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Lee Godie, French Impressionist

Forty years ago, a self-described “French Impressionist” named Lee Godie created original artworks on the steps of the Art Institute and peddled them to museum visitors. Although Godie (1908-1994) was neither French nor a contemporary of Berthe Morisot, she recognized the Art Institute’s collection of Impressionist artworks as a touchstone of her own painting and drawing career. Godie spent a lot of time at the museum; she often camped her roving art studio on the edge of the museum’s north garden, just outside the windows of the Prints and Drawings study center.

Recently, Prints and Drawings acquired three artworks by Godie, the first by the artist to enter our permanent collection. Godie drew with ballpoint pen, ink, and watercolor on canvas, and these canvases are loose, like sheets of paper; they are not stretched onto wood bars as is typical of a finished painting on canvas. Loose canvas panels are easy to roll up and transport, which conforms to accounts that Godie would flash open her fur coat to reveal a stock of paintings to potential patrons.

It was common for Godie to have stitched together several canvas panels with thread so that the painting unfolds or opens like a triptych or book. Sometimes Godie also created pillow paintings by stitching together all sides of two canvas panels after filling them with crumpled newspaper.

The artworks the museum acquired depict several portraits of a woman, which are likely self-portraits. One panel shows a still-life of foliage, and another shows a man, variously referred to as a waiter and Prince Charming, although sometimes our own portrait drawing of Léonide Massine by Picasso is cited as Godie’s inspiration.

Opening up Godie’s stitched canvas panels reveals fascinating details about the artist and her art practice. The versos sometimes contain smaller sketches in pen or pencil, and this is also where she inscribed her appellation “French Impressionist,” and provided the “value” or selling price of the artwork. One is marked as $25, another $30, and a third is $90.

Even more revealing is a photograph that Godie attached to the verso of The Waiter. It was likely taken in a photobooth and shows the artist holding one of her artworks, proudly serving to verify the artwork’s attribution. The black-and-white photo is hand-colored to give the artist blonde hair. Likewise, Godie sometimes painted her own cheeks and eyes with the materials she used to paint her canvases.

Anecdotes and lore about Godie’s idiosyncratic character endear her to many people. She was itinerant by choice, living on the street but also renting rooms in downtown flophouses when the weather was bad or when sales from her art were good. Very little is known about Godie’s life prior to 1968, which is the year she appeared on the steps of the museum, at age 60. It is likely that art students working in the museum’s gift shop and library first took an interest in her art and purchased some canvases. By the late 1970s and early 80s, Godie was successfully selling her work to art collectors.

In 1982 a major article appeared in the Chicago Reader. Michael Bonesteel’s “The Mysterious Master of Michigan Ave.” set the record straight about her life, career, and rise to fame. Bonesteel curated a retrospective exhibition of Godie’s work at the Chicago Cultural Center in 1993, on the cusp of her death, and later dubbed her “the queen mother of Chicago outsider artists.” Godie’s artworks remain coveted art objects, and I think it would have thrilled her to see her works in our collection.

Of her inspiration, Godie said: “Renoir was the greatest artist of all time. He always said he painted beauty. Now I always try to paint beauty, but some people say my paintings aren’t beautiful. Well, I have a beauty in my mind, but it isn’t always easy to make paintings beautiful.”

—Jason F., Department Coordinator, Prints and Drawings

Lee Godie. The Red Head, n.d. Watercolor, with graphite underdrawing, on primed canvas with varnish coating. Gift of John Vinci, 2010.722.

Lee Godie. The Waiter; Leaves, n.d. Pen and brown ink and black ballpoint pen on primed canvas; comprised of four canvas panels sewn together with black thread. Gift of John Vinci, 2010.721.

Lee Godie. Detail from The Waiter, n.d. Gift of John Vinci, 2010.721.

Lee Godie. Portrait, n.d. Blue and black ballpoint pen, with wax crayon, watercolor, and graphite underdrawing, on primed canvas with a varnish coating. Gift of John Vinci, 2010.720.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Two Sisters (On the Terrace), 1881. Oil on canvas. Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection, 1933.455.