Historic Collections: The Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection
The Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection is a cornerstone of the Art Institute of Chicago’s distinguished holdings of Post-Impressionist and modern art. Assembled by Frederic and Helen Bartlett in the early 1920s, it was presented to the museum and placed on permanent display in 1926—at a time when works by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and even Georges Seurat were still considered too radical for the collections of most American institutions. Today the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection comprises some of the most important and iconic paintings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Frederic Clay Bartlett (1873–1953) and his second wife, Helen Birch Bartlett (1883–1925), were a fixture of Chicago’s civic-minded elite during the first decades of the 20th century. An active and successful painter, Frederic was committed to promoting the work of fellow contemporary artists—beginning in 1905, as a member of the Art Institute’s Art Committee, and later, in 1916, as a founding member of the Arts Club of Chicago, a pioneering organization dedicated to the advancement of modern art. Helen, likewise devoted to the fine arts, was a well-regarded composer, poet, and supporter of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago-based Poetry magazine.
Prior to the Bartletts’ marriage in 1919, Frederic’s collecting tastes were wide-ranging—encompassing antique, Renaissance, and 19th-century fine and decorative arts. In the early 1920s, their collecting activities became decidedly more focused. Leading a cosmopolitan lifestyle, the couple traveled regularly to Europe, where they acquired an adventurous collection of modern art. Concentrating on the contemporary French avant-garde, they purchased recent works by André Derain, André Dunoyer de Segonzac, André Lhôte, and Amedeo Modigliani. In the spring of 1923, they acquired Henri Matisse’s Woman Before an Aquarium (1921–23), one of the most striking of the artist’s Nice-period paintings. The following year, less than one year after Frederic succeeded his father as a trustee of the Art Institute, the Bartletts made a ground-breaking 19th-century acquisition: Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte--1884. This purchase was made specifically with the museum in mind, at a time when the artist was not yet represented in any American or French public collection. Over the next several years, with the intention of placing La Grande Jatte in an appropriate artistic context, the Bartletts purchased major paintings by key Post-Impressionist artists—Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec—as well as important works by other modern masters, such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Rousseau.
The Bartletts’ marriage and collecting partnership was tragically cut short by Helen’s death in 1925. The following year, Frederic presented the extraordinary collection that they had formed together to the Art Institute in Helen’s memory. The pioneering nature of this gift cannot be understated. Contemporary press reports suggested that the acceptance of the collection by the trustees of the museum did not take place without anxiety or hesitation. Although the Bartletts’ collection had been temporarily displayed at the Art Institute at various stages of its development prior to 1926, the permanent display of a whole collection of avant-garde art—three years before the founding of The Museum of Modern Art and thirteen before the Museum of Non-Objective Art (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum), both in New York—in a distinguished American museum was completely unprecedented.
The Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection was permanently installed in the museum in May 1926. It was exhibited in a single gallery, a mode of display intended to highlight the taste and contributions of particular donors that was customary at the time. Frederic was deeply involved in the details of this first installation, specifying a unified modernist setting of off-white walls, white frames, minimal moldings, and ample space between the paintings. However, he wisely allowed for future modifications both to the display and to the content of the collection, foreseeing that future acquisitions might impact the “character” of the museum’s holdings and the logic of their installation. In his own lifetime, during the late 1920s and early 1930s, he withdrew several paintings from the collection and added other more representative or high-quality examples. Today the 25 paintings in the collection are displayed with other works from the same historical moment in a number of the museum’s galleries, where they remain vital to the ever-evolving history of modern art.
Learn more about each of the artworks in the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection.