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Unwrapping the Mummy/Monkey

February 8, 2016 - 9:54am

There will soon be a monkey invasion in the Art Institute’s second floor hallway! Or is that a mummy invasion? Starting in April, Gallery 216a will host a small installation of playful prints of monkeys acting like humans, painting their own art, and, well, monkeying around. Jean Baptiste Oudry’s mischievous Still Life with a Monkey, Fruits, and Flowers inspired this selection, but in the process of researching many entertaining 18th- and 19th-century monkey–themed artworks, something a little strange turned up.

A curious early lithograph, signed only with the last name Cheney, came to the museum as part of a collection of medical ephemera including anatomical flap prints, among other wonderful and rare things. The print shows a group of aristocratic people in a sunny Paris apartment watching an operation of sorts on a small table. In the collector’s eye and in the sparse French literature about this little-known print, it was described as the somewhat unsavory subject of the dissection of a monkey. Indeed, the small scale of the recumbent figure could suggest such an odd theme. However, as the cloth wrappings already on the floor, and the seated woman documenting the process for a lithograph suggest, this print is full of surprises.

In fact, another lithograph of this woman in the same apartment exists, and it too is in the Art Institute collection. Entitled Baron Denon Instructing A Young Woman Drawing on a Lithographic Stone, it identifies the location of both prints as the home of the Napoleonic favorite, diplomat, art and antiquities collector, printmaker, Louvre museum director, and Egyptian explorer par excellence, Baron Dominique-Vivant Denon. An impression of the print is known in which the title is given more specifically in ink across the top as Mrs. Cheney & Mr. Denon.

The museum has historically attributed this print to Denon himself, but given the lack of a signature, some scholars suggest that Mrs. Harriet Cheney, an amateur British etcher, was responsible for both. She certainly signed the lithograph of the curious ritual, and included a prominent self portrait. The discovery of her true identity happily increases the number of female artists in our collection, especially those before the 20th century. But what of the mysterious print’s subject?

Denon brought back more that art from Egypt for the then Musée Napoleon (later the Louvre). His personal estate sale included a human mummy, and reports from his lifetime suggest it was well known at the time. So perhaps we’re not looking at just a monkey, but something a little more salacious. . . at least to the modern viewer.

This print depicts the mummy as the highlight of one of perhaps many social gatherings and intellectual soirées. Spurred by Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign (1798-1801), Egyptomania was only beginning, and so-called “unwrapping parties” did occur. Charms and other protective items were sometimes bound into the cloth wrappings, so onlookers never knew what might be uncovered in the process. As disrespectful a practice as this may sound, it suggests curiosity and perhaps a gradual increase in appreciation for the burial procedures of an ancient culture. Mummies had been put to many more distasteful uses (as far as contemporary audiences might be concerned), including being ground up for medicine in the medieval and Renaissance eras, and administered as “mumia” powder for various ailments. The presence of women at Denon’s event also speaks well of their own budding curiosity for the scientifically unusual, as well as their increased access to such intellectual gatherings.

All of this of course doesn’t entirely rule out the possibility that Baron Demon also absconded with the mummy of an Egyptian monkey in addition to his looted human one. As treasured pets, baboons and other types of monkeys were sometimes retained as afterlife companions as well. So is it a mummy or monkey mummy? Come see our new Harriet Cheney lithograph and decide for yourself!

Image Credits: 

Harriet Cheney. Unwrapping the Mummy, before 1825. Gift of Dr. Ira Frank.

Dominique-Vivant DenonDenon Instructing a Young Woman Drawing on a Lithographic Stone, c. 1820. Department Purchase Fund.


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Ask Vincent, Part Three

January 28, 2016 - 3:51pm

Vincent van Gogh was a prolific letter writer and amidst his musings on family relations, art and artists, and women, he dispensed solicited—and unsolicited—advice. In advance of the upcoming exhibition Van Gogh’s Bedrooms, we offer some words to the wise penned by the artist himself.


Dear Vincent:

I've been reluctant to draw or paint ever since I was a little girl. On the one hand, my sister is highly gifted and any drawing I would make looked childish and lousy compared to hers. I must admit this could be truly discouraging, so I gave up the whole idea of becoming an amateur painter.

Time went by and I haven't even dared take up a pencil, let alone a brush. To make matters worse, I'm often in touch with great works of art, which I find amazing but also intimidating.

Vincent, I must confess something to you, though: as of late, I've had the compelling need to express my feelings through art. What would you suggest doing? Do you think it worthwhile to start taking art lessons at 54?




Dear Clumsy:

It’s not a bad idea for you to become an artist, for when one has fire within and a soul, one cannot keep bottling them up—better to burn than to burst, what is in will out. For me, for instance, it’s a relief to do a painting, and without that I should be unhappier than I am. (ca. September 1887)

The symbol of St. Luke, the patron saint of painters, is, as you know, an ox. So you just be patient as an ox if you want to work in the artistic field. (June 18, 1888)


Dear Vincent:

I am suffering greatly from a broken heart. I was unceremoniously dumped and then my ex took up with one of our mutual friends. It seems like she never even really loved me.

At this point, I feel like it might be easier to resign myself to an ascetic life. If I never open myself up to love, then I never have to deal with the inevitable hurt that comes with it, right?



Dear Devastated:

Love is the best and the noblest thing in the human heart, especially when it is tested by life as gold is tested by fire. Happy is he who has loved much, and is sure of himself, and although he may have wavered and doubted, he has kept that divine spark alive and returned to what was in the beginning and ever shall be. (April 3, 1878)



Dear Vincent,

My book club is looking for recommendations. Do you have any suggestions?




Dear Bookworm:

Be sure to get hold of the works of George Eliot somehow, you won’t be sorry if you do, Adam Bede, Silas Marner, Felix Holt, Romola (the life of Savonarola), Scenes from Clerical Life. (March 3, 1878) 


If you have your own questions for Vincent, please leave them in the comments!

Vincent van Gogh. Self-Portrait, 1887. Joseph Winterbotham Collection.

