The presence of tapestries at the Art Institute can be traced to the substantial personal wealth that was accumulated in the United States between the Civil War and the Great Depression. The merchants and industrialists of the Gilded Age—including those of Chicago following the disastrous fire of 1871—purchased European art and artifacts in an ever-increasing volume, supported by an organized and specialized art trade. To some degree, well-to-do Americans sought to gain the trappings of aristocratic life, a desire reflected in the revival of historic architectural styles and in the importation of actual architectural elements—as at Charles Deering’s extraordinary residence Marycel in Sitges, Spain (see photograph), or Potter Palmer’s “Rhine castle” on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.
Textiles and tapestries, necessary furnishings for such a lifestyle, were in most instances acquired more as accessories than as works of art appreciated in and of themselves. They formed an integral part of upper-class interior decoration into the 1920s, though they were frequently cut to fit existing domestic spaces or even used as upholstery. As lifestyles changed and the wealthy moved to more modest homes, these huge works of art became more difficult to own, much to the Art Institute’s benefit. The European tapestries in museum’s collection arrived occasionally as the result of purchases, but more often thanks to the generosity of various individuals, families, and groups who made donations and bequests to the museum.
Interior view of Charles Deering's residence Marycel, Sitges, Spain, showing three Story of Caesar and Cleopatra tapestries. Photograph from José Martino Arroyo, Marycel (1918).