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Museum FAQs: Are the Artworks Real?



QUESTION: Are these all “real” artworks? Or are the real ones kept somewhere else?

ANSWER: This is a very common question asked by museum visitors. We’re happy to say that, yes, the artworks are real. They are the originals. The Art Institute does not hide them away and display reproductions. That painting in the gallery called American Gothic was painted by Grant Wood—the only American Gothic he painted. If you get close, you can even see the brushstrokes created by his hand.

And those artworks attributed to El Greco, Hokusai, Van Gogh, Georgia O’Keeffe, Olowe of Ise, and tens of thousands of other artists, many of who are anonymous? Those are also real. This is what makes visiting the museum a unique and profound experience: you, the visitor, are interacting with original works of art. That is the unspoken agreement the museum makes with you when you walk through the door.

It hasn’t always been that way, though. The Art Institute started as the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in 1879, and as the name suggests, it was a school as well as a museum. At that time, the education of an artist started with learning to draw the “classics,” so there were lots of plaster cast reproductions of Greco-Roman sculptures and European art from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. In 1893, the Art Institute of Chicago, as it was now called, moved into its current building on Michigan Avenue, and while there were works by artists such as Isack van Ostade, Anton van Dyck, and Meindert Hobbema, the collection still consisted mostly of reproductions. Within a year it had received its first major gift, a collection of French Barbizon paintings that included Jules Breton’s The Song of the Lark. By 1952, most of the plaster casts had been destroyed or given away.

Some people have asked: And what about prints, photographs, and other media where multiple copies can be made? As long as the copy is made from the original matrix—the woodblock, etching, lithograph—or the original negative, it is still considered an original. The same is true for designed objects that are mass-produced, like furniture or decorative arts. As long as they were created by the same workshop or manufacturer the artist had contracted with, those still reflect original designs.

What about works in the collection, particularly non-Western art, created by artisans and craftspeople who did not sign their work? The same standards apply. The lack of a name doesn’t lessen the “realness” of a work of art produced by hand.

It’s important to note that we seek to establish an object’s chain of ownership from the moment it leaves the artist’s hands to its entry in the museum’s collection. This is what is referred to as provenance, which can be an ongoing process as we work diligently to research the history of each object before it arrives at the Art Institute. Our collection also contains fascinating stories about objects that have been given to us by their creators.

Since its founding in 1879, the Art Institute’s permanent collection has grown from plaster casts to nearly 300,000 works of art in fields ranging from Chinese bronzes to contemporary design and from textiles to installation art. Each work of art on display has been verified as an original. Rest assured that you will never see a non-original artwork in our galleries.

Okay, there is one. But it is not considered a work of art. It’s actually an artifact from the old days. The next time you’re in the museum and walking up the Grand Staircase, take a look up high up on the wall above the Rodin sculptures. You’ll see an old plaster cast that reproduces a part of the famous Parthenon frieze. Unfortunately, it’s embedded in the wall and too difficult to remove. Feel free to give it a glance and consider how things have changed. And then look around at all the real art.

Special thanks to Jeffrey Nigro for sharing some of his institutional knowledge about the Art Institute.



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