Historic Collections: Potter Palmer Collection

Learn more about Bertha and Potter Palmer, wealthy Chicagoans whose interest in Impressionism changed the face of the museum.


Bertha Palmer, shown here in a portrait by the Swedish painter Anders Leonard Zorn, was a leading light in Chicago society and an enthusiastic collector of contemporary art. While visiting Paris in 1889, she and her husband, Potter, a Chicago financier, were introduced to American painter Mary Cassatt. Through Cassatt, the Palmers came to know and collect the work of other Impressionists. Many of these works were left to The Art Institute of Chicago in 1922. Mrs. Palmer’s favorite possession was Renoir’s Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando (Francisca and Angelina Wartenberg); legend has it that she always kept this work with her, even when she traveled.

After they earned a fortune in department stores and real estate, the Palmers resided in an extravagant mansion overlooking Lake Michigan. One of its rooms was a spacious gallery with three tiers of paintings. In 1891 alone, Mrs. Palmer bought 25 paintings by Claude Monet, with whom she was personally acquainted. Two years later, she organized the exhibition of modern European paintings at the World’s Columbian Exposition. This event gave many Americans their first exposure to the Impressionist movement.