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Badgers vs. Blue Devils

April 6, 2015 - 2:59pm

Tonight’s NCAA championship game pits the Wisconsin Badgers against the Duke Blue Devils and we couldn’t resist taking a look into our collection to see what a more artistic match-up between these teams would look like.

Perhaps surprisingly, there were several images of badgers in our collection, primarily from our Asian collection. In Japan, badgers are mischievous goblins who use all sorts of disguises to deceive people. And when they lead their prey astray, they love to delight in their misfortune. In this image, the badger is dressed up like a begging monk. Hijinks ensue.

Finding a blue devil was a bit more difficult. Because a blue devil isn’t a devil of the traditional sort; rather, the name comes from “les Diables Bleus,” a respected and daring French military unit from World War I. Because that’s a bit too obscure even for the Art Institute’s large collection, I sought out an image of a duke.

The man you see above is José Alvarez de Toledo, the Duke of Alba. The artist Goya painted several portraits of the duke, including this version completed a year before his death. The duke was known as a music lover and equestrian, but probably not a basketball fan since it was invented nearly a century after his death.

As a good midwestern girl, I’ve definitely got a favorite, but who are you rooting for?

Image credits:

Kawanabe Kyosai. Badger in the Guise of a Buddhist Monk, Meiji Period, c. 1780. Asian Departmental Sundry Trust Fund.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes. Portrait of José Alvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alba and Marquess of Villafranca, c. 1795. Anonymous loan.


250 Shades of Gray

April 2, 2015 - 10:07am

As you stroll through Burnishing the Night, the atmospheric Prints and Drawings exhibition of mezzotint engravings currently on view in Galleries 125-127, you might notice a cameo appearance by one of art history’s most famous moms, Whistler’s mother. But what you’re looking at isn’t the larger-scale painting by James McNeill Whistler meant for public exhibition; rather, it’s a smaller black and white mezzotint created by the lesser-known Richard Josey (under Whistler’s supervision) intended for display in private homes.

You might be surprised to discover that the expatriate American painter and printmaker extraordinaire James McNeill Whistler did not even consider his 1871 painting of his mother to be a portrait. He thought of it as a study of tone, and gave it the title Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 as an allusion to musical terminology. The word “mother” doesn’t appear anywhere. Indeed, to him, public interest in its sitter and literal subject, rather than the way it was painted seemed irrelevant:

Take the picture of my mother, exhibited at the Royal Academy as an “Arrangement in Grey and Black.” Now that is what it is. To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?

            Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 1890, p. 128.

While Whistler pretended not to comprehend why the painting’s identity as a simple picture of his mother would interest the public more than its artistry, he was also a consummate businessman. He was closely involved in the production of this mezzotint about eight years after he produced the original oil on canvas. Josey’s plate may in fact have been steel-plated after it was engraved, allowing for hundreds, or even thousands of impressions of the same quality to be pulled from it. In fact, the medium of mezzotint was especially prized for its usefulness in reproductions of paintings, and the painterly quality of this print does not disappoint. Nowhere is the lack of color and its subtle gradations between values more intentional.

Here’s a closer look at the color range in engraver Richard Josey’s rendition, a mezzotint entirely printed from a single kind of black ink. Far more than the proverbial 50 shades of gray, these include up to the maximum of 256 different shades shown in the Photoshop-generated color table above.

Whistler built up the muted tones of his original composition through brushstrokes on canvas. In contrast, Josey reductively made the printing matrix by burnishing light effects into a previously roughened plate that would otherwise print in solid black. In addition to the color table mentioned above, the following diagram also pinpoints the amount of black present in several areas of the print—from a near 100% black for the shadows of the skirt (point nr. 1) to the 59% black, grayed-out midtone of the wall (point nr. 3). The brightest highlight within the print at 10% appears in the fold of the handkerchief in the sitter’s hand (point nr. 4), but the 4% tone of the paper support is even brighter (point nr. 2).