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To Sargent, Forever on the Go

January 12, 2016 - 12:44pm

Today marks the 160th birthday of John Singer Sargent, one of the greatest painters of the Gilded Age. Sargent was a masterful portraitist. And it is his captivating, assured portrayals of numerous social and cultural leaders at the turn of the twentieth century for which he is best known and most celebrated. The Art Institute owns one such portrait, Mrs. George Swinton (Elizabeth Ebsworth) of 1897 (on view in gallery 273), executed at the height of Sargent’s career in portraiture. Befitting her status as a fashionable and worldly woman, Elizabeth Swinton strikes an assertive pose in an elegant satin gown, meeting the viewer’s gaze with cool reserve. Sargent handled paint with extraordinary finesse, employing broad strokes in a “pyrotechnical display,” in the words of one critic, to describe the shimmering, translucent fabric descending from the sitter’s left shoulder. Swinton, a member of British high society, sat for this portrait as a (belated) commemoration of her marriage two years earlier.

Sargent was forever on the go. He traveled the world and worked at every turn. Born in Florence in 1856 to American parents, he trained in Paris, lived much of his life in London, and covered great distances again and again in search of subject matter and to fulfill commissions—from the Alps, to Venice and Madrid, to Corfu and Cairo. His many itinerary stops also included ten extended visits to the U.S. between 1876 and 1924.

Sargent’s artistic range matched his insatiable appetite for new encounters. Portraiture was his bread and butter, but he also excelled at genre painting, figure studies, landscapes, and mural painting. Venetian Glass Workers (1880/82; on view in gallery 273), is a superb example of the artist’s adept interpretation of atmospheric light and working-class activity in the Italian city’s quieter and humbler locales, at a remove from its grand architecture and busy canals. Further, painting en plein air in both oils and watercolors was a favored practice. Thistles (1885/89; on view in gallery 176) is an unassuming, yet remarkable composition—a nearly abstract rendering of the tangled, blowing plant forms along a patch of terrain. Sargent painted the work in rural England (or possibly in Nice, France), inspired by a growing friendship with Claude Monet and engagement with Impressionism. 

Finally, The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy (1907; on view in gallery 273) showcases Sargent’s skill in bringing together portraiture and landscape painting. Traveling with fellow artists Wilfrid and Jane Emmet de Glehn, he composed an informal portrait of the pair—Jane at work with Wilfrid resting nearby—amid the splendid architectural and natural surroundings of the Roman countryside. The Fountain was the first work by Sargent to enter the Art Institute’s permanent collection in 1914.

Sargent was in Chicago one hundred years ago, stopping in the city en route to a painting excursion in Montana and the Canadian Rockies in the summer of 1916. Greeted with midwestern heat and humidity, Sargent found respite in the air-conditioned dining room of the Blackstone Hotel. He later wrote to a family member, “It is worth flying there from any part of America during a heat wave. You sit in a perfect temperature over an excellent dinner and watch the crowd dying like flies outside of the window.” Sounds about right, doesn’t it? But Sargent wasn’t unfamiliar with roughing it. Once he had reached camp in Canada, he found himself in a flooded tent, battling the rain and snow. “Mushrooms sprouting in my boots,” he reported. Sargent never shied away from the labors required to find his next great picture. On his 160th birthday, let’s toast to that!

—Annelise K. Madsen, Assistant Curator of American Art

Image Credits:

John Singer Sargent. Mrs. George Swinton (Elizabeth Ebsworth), 1897. Wirt D. Walker Collection.

John Singer Sargent. Venetian Glass Workers, 1880/82. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.

John Singer Sargent. Thistles, 1885/89. Gift of Brooks McCormick.

John Singer Sargent. The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy, 1907. Friends of American Art Collection.

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Interview with Alberto Aguilar: Museum Artist-in-Residence

January 11, 2016 - 5:17pm

Alberto Aguilar is a Chicago-based artist, whose creative practice incorporates found materials as well as exchanges with people—family, friends, and others he meets in passing. His work bridges media, from painting and sculpture to video, installation art, performance, and sound. Aguilar is the Department of Museum Education’s Artist-in-Residence from December 2015 through August 2016. He recently sat down with Robin Schnur, Director of Youth and Family Programs, to talk about his work and his residency.

RS: Let’s start with a basic question: what does it mean to be an “artist-in-residence,” and what does it mean to you?

AA: Traditionally, an artist-in-residence produces a body of work that can then be shown and sold, but I take it more literally, as dwelling or living in a space. I enjoy that approach because it takes me out of my normal routine. It’s like moving to a new place or a new state, which I love. There is a momentum and excitement at the beginning of that. For me, that’s what a residency represents: being in a new place and having that place generate new ways of thinking. This [the installation Room for Intimacy, pictured below] is just my first move in the space. I hope that the second thing that happens in this space will be completely different, but I don't know what that’s going to be. 

RS: It's January and you're just getting rolling in your residency. What do you think might happen over the next six months?

AA: I want it to be in response to going out into the museum. Someone recently posted an image of the Sol LeWitt drawing [from The New Contemporary installation]. I have more of an interest in that kind of work now. I saw a relationship between this and that.

There’s also something about the light in the space here that really speaks to me. This kind of regulated, matter-of-fact architecture gives me a clear state of mind. I think that the space itself here changes the work that I’m doing.

I hope that some unexpected exciting, opportunities come out of being here. I’ll be taking over the museum’s Instagram for a week beginning today, January 11. That kind of thing really excites me because I use Instagram and Facebook in my own practice. The idea of taking over someone’s Instagram, especially a big institution like this— to be given permission to stir things up or turn things upside-down—is exciting to me. I do that all the time, when we go on family trips. I’ll do something in the hotel room or I’ve done things in museums. At the Walker Art Center, I made a sculpture out of their outdoor furniture. But to be given permission to do that is a really exciting prospect.

RS: You've reconfigured your residency space with an installation, Room for Intimacy. How did you arrive at this idea? Why intimacy?

AA: In my work there is always this thing of not letting people feel my emotions. This installation works in the same way. It’s very muted. There is not a lot of emotion here. It’s very matter of fact. Brown square paper folded on a diagonal. Two pieces of tape holding it up. It’s very regulated, but at the same time there are many instances in which you can see my hand. You describe the space as cold and emotionless, but in me it generates a lot of emotion to be in this space.

