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.

To find works from the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection when you visit the museum, print this page at home and pick up a floor plan in the museum lobby. The gallery where each work is located is listed here for your reference. Please note, not all works are currently on display.
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In his best-known and largest painting, Georges Seurat depicted people relaxing in a suburban park on an island in the Seine River called La Grande Jatte. The artist worked on the painting in several campaigns, beginning in 1884 with a layer of small horizontal brushstrokes of complementary colors. He later added small dots, also in complementary colors, that appear as solid and luminous forms when seen from a distance. Seurat’s use of this highly systematic and “scientific” technique, subsequently called Pointillism, distinguished his art from the more intuitive approach to painting used by the Impressionists. Although Seurat embraced the subject matter of modern life preferred by artists such as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, he went beyond their concern for capturing the accidental and instantaneous qualities of light in nature, seeking instead to evoke permanence by recalling the art of the past, especially Egyptian and Greek sculpture and Italian Renaissance frescoes. In the 1920s, following the chaos and destruction of World War I, the geometric order, calm rationalism, and stoic classicism of Seurat’s art was particularly celebrated by avant-garde artists, critics, and collectors. In this artistic climate, the Bartletts understood La Grande Jatte to be “the finest modern picture in France,” acquiring it in 1924 from Lucie Cousturier, an artist who was once the pupil of the other two great Pointillist artists, Paul Signac and Henri-Edmond Cross.

An early, experimental work, Ballet Dancers is one of the first paintings by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to include the daring compositional devices that would become a hallmark of his style a few years later. Here silhouetted dancers—their limbs simplified and exaggerated almost to the point of caricature—plunge forward along a dramatic diagonal, while the elegant, prominently cropped hands of the orchestra leader at the bottom right pay tribute to the intrusive heads, instruments, and fans frequently featured at the borders of works by the Impressionist Edgar Degas, as well as other modern artists under the influence of Japanese graphic arts. Not intended as an easel painting, Ballet Dancers is one of four related mural decorations that Toulouse-Lautrec created for an inn at Villiers-sur-Morin, where he visited his friends the Greniers beginning in the fall of 1885. Originally painted directly on the plaster walls, it was removed and transferred to canvas some time between 1913 and 1920, when Lautrec’s work was especially popular. Purchased in 1931 from Étienne Bignou, an important dealer of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in Paris, this was the last work that Frederic added to the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection.

This painting dates from the winter of 1887, roughly a year after Vincent van Gogh arrived in Paris to join his brother, the art dealer Theo van Gogh. It is one of a group of landscapes featuring the Butte Montmartre, a short climb from the apartment on the rue Lepic where the brothers lived. Montmartre was dotted with reminders of its quickly receding rural past—abandoned quarries, kitchen gardens, and three surviving windmills, including the Moulin de Blute-Fin. The nonfunctional mill had become a tourist attraction, affording spectacular panoramic views over Paris from the observation tower erected beside it. Like the majority of the artist’s works, this painting was once in the collection of Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, Theo’s widow. The Bartletts purchased the picture in the spring of 1925, probably from the Paris office of the dealers M. Knoedler & Co.

Augustine Roulin was the wife of Vincent van Gogh’s friend the Arles station postmaster Joseph Roulin. She is shown seated and holding a rope with which she rocks the cradle of her baby Marcelle (located outside the picture space). Van Gogh associated Madame Roulin both with the stability of family life and with the Virgin as Stella Maris (Star of the Sea), the patron of sailors who offers comfort during stormy weather. In a January 1889 letter to the artist Paul Gauguin, a former sailor and the friend for whom this canvas (the second of five versions) was made, Van Gogh imagined the cradle rocked by Madame Roulin as a fishing boat rocked by the seas, with her lullaby putting the sailors inside to sleep. He likened the chromatic effects of La Berceuse to inexpensive, crudely drawn colored prints marketed to popular audiences, which communicated their message directly, like music, with the childlike simplicity that he prized. The Bartletts added this picture to their collection in 1923, when they were still primarily purchasing works by living French artists like André Derain, André Lhote, and Henri Matisse.