Perhaps in part due to the proliferation of Josey’s print, the painting known as Whistler’s Mother has now been considered the Victorian Mona Lisa, and may well be one of the best-known (and parodied) paintings by an American artist, much like the Art Institute’s own American Gothic. Now that’s a fancy bit of printing, even one in monochrome.

Image Credit: Richard Josey, after James McNeill Whistler. Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Mezzotint, 1879. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Many thanks to Liana Jegers for her help in troubleshooting the Photoshop color mapping.

Why 1690?

March 31, 2015 - 3:04pm

Earlier this month, Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690–1840 opened at the museum. For the casual viewer, 1690 to 1840 might seem like an arbitrary span of time, but the choice was quite deliberate. So today we’ll answer the question on everyone’s minds—why start with 1690?

While the century and a half our exhibition covers is noted as one of relative peace and stability in Ireland, the era was not without its conflicts; the period was ushered in by one of Ireland’s most famous (or infamous, depending on your politics) military encounters, the Battle of the Boyne.

But let’s back up just a bit. In 1689, William III, a Dutch Protestant, was crowned King of England, Scotland, and Ireland, deposing the Catholic James II. Protestant nobles in England, fearful of a Catholic royal dynasty, had secretly encouraged William to seize the throne.

When William took the crown, James was exiled to France, but he did not sit idly by. With troops supplied by his cousin, the Catholic King of France Louis XIV, James landed in Ireland hoping to invade England from the Emerald Isle and regain the throne. Ireland’s majority Catholic population rallied to his cause in the hopes that a Jacobite (from the Latin for James) victory would help them regain property they had lost after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland some 40 years earlier and secure Irish sovereignty and Catholic religious toleration.

So on July 1, 1690, the armies of William and James clashed on the banks of the River Boyne, 30 miles north of Dublin, in what was the beginning of the Battle of the Boyne. Among those to fight alongside James was Sir Neil O’Neill, pictured below.

This is not what Sir Neil wore on the battlefield but rather what he chose to portray himself in for his formal portrait painted a decade earlier. Nearly every detail is deliberately pro-Irish: the costume, spear, shield, and headdress are those of an Irish chieftain; the Irish wolfhound a symbol of national pride. Less obvious to today’s audience is the Japanese armor that appears in the bottom left-hand corner, but Sir Neil’s contemporaries would have recognized it as a reference to the persecution of Jesuit missionaries in Japan. So Sir Neil not only saw himself as a guardian of Ireland but as a defender of the Catholic faith.

In the end, Sir Neil, James, and the rest of the Jacobite army were defeated. William remained king, and James returned to exile in France. Sir Neil, unfortunately, died of injuries sustained in the battle. In Ireland, William’s victory ensured that the island’s minority Protestant elite retained their political, economic, and social authority for over a century in what is commonly referred to as the Protestant Ascendancy. But the fight for Irish autonomy did not die at the Boyne. Next time we’ll look at the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and some of its key players who, like Sir Neil, are featured in our exhibition.

—Anna Decatur, Assistant Director of Principal Gifts

P.S. You might be wondering why someone in the museum’s development department is writing on Irish history. In fact, I started working at the museum shortly after receiving my master’s degree in Irish history from Queen’s University Belfast, not knowing that a major presentation of Irish art was in the works. I’m deeming it a happy coincidence!

Image Credit: John Michael Wright. Portrait of Sir Neil O’Neill, 2nd Baronet of Killyleagh, 1680. Private Collection.

Free Your Mind

March 25, 2015 - 10:25am

Let me set the scene. The latest “snowpocalypse” bears down as you exit the CTA or navigate traffic on the I-90.  When you arrive at the museum, there is a check in on Facebook and a text is sent to a friend about dinner. Receipt of an admission ticket grants entry to the galleries and the journey begins. After a few dizzying hours, looking at one amazing artwork after another, your eyes begin to glaze and your stomach begins to grumble. Do you stop? No, you press on because you must see American Gothic, but you haven’t even made it to the Modern Wing yet! * sigh * “Museum fatigue” has officially set in.