The fold was a complete surprise. When I saw this brown paper, I knew I could use it to transform this space but I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. When I came here on the first day, I folded it and then I realized right away that this fold was “it.”


RS: It really draws you back to the light and space. It makes you see this room as a void that the light comes into.

AA: It’s like material and no material. It was everything. Rather than bringing in materials, intimacy also involves using what’s here. When you think of this paper, this is the least valued type of paper. It’s newsprint. The idea of taking this stuff and loving it individually and through each act of intimacy with that piece of paper creating something larger in the space.

RS: Thanks Alberto!

Find Alberto Aguilar in residence on select days in the Ryan Learning Center now through February and then again in summer, June through August. Join him on January 16 during the museum’s family festival to create something special in his space, and follow the experience through his Instagram takeover @artinstitutechi.

Sponsored by the Rita and Jim Knox Endowment Fund for Museum Education.

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Do You Believe in Ghosts?

January 8, 2016 - 5:06pm

Last summer, the Art Institute hosted Charles Ray: Sculpture, 1997–2014 (pictured above), the first major exhibition of the contemporary sculptor’s work in over 15 years. During the run of the show and in affiiliation with Teen Programs at the museum, students from a Digital Imaging class at Jones College Prep High School visited the exhibition and had the opportunity to meet with the artist himself before creating video projects inspired by their experience. Students Kaeri Martinez and Ameerah Coleman wrote about the process of meeting Charles Ray and creating a video. Here are their words:

There is often a disconnect between an artist and the audience. It is a one-sided conversation—the audience can only interpret who the artist is by their art and all their questions must be answered by what is in front of them. It makes the artist into a distant entity or myth. However, for our Digital Imaging class the myth became a reality when we had the opportunity to meet and work with the world-famous sculptor, Charles Ray.

Our project began with a field trip to the Art Institute of Chicago to see the exhibition Charles Ray: Sculpture, 1997-2014. The purpose of our visit was to gain a greater perspective of Ray’s work and learn more about the ghost stories that have inspired some of his sculptures. The Art Institute Teen Programs staff kicked off our experience with an eerie discussion about ghost stories. Then, we split into smaller groups for conversations in the galleries around Ray’s pieces Hinoki and Unpainted Sculpture. Beginning with our own interpretations, we talked about the absence and presence of objects and people, spirituality, reproduction, process, time, and hauntings. We spent the remaining time wandering the galleries and taking in the exhibition. Simple and elegant, the sculptures were spaced out evenly throughout the gallery. Some were so small they could fit in the palm of your hand while others were twice the size of the average human. The conversation from the visit impacted our thinking and prompted us to to consider our own experiences with ghosts or ghost-like experiences.

Following our field trip, we got the opportunity meet with Charles Ray. We were all curious about the man behind these amazing sculptures. Who is Charles Ray, really? What kind of person is he? Why does he make his art?

When Ray arrived we were all in our seats, quietly watching him, not knowing what to expect. With no introduction, he walked to the center of the room, pulled up a chair, slouched down, and began casually talking with us. Everyone was in a state of awe, our minds whirling as we tried to figure out what he had planned. One of the first things he asked was whether we believed in ghosts. Ray then quickly ventured into some pretty provocative topics we don’t typically have the chance to talk about in a classroom. Needless to say we were absolutely captivated. He also told his ghost stories, which were thought provoking and revealed intriguing bits about the artist himself. Finally, Ray shared his thoughts on video as a medium, making art as a teenager compared to marking art as a professional artist, and finally, scary movies. His presence was both invigorating and calming. We admired his thoughtful and quiet personality. As Jones student Joe Kellehar said, “He was himself. He knew who he was.”

His visit to our Digital Imaging III class became one of the most memorable parts of our high school experience. And before he left, Ray invited us to create videos addressing the ghosts or problems in our lives—real, imagined, or otherwise. He provided us with a lot of inspiration, saying “You may be in high school, you may have no budget, but that doesn't mean you can't make something great through who you are today. Launch it into time. Don't make art for your class. Make it for the people. Do something now from your soul and your heart.”

After our meeting with Charles Ray, our teacher, Mr. Myers, put an exclamation mark on his visit by telling us our videos were going to be shown at at the Art Institute of Chicago (see below for details!). It was an intimidating task, but our class set to work right away, brainstorming, filming, acting, and editing our ghost stories. For us, the hardest part of the process was coming up with an idea, sticking to it throughout the process, and executing it in a way that matched our vision. It was helpful to think about Ray’s ghost stories; they represented his daily life and were deeply personal to him. We wanted to emulate that in our stories as well. With green screen and other post-production effects at our disposal, we had an amazing time creating our ghost stories and are really excited to share them with you all! 

And now the Art Institute of Chicago is proud to present Do You Believe In Ghosts?, a public screening of videos produced through this special project. Join us Thursday, January 14 at 6:00pm for an eerie evening of conversation and ghost stories created by students from Jones College Prep.

Many thanks to writers Kaeri Martinez (Junior at Jones College Prep and member of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Teen Council) and Ameerah Coleman (Senior at Jones College Prep and member of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Teen Lab program, a partnership with After School Matters) for contributing this piece.

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Ask Vincent, Part Two

December 29, 2015 - 12:38pm

Vincent van Gogh was a prolific letter writer and amidst his musings on family relations, art and artists, and women, he dispensed solicited—and unsolicited—advice. In advance of the upcoming exhibition Van Gogh’s Bedrooms, we offer some words to the wise penned by the artist himself.

Dear Vincent:

Well, it’s that time of year again, and now that 2016 is about to be upon us, I was wondering if you had any suggestions for New Year’s Resolutions. I would love to read them!


