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Work of the Week: The Origin of the Lions

At the age of 26, inspired by the sight of a German sculptor in Central Park modeling the head of a wolf, American Edward Kemeys devoted himself to learning the art of sculpture. The self-taught artist made several extended trips to the American West to study wild animals in their natural habitat, hunting and dissecting game to analyze its skeletal and muscular structure.

As a result of his success with his animal sculptures, Kemeys was commissioned in 1893 to create lion pairs for both the Art Institute and the Palace of Fine Arts at the World’s Columbian Exposition. The museum’s lions, which have become an iconic image of the city itself, each assume a different stance. As Kemeys himself described them, the north lion is “on the prowl” while the south lion “adopts an attitude of defiance.” These distinctions are visible in the variation of head, tail, and stance. Each weighing in at more than two tons, the Lions were cast in Chicago by the American Bronze Founding Company.

Check out the Wreathing of the Lions on Friday, November 24, marking the start of the holiday season at the Art Institute.


Edward Kemeys, 1898; The Lions, about 1900.