A visit to the Art Institute of Chicago can fill you with a sense of wonder about the world, provide a respite from your everyday life, or inspire and educate you all at the same time (at least we hope so)! But with 5,000 works of art spread over one million square feet, a visit can also prove exhausting.

With all of life’s pressures, slowing down to really look at art can be a challenging task. The average museum visitor looks at a work of art for 30 seconds or less. How much can really be seen in such a short amount of time? Is there a way to get our visitors to slow down and take their time? As a museum educator I think about this issue a lot.

So I developed a program called Mindfulness Mondays where instead of looking at a work of art for 30 seconds we look at it for…wait for it… 30 minutes!

(chirping of crickets and the woosh of a tumbleweed rolling past)

I know, I know. . . but hear me out on this one.

As a group we will begin with a 10-minute meditation to calm our minds and prepare for an extended look at an artwork. For 30 minutes we will consider a work of non-representational modern or contemporary art, like the Malevich painting you see above. This “looking exercise” will consist of questions that provoke all participants to look deeply, describe, wonder, and connect. To conclude, we will reflect on the experience and set a positive intention for the week ahead.

If you have ever found yourself rushing through the galleries, multi-tasking your way through life, or experiencing frustration when looking at abstract art, this program is for you.

Start your week off right. Upcoming events meet at 2:00p.m. in Griffin Court and are free with museum admission. Upcoming dates include March 30, April 13, May 4, May 18, June 8, and June 22.

See you soon!

—Emily Beaver, Woman’s Board Fellow, Department of Museum Education

Image Credit:

Kazimir Malevich. Painterly Realism of a Football Player – Color Masses in the 4th Dimension, summer/fall 1915. Through prior gifts of Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection; Mrs. Albert D. Lasker in memory of her husband, Albert D. Lasker; and Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection.


Check Out Our Rack

March 20, 2015 - 1:24pm

Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690-1840 opened this week and features over 300 objects in a huge array of media—painting, sculpture, furniture, glass, silver, musical instruments, bookbinding—the list goes on. And while this is a first-of-its-kind exhibition, most of what you’ll see in the show does hold the similarity of having been created by human hands (predictable, I know).

One object stands out in this regard, though. Hanging above visitors as they enter the exhibition are the skull and antlers of Megaloceros giganteus, more commonly called the Giant Irish Elk. Dating from somewhere around the late-Pleistocene/early-Holocene (give or take a few years), skeletons of the Irish Elk were often discovered, fully-preserved, in Irish bogs by workers harvesting peat.

The antlers welcome guests to our exhibition, just as they would have welcomed guests into an eighteenth-century Irish country house. This particular specimen denotes an important theme of cultural exchange fundamental to the exhibition. Given to the American College of Surgeons in Chicago by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland over 100 years ago, the antlers represent the widespread diaspora and exchange of Irish art since the eighteenth century. In fact, despite the exhibition’s size and depth, it is drawn entirely from North American collections.

So yes, in the true spirit of an art museum, we are celebrating an 11,000-year-old elk skull not as a scientific specimen but as a symbol of the healthy exchange of art and ideas. Come get a dose of that at Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, open through June 7.

Your Favorite Art Throbs

March 6, 2015 - 5:05pm


Vincent van Gogh once said, “There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread,” and while I’d guess most if not all of you were snacking when you took our love-themed Art Throb quiz, it’s still clear many of you are looking for that perfect romantic match. In fact, 13,000 of you took the Art Throb quiz in just one week! Looking at the collection of final results, it was fascinating to see exactly what types you found most appealing.