- - -

Dear Resolute:

  1. If we want to live and work we must be very careful and look after ourselves. Cold water, fresh air, simple good food, decent clothing, a good night’s sleep, and no worries. (May 1888)

  2. No womanizing or living the good life whenever you feel the urge. (May 1888)

  3. Learn how to dance, or fall in love with one or more notary’s clerks, officers, in short, any within your reach—rather, much rather commit any number of follies than study in Holland. (ca. September 1887)

  4. Take as much spring air as possible, go to bed very early, because you must have sleep, and as for food, plenty of fresh vegetables, and no bad wine or bad alcohol. And very few women, and lots of patience. (May 20, 1888)

  5. You do very well to be reading the Bible. (June 23, 1888)

  6. You must try to acquire an iron constitution, a constitution that will allow you to grow old, you ought to live like a monk who goes to the brothel every two weeks—that’s what I do myself, it isn’t very poetic, but I feel it’s my duty to subordinate my life to painting. (June 23, 1888)

  7. Take baths. (July 25, 1888)

  8. Now, for those of us who work with our brains, our one and only hope of not running out of steam too soon is to prolong our lives artificially by observing an up-to-date health regime as rigorously as we can. I, for one, do not do all I ought to. (July 25, 1888)

  9. As for drinking too much . . . I have no idea if it’s a bad thing. Take Bismarck, who, think what you like, is very practical and very intelligent—his good doctor told him that he drank too much and that he’d been putting a severe strain on his stomach and his brain all his life. B. stopped drinking at once. He has gone downhill ever since and is still getting no better. He must be laughing up his sleeve at his doctor, whom, luckily for him, he did not consult sooner. (July 25, 1888)

  10. In the end, we shall have had enough of cynicism, skepticism, and humbug, and will want to live—more musically. (September 24, 1888)

Happy New Year, dear reader. We wish you a happy and healthy 2016 filled with lots of visits to Van Gogh’s Bedrooms this spring!

Vincent van Gogh. Self-Portrait, 1887. Joseph Winterbotham Collection.

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Insider's Look: Gloria Groom

December 29, 2015 - 12:26pm

Gloria Groom, the Art Institute's David and Mary Winton Green Curator of 19th Century European Painting and Sculpture and newly appointed Chair of European Painting and Sculpture, has a busy 2016 planned. Her exhibition Van Gogh’s Bedrooms (opening on February 14) brings together Vincent van Gogh’s three bedroom paintings for the very first time in North America. Our Member Magazine recently spoke with her about everything from new Van Gogh conservation research to her cocktail of choice. Below find an excerpt, as well as some additional information for your reading pleasure. . .

Vincent van Gogh is one of the best-known artists in the Art Institute’s collection. What new insights can people expect from Van Gogh’s Bedrooms?

Many people don’t realize that the Art Institute’s The Bedroom painted at Arles is one of three versions. While the other two look very similar, there are important differences—in what is represented, the paint surface, the colors used—all of which are important indicators of his circumstances and state of mind. We also want to bring to life the significance of The Bedroom. By the time Vincent moved to Arles, he had moved 32 times and lived in 22 different cities. The bedroom in the “Yellow House” at Arles, where for the first time he really owned and decorated his living space, was a potent symbol of his lifelong aspirations—to have a place to call his own, a room of an artist, and a room that would, in his words, “rest the imagination.”

Interactive technology is used in the Van Gogh exhibition and is becoming a greater part of the museum-going experience. How do you see technology transforming the museum visit in the near future?

Technology will never be a substitute for the sheer joy of seeing an artwork, but it can greatly enhance the story behind it. Especially with an artist like Van Gogh, whose letters are so evocative and important in understanding his process and the works’ meanings. We want to use innovative technology to allow Van Gogh’s own words to help guide the story and to make the exciting revelations of conservation and scientific teams in Amsterdam, Chicago, and Paris more accessible. And this is the way I see technology being used in future exhibitions—not as a substitute but an optional enrichment to the viewing experience.

You are a scholar of history. Do you find yourself wishing you could live in a different time?

I have fantasies of what it would have been like to be a Parisian in the last three decades of the 19th century when everything that makes Paris such a splendid metropolis today—the boulevards, architecture, art, parks, and rond-points (roundabouts)—were taking their final form. I have lived vicariously through the art and literature of this time.

You have curated some of the largest exhibitions in the history of the museum. Is there one that stands out in your mind as being particularly fulfilling?

Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, without a doubt. It is the exhibition that brought me into contact with the most diverse group of scholars—of paintings and drawings, photography, and even historical fashion. Because of this multilayered story of cultural expressions, I think the exhibition attracted new viewers. Of all the exhibitions I’ve worked on, it was the most beautiful, and many people told me they felt that they had been transported to another time and place. Success!

You are a fluent French speaker. When traveling in France especially, do you ever think in French?

Usually after a day or two with non-stop French speakers, I do begin to think in French. Sometimes I dream in French, which is très bizarre.

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Decking the (Very Tiny) Halls

December 18, 2015 - 5:11pm

The Art Institute’s collection of 68 miniature rooms is popular year round, but the excitement ramps up each November when we decorate a selection of the rooms in period-appropriate holiday décor, adding a new room to the list each year. In preparation for the new addition, Thorne Rooms caretaker, Lindsay Mican Morgan, carefully researches holiday traditions dating back as far as the 13th century. This year she added the Virginia Dining Room, a mid-18th-century room (1758) whose décor epitomizes a well-to-do lifestyle during the Colonial Period in America.

Holiday traditions during the 18th century were quite unlike we experience in modern day America. First of all, Christmas Day was rather inconsequential; in fact, it didn’t become a national holiday for nearly another 100 years. The big celebration occurred twelve days after Christmas on the Epiphany, the day the three wise men visited the infant Jesus in the Christian Nativity story. This celebration, also called the Twelfth Night, became a day when family from near and far gathered together for feasting, drinking, and merry making. The Twelfth Night was such an important family event, that George and Martha Washington chose to be married that day in 1759.

Feasting was the central focus of a Twelfth Night celebration and people used it as an opportunity to display their wealth and present food in interesting ways. Affluent hostesses took great care in setting tables with entrees and desserts that resembled works of edible art, often choosing a theme like “woodland landscapes” where the delightful marzipan hedgehog cake pictured below would be right at home. Other popular treats included apple pyramids and plenty of colorful jellies served in crystal goblets.

Arguably the most essential part of the day’s festivities was the presentation and serving of the Twelfth Night Cake or King’s Cake (pictured below). This cake would have been made using dried seasonal fruits and exotic and expensive spices, and was often topped with a crown made from icing. Recipes dating back to the 18th Century are hard to find, but according to Martha Washington’s papers preserved at Mt. Vernon, her recipe called for 40 eggs, four pounds of sugar, and five pounds of dried fruit!