Vincent van Gogh’s three versions of this composition are the only record he made of the interior of the Yellow House, where he lived while he was in Arles in the south of France. The house embodied the artist’s dream of a “Studio of the South,” a community of like-minded artists working in harmony to create art for the future. The first version of The Bedroom (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) was one of the paintings Van Gogh made to decorate the house in anticipation of the arrival of his first guest, Paul Gauguin, in the fall of 1888. “It’s just simply my bedroom,” he wrote, “only here color is to do everything . . . to be suggestive here of rest or of sleep in general. In a word, looking at the picture ought to rest the brain, or rather the imagination.” Gauguin’s stay at the Yellow House would be fraught with tension: after two months, Van Gogh’s self-mutilation and Gauguin’s flight back to Paris ended the Studio of the South. Van Gogh made this second version of The Bedroom about a year after the first, while he was living at an asylum in Saint-Rimy. Although he died in 1890 in relative obscurity, the efforts of his family and a small group of admirers resulted in an increased demand for his work in the early 20th century. By 1926, when Frederic Bartlett purchased The Bedroom from Paul Rosenberg, one of the most important dealers of modern art in Paris, he paid a price nearly as high as that of the much larger A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884 by George Seurat, which he had bought two years earlier. This painting was the first of the three versions of The Bedroom to enter a museum collection.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s association with the Moulin Rouge began when it opened in 1889 and the owner bought the artist’s Equestrienne (1887–88; The Art Institute of Chicago) as a decoration for the foyer. Lautrec populated this scene with portraits of the habitués of the dance hall, including himself—the diminutive figure in the center background—accompanied by his cousin and frequent companion, the physician Gabriel Tapié de Celeyran. The woman on the right is the scandalous English singer May Milton. At some point, the artist or his dealer cut down the canvas to remove Milton from the composition, perhaps because her shocking appearance made the work hard to sell. In any case, by 1914 the cut section had been reattached to the painting. The Bartletts probably saw the painting for the first time in the winter of 1924, when it was shown in a small exhibition of the artist’s work at the Arts Club of Chicago. Four years later, Frederic purchased it for the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection.

In The Basket of Apples, Paul Cezanne’s use of pronounced contours in some places and sketchy, broken ones in others—along with the fact that the table top emerges on the right side at a different level then on the left—creates a quality of impermanence and instability within an otherwise carefully balanced composition. For the artist, the painting of still lifes was a meditation on the relationship between sense impressions and picture making, an arena for the critical rethinking of form, space, and perception outside the bounds of conventional modeling and perspective. Cézanne probably signed this work—a rarity in his oeuvre—before sending it to Paris for his first one-man exhibition, held in November 1895 in the gallery of Ambroise Vollard, who would become the artist’s exclusive dealer. Frederic Bartlett purchased the picture—his most expensive acquisition for the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection—from another renowned dealer of modern art, Paul Rosenberg, in 1925. By that time, the reclusive artist was considered the most influential painter of the modern period—a precursor to Fauvism, Cubism, and the revived classicism of the 1920s avant-garde. The Basket of Apples was the first painting by Cézanne to enter the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Day of the God is one of a small number of paintings of Tahitian subjects that Paul Gauguin made in France between his stays in the South Pacific. An imaginary fabrication pieced together from books, photographs, and the artist’s own graphic works, it is dominated by an idol of the moon goddess Hina. To her left, women dance the upaupa, a provocative ancient Tahitian dance that missionaries and colonial authorities tried to suppress. In a middle ground of pink sand, sitting at the goddess’s feet, is a female bather flanked by ambiguously gendered figures lying on their sides. Although the arrangement of this trio seems symbolic—perhaps of birth, life, and death— their exact meaning is intentionally mysterious. Gauguin included this painting in a weeklong exhibition of his recent work held in his Paris studio in early December 1894, where it was purchased by the Impressionist artist Edgar Degas, who admired his work. The Bartletts acquired it in 1925 from the Paris dealer George Bernheim.

In this painting, the only portrait that Paul Gauguin painted in 1901, the young boy in the woman’s lap may be the artist’s son, born to his Tahitian lover and companion, Pahura. The boy was named Emil after Gauguin’s eldest legitimate child. The older woman may be the boy’s grandmother. This composition recalls the image of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and young Saint John the Baptist, although here the older child is presumably a girl. Gauguin often adopted such traditional Christian motifs in his Polynesian paintings despite his own fraught relationship with Christianity, which was, to his dismay, well ingrained in native society by the time of his arrival in Tahiti in 1891. In September 1901, Gauguin abandoned Tahiti for the more remote islands of the Marquesas, where he lived out his final years. Frederic Bartlett purchased this group portrait in 1927 from the Moderne Galerie Thannhauser, the most important gallery of contemporary and modern art in Munich.

