Skip to Content
Today Open today 10–11 members | 11–5 public

System of Architectural Ornament, Plate 16, Impromptu!

A finely detailed drawing of architectural ornament in an organic style made up of whiplash appendages and spiral stalks.

Image actions

  • A finely detailed drawing of architectural ornament in an organic style made up of whiplash appendages and spiral stalks.




Louis H. Sullivan
American, 1856-1924

About this artwork

In 1922 the Art Institute’s recently opened Burnham Library of Architecture com-missioned Louis Sullivan to make drawings illustrating his renowned theories of architectural ornament. These masterpieces were published together as A System of Architectural Ornament, According with a Philosophy of Man’s Powers by the American Institute of Architects in 1924; this was Sullivan’s final statement about the geometry underlying both natural and man-made forms. In his search for an original American architecture, Sullivan drew his inspiration from nature, not unlike the nineteenth-century American poets and writers whom he emulated. Like them, he intended ornament to function evocatively as well as to represent organic growth, evolving from closed geometric units to open, efflorescent forms. In Impromptu!, the sixteenth of the twenty delicate drawings in his treatise, Sullivan produced one of his most open, vibrant, and fluent compositions. Giving free rein to expansive whiplash appendages and spiral stalks, the architect combined nature’s infinite creative variation and incessant change with an intense emotional expressionism. To convey these poetic nuances, Sullivan’s correlating notation describes the design as entering “the domain of Virtuosity, Romance and Symbolism.”


Currently Off View


Architecture and Design


Louis H. Sullivan (Architect)


System of Architectural Ornament, Plate 16, Impromptu!


United States (Artist's nationality:)

Date  Dates are not always precisely known, but the Art Institute strives to present this information as consistently and legibly as possible. Dates may be represented as a range that spans decades, centuries, dynasties, or periods and may include qualifiers such as c. (circa) or BCE.



Graphite on Strathmore paper


signed and dated at bottom center, "Louis H. Sullivan: Oct. 28th 1922"


57.7 × 73.5 cm (22 3/4 × 28 15/16 in.)

Credit Line

Commissioned by The Art Institute of Chicago

Reference Number


Extended information about this artwork

Object information is a work in progress and may be updated as new research findings emerge. To help improve this record, please email . Information about image downloads and licensing is available here.


Sign up for our enewsletter to receive updates.

Learn more

Image actions