Here are the romantic types you chose in order of popularity:

The Romantic—27.17%
The Unicorn—22.78%
The Seducer—19%
The Psycho—10.30%
The Life of the Party—5.97%
The Tortured Genius—5.63%
The Alpha Dog—5.37%
The Sporty Type—2.03%
The Fling—1.75%

There you have it! The Romantic proved the most popular of paramours by a significant margin. Second place went to the Unicorn, that mythological creature so perfect and beautiful, and yet unattainable. These results come as no surprise. If nothing else, our vast Impressionist collection brings many a hopeless romantic through our doors, and honored we are to have them. But the subsequent results are slightly more troubling.

Okay, sure, the Seducer. Who hasn’t fallen under the spell of someone they’d be better off without? And yet the Fling was our least popular result! Does this mean we are more likely to fall under the seductive spell of the callous charmer rather than take fate in our hands? Are we more willing to allow deception rather than commit to an evening of passion with all the cards on the table?

But that’s not nearly as troubling as the fourth most popular type: The Psycho. Really, people, the Psycho?! In this case, of course, we mean the cold and calculating type who only loses it behind closed doors, à la Patrick Bateman. And here it makes sense again. While we fall head over heels for just the right type—the Romantic, the Unicorn—we seem to be almost as prone to fall for those who are superficially charming instead. I suppose that’s not all that unusual. If anything these are the pratfalls we all try to avoid in love, and nobody said dating is easy.

If there’s anything we’ve learned from our admittedly tongue-in-cheek love quiz, it’s that our followers admire beauty and romance in any form, especially if it comes from the heart. But we’ll take the glibly attractive if nothing else. Something for us all to keep in mind as we go out and seek our perfect mates. We wish you all success in love and hope you’ll consider the strength of the Obamas’ marriage. Their first date was at the Art Institute—just saying.

Thanks to everyone who made Art Throb a success!

It Was a Dark and Stormy Mezzotint

February 20, 2015 - 2:54pm

Mezzotint is the spookiest medium. This engraving process is perfect for nocturnal effects, as it starts with a roughed-up printing plate that prints in pure black. Any light effects—especially candles, fires, and glowing ingots—are added by burnishing in smoother areas, which print in lighter tones. Two exhibitions opening at the Art Institute this spring feature an abundance of mezzotint engravings. Fans of society portraiture will appreciate the velvet textures and pearl-strewn accessories lavished throughout Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design 1690-1840 (opening March 17 in Regenstein Hall). For those seeking a more sinister bedtime story, Burnishing the Night: Baroque to Contemporary Mezzotints from the Collection (opening February 21 in the Prints and Drawings Galleries 125-127) revels in artificial light, Old Testament lightning bolts, and garishly colored disembodied heads.

Yet two of the scariest head studies to 18th-century eyes might not have been Jacques Gautier d’Agoty’s Cranial Dissection. Instead, they are the Irish artist Thomas Frye’s Young Man with a Candle (top image), whose bulging eyes scan the room for inexplicable horrors, and the English artist Philip Dawe’s Female Lucubration (image immediately above), which hangs next to it in the show. Dawe’s maidservant, reaching up for a book in the dead of night, is clearly up to no good. Is she is actually “lucubrating” (studying at night using artificial light)? Or is she simply pilfering her mistress’s saucier novels (perhaps the banned Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure). The “Novel-Reading Panic” throughout Europe in the 18th century expressed the moral anxiety over what, and if women were reading, just as the first Gothic novel was published. Literacy was a deeply frightening topic.

As the popularity of the mezzotint continued (the latest item in the show is from 2007), in 1905, the English writer M. R. James wrote a short story, called “The Mezzotint,” in which an image of an anonymous country house changes of its own accord. While the story does not refer to a real print, Allaert van Everdingen’s Baroque Landscape in the Dark Manner (above) gives a similar feeling of ambiguity. Like the children in Roald Dahl’s The Witches who vanish into paintings and grown old in them, or Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels, who only move when no one is watching, a kidnapping or murder is reenacted within the space of the print. From “The Mezzotint:”

“At last, some time past midnight, he was disposed to turn in, and he put out his lamp after lighting his bedroom candle. The picture lay face upwards on the table . . . What he saw made him very nearly drop the candle on the floor, and he declares now that if he had been left in the dark at that moment he would have had a fit. But, as that did not happen he was able to put down the light on the table and take a good look at the picture. It was indubitable—rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all-fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.”

