The Art Institute is well known for being the home of one-of-a-kind artistic masterpieces like Nighthawks, American Gothic, The Old Guitarist, and one of the best Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections this side of the Atlantic. But the collection didn’t start out that way. It started out as many 19th-century museums do: with copies.
When the Art Institute of Chicago opened its doors on Michigan Avenue in 1893, the collection consisted of a “significant” group of reproductions of famous sculptures and plaster casts of architectural statuary, donated by the French government at the close of the Columbian Exposition.
Yes, you heard me right. Plaster casts. Reproductions of Venus de Milo and Winged Victory. We had tons of them.
We had so many because the Art Institute of Chicago was formed as a museum where School of the Art Institute students could study art. And at the time, “studying art” meant copying famous works of art. But also, at the time, plaster casts were actually quite the rage. They were intended to bring the history of art, in the pre-internet age, to the uncultured, non-European world.
This is not to say there is anything wrong with copies. Today, many artists appropriate or recreate works by other artists, as evidenced by this work by Sherrie Levine, which is on view right now in the Modern Wing.