Pablo Picasso made The Old Guitarist while working in Barcelona. In the paintings of his Blue Period (1901–04), the artist restricted himself to a cold, monochromatic blue palette, flattened forms, and emotional, psychological themes of human misery and alienation related to the work of such artists as Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin. The elongated, angular figure of the blind musician also relates to Picasso’s interest in Spanish art and, in particular, the great 16th-century artist El Greco. More personally, the image reflects the struggling 22-year-old artist’s sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden; Picasso knew what it was like to be poor, having been nearly penniless during all of 1902. The Bartletts must have been familiar with Picasso’s work since at least 1913, when it was included in the International Exhibition of Modern Art at the Art Institute of Chicago—the first time it was exhibited in an American museum. Thirteen years later, Frederic purchased The Old Guitarist for the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection. He acquired it from the Parisian dealer Paul Rosenberg, who had, in turn, procured it from the estate of another groundbreaking American collector of the French avant-garde, John Quinn (1870–1924).

In this life-size portrait, Ferdinand Hodler captured the warm, frank disposition of the Swiss sculptor James Vibert, one of his closest friends. The first of nine such tributes, this painting emphasizes Vibert’s broad shoulders and expansive chest through its direct frontal view, nearly square format, and unwavering symmetry. Having first captured his friend’s features in an extremely veristic drawing, Hodler reworked the image in multiple sketched variations that became increasingly abstracted and subjective. In the final composition, transferred to the canvas by means of a grid, the peculiarities of Vibert’s features are subsumed within a striking pictorial unity and rhythm achieved through the repetition of shape, color, and line. Hodler called this compositional system “parallelism,” which he believed revealed the essential beauty and order of nature. Frederic Bartlett purchased this and another portrait by Hodler from the Galerie Fischer in Lucerne, Switzerland, in 1926; by this time, the artist was celebrated across Europe but remained virtually unknown in the United States.

John Marin, who would become one of the United States’ leading modernists, arrived in Paris to study art in 1905, remaining there for five years. The French metropolis buzzed with talk of Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse, of Cubism and Fauvism. Despite his participation in highly visible exhibitions—including the Salon des Artistes Indépendents (1907–08) and Salon d’Automne (1907–09)—Marin later claimed that he was unaware of these progressive trends, preferring to travel with his watercolors and etching equipment. Before his return to the United States for good in 1910, Marin spent six weeks in the Austrian Tyrol. Free, expressive alpine watercolors such as The Brook point to an artistic breakthrough, revealing his newfound sophistication as a painter of environmental moods and his innovative approach to the watercolor medium. In this work, Marin denoted hovering mists and the movement of water over rocks by adding layers of wet color to stain the paper and then wiping them away, creating ghostly areas of subliminal color. An active participant in the avant-garde circle centered around the photographer and dealer Alfred Stieglitz, Marin’s work was shown on a regular basis at Stieglitz’s New York galleries from 1909. This work was in the Bartletts’ collection by 1924.

Henri Rousseau was a self-taught artist who worked as a customs agent on the outskirts of Paris. His visionary paintings—in particular, those on the theme of the jungle—captivated the art world with their representations of lush plant and animal life painted with incredible detail and precision. Rousseau made The Waterfall in the last year of his life, and it may have been left unfinished: a few leaves on the branches of the tree in the left foreground lack some of the artist’s characteristic overlapping layers of color. Though Rousseau depicted exotic, distant locales, he never set foot outside France. His imaginary scenes were informed by visits to the Paris zoo and botanical gardens, and images from postcards, photographs, and illustrated journals. Frederic Clay Bartlett purchased this work from the Parisian dealer George Bernheim in 1926, when Rousseau’s reputation among the avant-garde was at its height.

In the summer of 1912, Ferdinand Hodler spent time painting the the Alps around the Swiss town of Chesières in the Rhone Valley. In this landscape, the artist captured the majestic summit of the Grand Muveran, with its graphic silhouette isolated against the broad expanse of a morning sky. The mountain’s shape is echoed in the smaller surrounding peaks, creating a starkly flat and harmoniously unified composition without the traditional subdivisions of foreground, middle ground, and background. Purchased in 1924 from the Chicago dealer George F. Porter, this was the first painting by Hodler that entered the Bartlett’s collection. It would soon be joined by two more works that speak to the other genres for which the artist was celebrated in the 1920s—portraiture and history painting.