The protagonist, a print curator at Oxford or Cambridge, keeps watch as the print turns from day to night, the ghostly figure enters the house, and then sneaks away, with a child under his arm. The curator buys the print for his collection, but keeps a careful eye on it. As with any mezzotint, the textures lead to multiple interpretations. Once the tragic story within the mysterious print ran its course however, that was that: “. . . though carefully watched, [the mezzotint] has never been known to change again.” In the flickering candlelight of Burnishing the Night, who knows what you’ll see?

Image Credits:

Thomas Frye. Young Man with a Candle, 1760. Gift of Dorothy Braude Edinburg to the Harry B. and Bessie K. Braude Memorial Collection.

Philip Dawe. Female Lucubration: Étude Nocturne, 1772. Gift of Langdon Pearce

Allart van Everdingen. Landscape in the Dark Manner, 1657–61. Alsdorf Fund


Head to Head: Helmets of the Art Institute

January 30, 2015 - 2:36pm

This Sunday the New England Patriots take on the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, and watercoolers and message boards are abuzz with talk of Deflategate, the Legion of Boom, and unauthorized “Beast Mode” hats. While Chicago may not have a dog in this race, we thought, why not show off a collection of helmets sure to put both teams to shame? Though most of these helmets were probably fashioned for murderous or ceremonial intentions, I think we can agree the game would be all the more exciting with some age-old battle armor thrown in the mix.

Most of the helmets seen here were donated by collector George F. Harding. A colorful figure in Chicago business and politics, Harding assembled an enviable collection of arms and armor in his lifetime, much of which he displayed in a two-story annex to his South Side home. Completed in 1927, the annex was built as a Gothic Revival stone turret, complete with a dungeon, secret passages, and cannonballs embedded in the exterior walls. In 1982, the collection was donated to the Art Institute, fulfilling Harding’s intention to offer his remarkable array of arms and armor to the people of Chicago.

Image credits:

[Now on view in Gallery 50] Western Iranian. Turban Helmet, c. 1475/1500. George F. Harding Collection.

Northern Italian. Closed Burgonet (Siege Helmet), c. 1620. George F. Harding Collection.

Greek, Macedon. Helmet, 4th century B.C. Costa A. Pandaleon Endowment.

English. Funerary Close Helmet, 1600/1700. George F. Harding Collection.

English or French. Spider Helmet, 1650/1700. George F. Harding Collection.

Capturing El Capitan

January 15, 2015 - 12:52pm

Yesterday Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson completed the first free climb of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall. This granite monolith soars 3,000 feet above the floor of the Yosemite Valley and while it has long enticed climbers, it has also fascinated artists.

The image above by Ansel Adams—who has created some of the most famous images of Yosemite— illustrates how the early morning light hits the face of El Capitan and how the Dawn Wall gets its name.

Carleton Watkins (images below) took these photographs of El Capitan in 1861, years before Yosemite became a national park. In fact, it is said that Watkins’ majestic images of Yosemite helped to persuade President Lincoln to sign the bill that first protected the valley. Mount Watkins in Yosemite is named after the photographer and honors this contribution.

Image Credits:

Ansel Adams. El Capitan, Sunrise, Yosemite National Park, 1956, printed 1960. Photography Gallery Fund. © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.

Carleton Watkins. Tutocanula, or El Capitan, 3600 ft., from the foot of the Mariposa Trail, Yosemite Valley, Mariposa County, Cal., 1861/76. Restricted gift of the Kunstadter Family Foundation.