Two ingredients in this cake weren’t even edible, but they were crucial to its presentation. Prior to baking, one dried bean and one pea were inserted into separate halves of the raw batter. The tradition goes that as guests arrived, they were each given a piece of cake—ladies receiving pieces from “pea” half and gentlemen from the “bean” half. Whomever got the bean was “King of the Revels” for the night and everyone had to do as he said, while the lucky lady to receive the pea was his Queen for the evening. The task of cutting and serving the cake was often given to the children, which was one of the earliest inclusions of children in what was up until this time a very adult festivity.

The holiday Thorne Rooms are full of amusing and interesting stories just like this one. We are hopeful that part of your holiday celebrations will include a trip to see the Virginia Dining Room and our 12 other holiday Thorne Rooms. These rooms will be on display only until January 3!

—Nadine Schneller, Marketing Coordinator



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Now Open: The New Contemporary

December 11, 2015 - 3:41pm

Today the Art Institute opens The New Contemporary, the unveiling of the largest gift of art in the museum’s history. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s the largest gift of art in the museum’s 130+ year history.

Earlier this year, collectors Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson gave the Art Institute the extraordinary gift of 44 iconic works of contemporary art, including works by Andy Warhol (nine of them!), Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Cindy Sherman, and Jeff Koons, among others. This transformative gift cannot be overstated—it makes the Art Institute’s contemporary collection the best of any encyclopedic museum in the world.

The museum’s Publishing department documented the gift with a catalogue that includes images of all of the works, an essay by Dittmer Chair and Curator, Department of Modern and Contemporary Art James Rondeau that situates the gift within the museum’s history, and a candid interview with Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson on their collecting strategies, relationships with artists, and stories about their incredible collection. Some excerpts from the interview are below for your reading pleasure. . .

On the parameters of their collection:

Stefan Edlis: Even if it was great, it needed to fit. . . in terms of its dialogue with the other works in our collection. We have had a number of objects that probably worked with each other, but they’re gone now because they no longer talked to anything else around here. Creating that dialogue took a long time. For the first twenty years, we were all over the place. Then the formation started. Our rule became forty artists and two hundred works, and we would sell some to pay for others.

On the depth of their research and connoisseurship:

Gael Neeson: Originally our education was at the auction house. We went religiously every spring and fall and looked and looked at pictures. And the quality—you learn about the quality.

Stefan Edlis: For example, we spent twenty years trying to decode Twombly. The challenge was to look at a Twombly and decide what was good about it—what made it better than the next one. A dealer showed me one, but I had already really decoded it. I said, “No. I need a Twombly.”. . . The one we finally bought was clearly the most fulfilled of them.

On how they acquired Lichtenstein’s Artist’s Studio: “Foot Medication”:

Stefan Edlis: The story of how we came to by this painting is a good one. Roy’s studio pictures had been bouncing around in our brains ever since we read an article about them; they are so classic yet so contemporary. There are only four—two of them in museums—and we wondered if we’d ever have a chance at one. Years later, in 1997, we spotted Artist’s Studio: “Foot Medication” on the very last page of an auction catalogue, and thought, wow. At roughly the same moment, we were able to sell our fine Dubuffet, which we’d had since 1979, and bingo—the perfect swap.

Image Credits:

Andy Warhol. Liz #3 [Early Colored Liz], 1963. The Stefan T. Edlis Collection, Partial and Promised Gift to the Art Institute of Chicago. © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Jasper Johns. Target, 1961. Gift of Edlis/Neeson Collection. © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Cy Twombly. Untitled (Bolsena), 1969. Gift of Edlis/Neeson Collection. © Cy Twombly Foundation.

Roy Lichtenstein. Artist’s Studio “Foot Medication,” 1974. Gift of Edlis/Neeson Collection. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.


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Shakers and Movers

December 9, 2015 - 2:02pm

We’ve had a recent shake-up in the American galleries to make way for a long-term loan of objects made by Shakers, more formally known as members of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. Led by Mother Ann Lee, the Shakers came to America from England in 1774 and settled in upstate New York. They were known for their austere and rigid lifestyle—believers lived in gender separate dormitories, were celibate, and practiced communal ownership—as well as for their lively religious practice. The name Shaker comes from the frenzied, whirling dancing that took place at worship services. As men, women, and children converted to their faith, numbers peaked in the mid-19th century with more than 6,000 members from Maine to Kentucky. Only a single community survives to the present day, but the impact of the Shakers on American culture has endured, particularly through their contributions to art and design.

Shakers and Movers: Selections from the Collection of Dr. Thomas and Jan Pavlovic is the first installation of its kind at the museum. While our Shaker Sewing Desk (1860/70) has been on view since it entered the collection in 2003, and Shaker furniture also maintains a small but mighty presence in the Thorne Rooms (below), this is the first time visitors can see the broad range of objects produced by the Shakers throughout the 19th century.

This includes multiple examples of chairs—the icons of Shaker production—but also innovative objects such as a desk designed to accommodate someone sitting or standing and a penny-foot cast iron stove. We even installed a pegboard in the gallery—a mainstay of Shaker interiors—meant to keep things clean and orderly.

For Shakers, work was a form of worship and the objects they made were an attempt to create heaven on earth. Craftsmen used techniques to build furniture that was like their faith: honest, simple, functional, and humble. Shakers and Movers tells this story, but also shows the artistic exchange and innovation in our country’s early history. Despite the popular notion that Shakers were completely cut off from the world, Shaker furniture was not created in isolation. The restrained geometric forms, tapering legs, and sleek wood surfaces were influenced by furniture types from the Federal period (about 1780-1820), and examples of these works are on view directly across from the Shaker objects. Move on down to gallery 168 to experience it for yourself.

—Elizabeth McGoey, Ann S. and Samuel M. Mencoff Assistant Curator of American Decorative Arts 

Image Credits:

Cartoon from the February 15, 1999 issue of The New Yorker

Mrs. James Ward Thorne. Shaker Living Room, c. 1800, c. 1940. Gift of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.