Maurice Utrillo was a self-taught artist who spent his entire career diligently recording the Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre. Although the district was legendary for its colorful nightlife and bohemian culture, Utrillo preferred to focus on its bare streets and ordinary, whitewashed facades, often achieving a distinctive chalky whiteness through the unorthodox addition of glue, plaster, or cement to his paint. Here the windmill of the famous Moulin de la Galette appears discreetly at the end of the Rue Tholozé, a small side street not far from the studio Utrillo shared with his mother, the artist Suzanne Valadon. The Bartletts purchased this work from the fashionable Galerie Percier, Paris, in 1924, as the artist’s reputation was on the rise.

After receiving artistic training in Italy, the sculptor and painter Amedeo Modigliani moved to the Parisian neighborhood of Montparnasse in 1906. It was there that he met the artist Jacques Lipchitz, who, wanting to help his financially troubled friend, commissioned Modigliani to paint this portrait on the occasion of his marriage to the Russian poet Berthe Kitrosser. According to Lipchitz, the picture took Modigliani only two days to paint, though Lipchitz persuaded him to work on it for another two weeks in an effort to pay him a larger fee. Despite Modigliani’s exceptional talent, his work only found a market after his death in 1920, which was hastened by tuberculosis and his legendary bohemian lifestyle. The Bartletts purchased this double portrait in 1922 from the dealer Léonce Rosenberg, whose Galerie de L’Effort Moderne promoted Cubist-influenced avant-garde artists, including Lipchitz, throughout the1920s.

The orphaned son of an impoverished working-class family, Ferdinand Hodler gained international recognition at the turn of the 20th century for his emotionally evocative paintings of allegorical subjects and his immense historical murals in museums, universities, and municipal buildings around Switzerland and Germany. Head of a Soldier is an oil study for a ferocious spear-bearing infantryman in the last of Hodler’s mural commissions, the unfinished Battle of Murten. An important victory for the Swiss Confederation during the Burgundian Wars (1474–76), this mural was to have accompanied the artist’s earlier series of controversial decorations in the Weapons Room of the Schweizerisches Landesmuseum in Zurich. Painted in the broad brushwork and intense colors emblematic of the artist’s later years, the model for this small study was Félix Vibert, the brother of the sculptor James Vibert, a close friend whom Hodler portrayed in a 1907 portrait that is also in the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection. Frederic Bartlett purchased both paintings in 1926 from the well-known Swiss dealer Theodor Fischer.

Equally at home in Paris, where he knew Leo and Gertrude Stein, and in New York, where one of his closest friends was Alfred Stieglitz, Charles Demuth also spent much of his life in the small Pennsylvania German town of Lancaster. Trained as an oil painter at the Pennsylvania Academy, the artist quickly discovered his preference for working in watercolor and drew inspiration particularly from Paul Cézanne’s modernist works in this medium. Plagued by ill health, Demuth’s periods of recuperation in Lancaster afforded him the opportunity to concentrate on vegetable and flower compositions drawn from his garden, such as this ambitiously constructed watercolor depicting an arrangement of cyclamen. Flowers (Cyclamen), purchased by the Bartletts by 1924 and later included in Chicago’s Century of Progress exhibition of 1933, epitomizes Demuth’s elegant contours, nuanced washes, attention to negative space, and expressive use of white paper.

André Dunoyer de Segonzac was a rallying force among artists with a renewed interest in the French Realist tradition during the 1920s and 1930s. Looking to the painterly naturalism of Gustave Courbet, as well as the structural rigor of Paul Cézanne, he worked in a limited range of subdued colors and used a palette knife to build up lavishly thick impasto surfaces. This still life is, in fact, so thickly painted that it may be difficult to discern its subject—a hat with a ribbon and flower at the brim resting on a patio table under the branches of a tree. His work, celebrated for its personal expressiveness, was extremely popular with French and American collectors between the two world wars. The Bartletts purchased the painting in 1924, probably from the artist’s longtime dealer, Léon Marseille.