Carleton Watkins. Mirror View of El Capitan, Yosemite Valley, Mariposa County, Cal., 1861/76. Restricted gift of the Kunstadter Family Foundation.


Beauty Marks Go Global

January 14, 2015 - 2:39pm

Ever wake up with a pimple in the middle of your forehead and wish that you could just make it go away? In the eighteenth century, Lima’s citizens had a solution that would not only hide the pimple, but that was simultaneously stylish and sexy! Faux beauty marks made of black velvet or taffeta covered in gum arabic were the height of fashion. An ample example can be seen in the portrait of the wealthy, American-born Spaniard, Doña María Rosa de Ribera Mendoza y Ramos Galbán, which is currently on view in Galleries 212 and 212A in the Art Institute’s exhibition, A Voyage to South America: Andean Art in the Spanish Empire. And they covered more than just pimples. Large beauty marks could easily cover smallpox scars as well as unseemly sores caused by syphilis. Their beauty came not only from their ability to obscure defects, but also from the striking contrast of the dark taffeta on the porcelain-white skin that was the ideal for elite women at this time. They positively screamed to the viewer “the sun never touches this face!”

The passion for beauty marks came to South America, like so many high-fashion trends, from that center of extravagance and style, France, where they first appeared in the sixteenth century. French ladies, in fact, might wear many beauty marks, cut not only into modest circles like the one on Doña María’s temple, but also into stars, suns, moons, even trees, horses, cupids, and doves. Satirical eighteenth-century prints show women with faces spotted by numerous beauty marks. By the eighteenth century in Europe, beauty marks had acquired a symbolic language all their own. In a satirical essay published in 1764, Luis de Velasco, Marques of Valdeflores, described Spanish ladies expertly employing beauty marks as tools of flirtation. The patches not only acquired symbolic meaning depending on where they were worn, but a true flirt might carry a box of beauty marks with her so as to be able to adjust her message depending on her audience. If we were to interpret Doña María’s mark based on Valdeflores’s description, we would find that “placed on the right temple [a beauty mark] implies that she is prepared to break [with her current lover] and find a new one.” Alternately, contemporary French writers tell us that placement near the temple might convey passion, while near the lips was coquettish, in the middle of the forehead was majestic, at the center of the cheek indicated gallantry, and near the nose was risqué.

It is likely that at least some of this significance traveled across the ocean to South American along with the black beauty marks themselves, although it is hard to imagine that Doña María sat down to be painted by one of Lima’s most renowned portrait painters while wearing a beauty mark that told the world she was looking to drop her current lover and take up a new one! Beauty marks were popular in Mexico as well, where they were known as chiqueadores and function today as headache remedies. The Brooklyn Museum collection houses two portraits of a distinguished Mexican lady, as a toddler ca. 1735 and then again as a young woman in 1760. As a toddler she wears one modest beauty mark, but by the time she was an adult she was wearing 5!

But perhaps the trend will return? Guests of both genders at the opening of the Voyage to South America exhibition enjoyed wearing their own chiqueadores, as instructed by a costumed 18th-century guide.

The Art Institute also offers temporary tattoos inspired by James Ensor’s Temptation of Saint Anthony to visitors who come to see our current exhibition, Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor, proving that the museum may just be at the forefront of a new fashion in body art!

—Emily Floyd, recent Prints and Drawings intern and Tulane University Ph.D student

Image Credits:

Pedro José Díaz (Active in Peru 1770–1810), Doña María Rosa de Rivera, Countess of the Vega del Ren, 1780s, oil on canvas. Carl and Marilynn Thoma Collection.

Miguel Cabrera (Mexican, 1695–1768), Doña María de la Luz Padilla y Gómez de Cervantes, about 1760, oil on canvas, Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Attributed to Nicolás Enríquez (Mexican, active 1730–1768), Doña María de la Luz Padilla y Gómez de Cervantes, about 1735, oil on canvas, Brooklyn Museum of Art.