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Behind the Scenes of Homegrown

December 4, 2015 - 1:55pm

During my time serving as a research intern at the museum, I had the opportunity to work on the exhibition Homegrown: The School of the Art Institute in the Permanent Collection, which commemorates the 150th anniversary of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). I began working on Homegrown in January, collaborating closely with curator Mark Pascale in the Department of Prints and Drawings. My specialization is in early-twentieth-century American art, so I focused on the decades between 1900 to 1950 and ultimately wrote labels for all the works in the show. My first step was to become familiar with the artists-alumni of SAIC in our holdings and once the checklist was finalized, I researched all the artists and works in the exhibition. 

The most challenging aspect of planning the exhibition was determining who should be included. In formulating the checklist, Mark and I tried to be as inclusive as possible, while still reflecting the best of each era. Our goal was to showcase artists whose works had not been viewed in a long time or had never been exhibited. Some better-known alumni, such as Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and Georgia O'Keeffe, are already well-represented throughout the galleries, so we decided to display works by lesser known artists, such as Marvin Dorwart Cone, Margo Hoff, and Miyoko Ito. 

One of the highlights of Homegrown is the twenty self-portraits (see two examples above) created by Ivan Albright, generously lent by the Department of American Art. Albright, known for his ghoulish paintings Picture of Dorian Gray and That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door), completed these self-portraits prior to his death in 1983. Although they depict the artist as he ages and his health deteriorates, they are a testament to Albright's artistic virtuosity and fascination with death and decomposition. The paintings are hung as a group, but spaced so that one can have an individual moment with each work, with Ivan sometimes looking directly back at you. Albright’s self-portraits have not been exhibited in almost 20 years, so they are a must-see for any Albright fan.

During my time as an intern, I had the opportunity to tour the department’s in-house conservation lab and see a few of the works being conserved. Some of the works just needed tears mended, whereas Adrian Troy’s print The Produce Market originally had pieces of tape applied to the edges, which were ultimately harming the work. Conservator Kim Nichols was able to carefully remove the pieces of tape and did an amazing job bringing the print back to life. Above you can see The Produce Market both before and after treatment. 

In the case of Gustave Baumann’s woodblocks for his print Apple Blossoms, Mark and I worked with Kim to establish the sequence of colors that corresponded to the original blocks. Kim was then able to confirm this printing order under the microscope.

On a final note, one of my favorite works from Homegrown is Paula Gerard’s 1938 lithograph Art ConsciousArt Conscious teases the museum world and its patrons. Taking the viewpoint of the work of art hanging on the wall, three fashionable women gaze at an object, each displaying different reactions: enjoyment, disgust, indifference. Within her print, Gerard comments that while many museum-goers attempt to appear polished and distinguished, we all have an emotional response to looking at a work of art. In the case of the three women, their emotions somewhat undercut their attempts to be "cultured." This visceral human response is true today as it was in 1938. Knowing that the person next to you might not have the same reaction to a work of art is an interesting social experiment and part of why people enjoy visiting museums.

Ultimately, Homegrown has something for everyone, and the art included marks the triumphs of SAIC and the artists who studied here. I hope that you all see the show and find something new to enjoy.

—Joe Semkiu, Curatorial Research Assistant, Department of Prints and Drawings.

Image Credits:

Ivan Albright, American, 1897–1981. Self-Portrait (No. 4), 1981. Charcoal, lithographic crayon, and pencil on hardboard. Gift of Mrs. Ivan Albright, 1985.420.

Ivan Albright, American, 1897–1983. Self–Portrait (No. 8), October 5–12, 1982. Oil and graphite on hardboard. Gift of Mrs. Ivan Albright, 1985.424.

Adrian Troy, American, born England, 1901–1977. The Produce Market, 1935/1940. Woodcut in black on ivory Japanese paper. Restricted gift of an Anonymous Donor, 1940.1279.

Gustave Baumann, American 1881–1971. Apple Blossoms, 1917. Color woodcut on tan laid paper. The William Gold Hibbard Memorial, 1923.542.

Paula Gerard, American, 1907–1991.  Art Conscious, 1938. Lithograph in black on cream wove paper. Estate of Paula Gerard, 1992.1519.









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Ask Vincent

December 1, 2015 - 3:11pm

Vincent van Gogh was a prolific letter writer and amidst his musings on family relations, art and artists, and women, he dispensed solicited—and unsolicited—advice. In advance of the upcoming exhibition Van Gogh’s Bedrooms (opening in February!), we offer here some words to the wise penned by the artist himself.


Dear Vincent:

I have recently been reading Marie Kondo’s book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I agree with her about many things, but one thing that I can’t make sense of is her advice to give away books. My library means everything to me! Do you think one should get rid of one’s books or keep them instead?




Dear Cluttered:

I advised you to dispose of your books, and advise it still. Be sure to do it, it will give you peace of mind. But at the same time be careful not to become narrow-minded, or afraid of reading what is well written, quite the contrary, such writings are a source of comfort in life. (October 14, 1875)


Dear Vincent:

I just found out that my wife is cheating on me. I am torn between trying to salvage my marriage or cutting her loose and giving her the freedom she so obviously desires. Which would be the right choice?



Dear Adulterated:

If I were married to a woman and I realized that that woman was carrying on with another, I wouldn’t stand for any nonsense, but even then I wouldn’t forsake her before I had tried everything possible to bring her back. So you see what I think of marriage and that I take it seriously. (May 14, 1882) When you wake up in the morning and find you are not alone but can see a fellow creature there in the half-light, it makes the world look so much more welcoming. (December 21, 1881)


Dear Vincent:

For many years I have rigorously followed the debates among the medical and fitness communities about what sort of diet one should follow for maximum health and well being. But now I find myself more confused than ever. First we were supposed to eat carbs, now we’re not supposed to eat carbs. Then we were supposed to eat margarine, then that changed to butter, and now it’s olive oil. A few years ago we were supposed to eat four to six small meals a day, now we’re supposed to be fasting. What’s the right answer here?