Writing to his former dealer and friend Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler in 1921, André Derain declared, “I have to confess that I am thinking a great deal about the masters.” Indeed, even before the outbreak of World War I, long before “the French tradition” became a popular catchphrase among the Parisian avant-garde, Derain’s great knowledge and respect for the art of the past led him to pastiche a multitude of historical styles and subjects while at the same time experimenting with more contemporary developments like Cubism. Upon his return from the war in 1918, he continued to paint along these lines, to great commercial success. With its earthy colors, timeless rustic objects, and quiet, carefully balanced composition, this still life recalls the work of the 18th-century master Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. The Bartletts purchased this canvas in 1923 from Paul Guillaume, one of the most important dealers of modern art in Paris.

By the 1920s, André Derain had abandoned the brilliant color and violent brushwork of his earlier Fauve period (1904–08) for a new realism characterized by restrained colors and lucid lines. He was particularly celebrated for his nudes, often portrayed within the bare surroundings of his studio. This quickly sketched study is atypical of his work and belongs to a small group of modestly scaled compositions whose crude, simplified nudes and pastoral settings evoke the late bathers of Paul Cézanne. The classicism of the traditional subject is in keeping with the “return to order” that marked the Parisian avant-garde after Word War I—for example, in the monumental neoclassical figures of Pablo Picasso. Frederic Clay Bartlett purchased this work from the Joseph Brummer Gallery in New York in May 1926, after the bulk of the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection had already been installed at the museum.

After a nearly seven-year hiatus from the genre, André Derain returned to landscape painting during a trip to Italy in the winter of 1921. Thereafter, he spent nearly every summer in the south of France, painting en plein air in a manner inspired by the landscapes of Camille Corot, the most significant landscape painter of the 19th century. This picture’s warm, light-filled palette and spacious composition are typical of Derain’s landscapes from this period. It likely depicts the town of Sanary, a favorite destination along the Mediterranean coast and the subject of another 1924 picture by the artist. The Bartletts purchased the work from Paul Guillaume, Derain’s sole dealer from 1923. Sent directly from Paris to Chicago in June 1924, it was described as “still tacky” on the incoming receipt—a clear illustration of the collectors’ commitment to the art of the moment.

Henri Matisse began to take annual winter trips to Nice in 1917, settling there permanently in 1921. Under the influence of the late figurative compositions of Pierre-Auguste Renoir and the relaxed, luminous atmosphere of the Midi region, he embarked on a new body of work marked by greater naturalism and attention to the effects of light. At the same time, the odalisque became a favorite and oft-repeated subject for Matisse. Although rendered in a loose, naturalistic style that effectively captures the essence of the figure’s languid pose, Oriental costume, and exotic wall hangings, Woman on a Rose Divan suggests a playful masquerade rather than an authentic harem interior. Indeed, though Matisse carefully staged such scenes using his immense collection of Middle Eastern and North African clothing, textiles, and props, he never fully obscured their modern setting. Such works were the most commercially successful of the artist’s career and were avidly sought by American collectors after World War I. The Bartletts purchased this work from Matisse’s longtime dealer at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris, in June 1923.

Henri Matisse was fascinated by the cultures of North Africa and the Middle East. In the first two decades of the 20th century, he visited exhibitions of Islamic art; collected brilliantly colored and richly ornamented textiles, pottery, and tiles; and traveled to Algeria and Morocco. Even in the 1920s, while Matisse lived in Nice, these experiences continued to inform his work. In Woman before an Aquarium, the textile screen and goldfish are pictorial elements drawn from Matisse’s Moroccan journeys. Moreover, the artist’s own transformation—the “new rhythm” of his inner vision that resulted from his travels—was responsible for the particular luminosity, cool palette, and intimate effect of this canvas. The Bartletts purchased this work from Matisse’s longtime dealer at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris, in June 1923.

André Lhote was among the group of young artists who adopted the radical innovations of Cubism prior to World War I. In the 1920s, he fused the style’s geometric abstraction with the classical figuration that was then popular among the Parisian avant-garde. Ladies of Avignon recalls Pablo Picasso’s groundbreaking Cubist canvas Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907; The Museum of Modern Art, New York) in both title and composition. It is, however, both less provocative and more self-consciously French in subject: Avignon here refers not to the red-light district of Barcelona but rather to the provincial town in the south of France. This was also the setting for Lhote’s monumental tribute to the French nation, The 14th of July in Avignon (1923; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Pau), which repeats the same two women in its composition. Ladies of Avignon was exhibited for the first time at the Salon des Tuileries in Paris in 1923. The Bartletts, ever devoted to contemporary art, purchased it directly from the exhibition.

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