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Olympic Metals

Accomplished athletes have descended on London to compete for gold, silver, and bronze medallions. But for those of us who work at the Art Institute, these three metals are commonly used media in works we encounter every day. Here are three works from our collection that show that gold, silver, and bronze are more than just medals.

Good as gold, but why so good? Gold is eminently malleable, making it perfect for dental fillings, coins, or art. In this six-panel screen from 17th-century Japan, gold is used alongside vibrant colors to illustrate a scene of cultural contact and trade between Japan and Europe. The "Southern Barbarians," in this instance Portuguese merchants, were a popular subject of Japanese screen painting in the 16th and 17th centuries. The traders—portrayed with misshapen bodies, large noses, broad-rimmed hats, and bright outfits—are watched by curious Japanese residents lunching on the shore.

Second place may not be as good as gold in the Olympics, but for prospectors in the American West (and artists), silver is still pretty grand. Silver is nearly as malleable as gold and its chemical properties make it a material of choice for photography and drawing. Silverpoint, the drawing technique Ivan Albright used in the 1956 work seen above, involves rendering a work in soft, grey lines that slowly turn brown as the silver tarnishes. The technique was used by da Vinci and Dürer, but declined in popularity over the centuries. Albright, as evidenced by the work above, was part of a renewal of the technique, using silver to capture the humble dwellings of silver miners in what is now the resort town of Aspen.

Second runner-up, but arguably the strongest of the trio, bronze is well known for its use in sculpture. In this 15th- or 16th-century Italian work, the athletic Roman god Mercury takes flight with his winged shoes. Mercury, a syncretized Roman god with many similarities to the Olympian Hermes, uses his fancy footwear to swiftly move between the divine and mortal realms as messenger of the gods and patron of, among other things, athletics and sports.

If the closing ceremonies this weekend leave you wanting more Olympic glory, cruise through the Art Institute, where we have enough gold, silver, and bronze on display to hold you over until the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro.

Image Credits:

Southern Barbarians (Namban byobu), mid 17th century. Japanese. Robert Allerton Endowment Fund.

Ivan Albright. Silver Miners’ Row, Aspen, Colorado, 1956. Gift of Ivan Albright.

Mercury, 1575/1625. Italian. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jack Linsky.