Dear Bewildered:

To my mind, there is nothing wrong with having a reasonably strong body, so make sure you feed yourself properly, and if you feel very hungry sometimes, or rather, have a good appetite, then eat well. I assure that that is what I do myself often enough, and above all used to do. Especially bread, in my opinion, my boy, and don’t be too shy about it. ‘Bread is the staff of life,’ the English say (although they like meat as well, on the whole far too much). (October 14, 1875)


Have a burning question for Vincent? Leave it in the comments.

Image: Vincent van Gogh. Self-Portrait, 1887. Joseph Winterbotham Collection.


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Experiments in Wreathing

November 24, 2015 - 5:03pm

This Friday marks the 24th annual Wreathing of the Lions, the day that our beloved lions get decked out with their evergreen wreaths. This event is a family favorite, with generations of Chicagoans coming back year after year for this festive kick-off to the holidays. But event regulars might recall that we haven’t always used the traditional evergreen to make the wreaths. . .  

When the Modern Wing opened in 2009, we were in the midst of a yearlong celebration of all things modern and decided to try something a little different. We tapped contemporary artist/industrial designer Yves Behar, who has a number of objects in the museum’s collection, to create wreaths that approached the holidays with a modern twist, echoing the addition of the Modern Wing to the Art Institute. He designed brightly-hued wreaths made of abstracted aluminum leaves that would create a vibrant burst of color against the winter landscape. 

The following year, we partnered with local design firm Materious to create the wreaths. They found inspiration in the aesthetic of North American cranberry wreaths and the hopeful spirit of Buddhist and Taoist wishing trees. Each wreath was composed of approximately 2,011 red spheres and each sphere contained “a wish for the world in 2011” written by Chicago schoolchildren. Aided by solar power, the wreaths glowed at night, bringing the festive and optimistic feel into the evening hours.


This year, we are currently hard at work prepping our evergreen wreaths for their big unveiling this Friday morning at 10:00a.m. We hope to see you at Wreathing and throughout the holiday season!


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Gates of the Lord’s Iconic "Kamalan ki Pichvai"

November 23, 2015 - 3:32pm

Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings is the first major U.S. exhibition to explore the visual traditions of the Pushtimarg, a Hindu sect in Western India. This community is best known for the creation of pichvai, and we wanted to give you some behind the scenes information on one of the important pichvai in the exhibition, the Kamalan ki Pichvai (pictured above).

But first, what is a pichvai? A pichvai is a textile hanging that pays tribute to Shrinathji, the childhood incarnation of Krishna. Pichvais are often used as a backdrop for larger shrines venerating Krishna. Throughout the centuries, Pichvais have been primarily created by followers of the Pushtimarg sect in Nathdwara, a village in western India.

Kamalan ki Pichvai is painted but pichvais can also be woven, embroidered, printed, and/or dyed. Each pichvai is made for a particular season or festival day, which is why the Gates of the Lord exhibition is organized around the changing of seasons.

Kamalan ki Pichvai (“Pichvai of Lotuses”) is the first thing you see in the summer gallery. The painting depicts a fluting Krishna image (detail below), known as Gokulchandramaji, placed under a pavilion of roses in the center of a lotus pond. Pichvais with lotus motifs were popular during the summer season, as they recalled the summers when Krishna would frolic in the banks of the Yamuna River. The purpose of this backdrop would be to imitate a cool environment within a shrine during the hot, Indian summers.

The fabulous lotus imagery has earned this pichvai certain notoriety. The owner, artist and scholar Amit Ambalal, features Kamalan ki Pichvai on the cover of his pioneering book on Pushtimarg art, Krishna as Shrinathji: Rajasthani Paintings from Nathdvara, published in 1987. On why this painting stood out to him, Ambalal says:

It was an exciting experience when it came to me. Here the pichvai is as late as circa 1900 CE. The fascinating part was that in the earlier versions of the same subject the lotus motif was static and repetitive, almost as if block printed. In this pichvai the artist changed the entire perception of this subject only to make it more lyrical and colorful. In particular, I like this phase of the Nathdwara School, when photography and European arts had become available in India. The Nathdwara artists took this as a challenge and accepted this new imagery and integrated it into their own art.   

Since the release of Ambalal’s Krishna as Shrinathji, Kamalan ki Pichvai has become quite a recognizable image in western India. The famed heritage hotel in Ahmedabad, The House of Mangaldas Girdhardas (MG, for short), has attracted many guests with its Lotus Pool. The Mangaldas family, followers of the Pushtimarg sect, modeled the pool’s mosaic floor and painted ceiling directly after the long, curling lotuses floating in Kamalan ki Pichvai.

When we were given the opportunity to borrow from Amit Ambalal’s collection of hundreds of pichvais and miniature paintings for the Gates of the Lord exhibition, it was no easy feat to narrow down the selection to fit inside our Regenstein galleries. One thing we did know was that we must bring this lotus pichvai to Chicago. The Art Institute’s conservators Rachel Freeman and Daniela Leonard made this possible by dedicating two and a half weeks of treatment (more on this in a future post) to Kamalan ki Pichvai in order to stabilize the work for the long trip between Ahmedabad and Chicago. They worked tirelessly inside Amit Ambalal’s 15th century home, Kamal Chowk (“Lotus House”), so we could showcase the delicate Kamalan ki Pichvai at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Kamalan ki Pichvai is currently on display at Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings until January 3, 2016. After which, it will return home to Amit Ambalal’s Kamal Chowk.

—Hannah Perry, Research Assistant, Indian and Himalayan Art

Image Credits:

Kamalan ki Pichvai.  Nathdwara, Rajasthan, India.  Early 20th century.  Cotton, painted with pigments. 178 x 154.4 cm (70 1/2 x 60 13/16 in.). Amit Ambalal Collection (Ahmedabad, India).

Kamalan ki Pichvai on view in the summer gallery in Gates of the Lord.

Detail of Gokulchandramaji.

Amit Ambalal. 1987. Krishna as Shrinathji: Rajasthani Paintings from Nathdwara. Mapin Publishing.

The Lotus Pool at House of MG, Ahmedabad.

Art Institute conservation fellow Daniela Leonard in the Kamal Chowk, reattaching small pieces of flaking paint onto Kamalan ki Pichvai.


