theotokópoulos, called "El Greco." The Assumption of the Virgin, 1577. Oil on canvas. Gift of Nancy Atwood Sprague in memory of Albert Arnold Sprague, 1906.99

Egypt. Mummy Case of Paankhenamun, Third Intermediate Period (945-715 B.C.). Cartonnage, gold leaf, pigment. William M. Willner Fund, 1910.238

The Ryerson Library, built in an open courtyard of the 1893 museum building in 1901, after a large gift by trustee Martin A. Ryerson in 1900.