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'Tis the Season for Tiny Hedgehogs

November 20, 2015 - 10:56am

Once again the holiday season is upon us. In downtown Chicago, trees are out, lights are up, and windows have been decorated. But this tradition of showing off our holiday spirit with grand displays of lights, ornaments, and Christmas trees is relatively new. For hundreds of years, the earliest holiday traditions revolved around food.

This idea is brought to life with the annual decorating of the beloved Thorne Miniature Rooms. Each year, rooms from our collection are adorned with period-appropriate holiday décor, and since many rooms are inspired by the 16th to 19th centuries, this often means creative displays of food.  

Take for instance the English Great Hall of the Late Tudor Period (circa 1550-1603). One of our earliest period miniature rooms, holiday celebrations from this era focused on sweets as a means to display wealth and stature. During a time when sugar was scarce and, therefore, expensive, the serving of cakes, cookies, and sugary delights during the holidays was truly impressive! In many stately homes, sugar was so coveted that it was kept under lock and key and only the lord of the manor or his confectioner had access.

Pictured above on the dining table is the installation of an assortment of decadent sweets served during this period. You’ll see white cakes topped with cherries called Spanish Paps, and marchpane, a cake made of Italian marzipan (a mixture of sugar and almond meal) that was decorated with sugared fruits. Alongside these tasty treats are numerous plates of gooey gingerbreads and sugared fruits.

In a tradition that lives to this day, there was also plenty of drinking going on during the holidays. In the wealthiest homes, you would find innovative and grandiose sugar sculptures (called subtleties) that would have been used to serve claret (wine). Pictured below is a miniature replica of this kind of serving device. Claret would have been poured into the top and flowed down to the mouths of the golden lions positioned around the bottom where guests held their goblets to catch the claret.

Each year our Thorne Rooms caretaker, Lindsay Mican Morgan, is charged with adding a new room to the holiday exhibition. This year’s addition is the Victorian Dining Room (circa 1758). Even though two hundred years separate this dining room from the English Great Hall, serving sugary sweets remained a central focus. The new decorations will include goblets full of colorful jellies, a Twelfth Night cake, and even this fabulous marzipan hedgehog!

This holiday season, we invite you to come down to the Art Institute and see all thirteen of our miniature rooms decked out for the holidays. It’s a sure fire way to satisfy your sweet tooth and get you in the holiday spirit!

—Nadine Schneller, Marketing Coordinator

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Have a Seat!

November 13, 2015 - 4:13pm

There’s nothing like a nice place to sit after a long day in the galleries. At the Art Institute you might have noticed there are a quite a few options. And some are even objects in the collection! This is the first of two posts about some special places to take a load off at the museum.

Being a member at the museum has its perks. Not only can you get unlimited admission to our world-class encyclopedic collection but you can enjoy your complimentary coffee in some world-class furniture. Did you know that two iconic works of modern design—Charles Eames’s Molded Plywood Chair (above) and Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair (below)—can be found in our Member Lounge? These chairs are still in production by Herman Miller and Knoll respectively, but some early models are also in our permanent collection.

Husband-and-wife design team, Ray and Charles Eames, might be the most well-known mid-century modern designers. In addition to their popular chairs, like this one made out of molded plywood, they also created videos, exhibition designs, toys, and even a leg splint for the U.S. Navy (Check it out here!).

The MR 90 was designed for the World’s Exposition in Barcelona in 1929, from which it gets its nickname. Initially these chairs were handmade, and early versions can be identified by the joints at the top behind the backrest. These chairs have the simple, functional quality of some of Chicago’s most famous buildings. Which makes perfect sense since the designer, Mies van der Rohe, was also the architect of a number of prominent buildings (Federal Plaza, 900 North Lake Shore Drive, Crown Hall at the IIT Campus, to name a few).

Also, while you’re down in the member lounge, don’t forget to swing by the museum café and check the seating by Don Chadwick. Perhaps in your office you sit in one of his most enduring works, the Aeron chair.

As you head in to Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye, there are chairs designed by David Adjaye for your sitting pleasure. This is a rare opportunity to encounter the works both visually and physically. These newly released chairs by Knoll have the signature “Adjaye style.” Even though the seat playfully cantilevers over the legs, they are deceptively sturdy in their engineering. The Washington Skeleton™ Aluminum Side Chair design shares a similar style and reference to Adjaye’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, but have a geometric simplicity that brings to mind some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s stained glass windows (see the "Tree of Life" Window, 1904 in Gallery 179).

Where are your favorite places to sit at the museum? Let us know in the comments and stay tuned for Part 2!

Image Credit: Don Chadwick chair image from Knoll

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Work of the Week: Francis A. Gregory Library

November 6, 2015 - 5:22pm

David Adjaye, the subject of the Art Institute's Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye, has designed over 50 built projects on four continents (North America, Europe, Africa, Asia), including everything from private homes to community centers to furniture. He has also created a number of libraries—see the Francis A. Gregory in Washington D.C. pictured above. In these spaces, he strives to provide an alternative to the hierarchical plan of more traditional libraries and focuses on spaces for interaction among patrons of all ages, thus creating a more inclusive relationship between the building and the community.

The rich colors of the interiors (deep hues of green, yellow, and red) and the diagonal/solid void pattern of the external walls—heightened by the use inside of Douglas fir plywood and reflected in the shadows on the walls and floors—relate to what Adjaye describes as the lush, savanna-like quality of Washington’s topography. The generous employment of glass, which allows dappled light to fill the interior circulation spaces, further connects the structure to the geographical terrain.

The project is capped by a floating, pavilion-like steel roof, which controls sun exposure and visually extends the building into the landscape. The mix of materials is familiar to Adjaye’s oeuvre, but the relationship among them is shifted, and this recontextualization is a key component of the design. “Searching for patterns is like searching for the building blocks of my projects,” notes Adjaye, “But it is not about finding just any sort of pattern: it is primarily about setting up a constructive relationship between the different systems that I am considering in relation to the specific demands of the brief and the place.” 

Image Credit: Adjaye Associates. Francis A. Gregory Neighborhood Library, Washington, D.C., 2012. © Jeff Sauers. Courtesy of Adjaye Associates.

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