Skip to Content
Abstract painting in which a cloud of vibrant colors—pink, blue, orange, red, brown, green, and purple—floats in a loosely gridded beige landscape, shaded lightly in pastels. Abstract painting in which a cloud of vibrant colors—pink, blue, orange, red, brown, green, and purple—floats in a loosely gridded beige landscape, shaded lightly in pastels.


Artists and the City


Cities—centers of human activity, growth, and creativity—have long incited imaginative responses from artists across time and place.

For Georgia O’Keeffe, New York City was both home and inspiration. Living in midtown Manhattan at a time of rapid development, O’Keeffe responded to the dense urban landscape in surprising ways. Explore this theme further with seven works in our collection that showcase the varied ways artists have responded to the hustle and bustle of urban life.

Begin the tour at the exit of Georgia O’Keeffe: “My New Yorks,” outside of Regenstein Hall.

Walter Ellison

Chicago, Detroit, New York—these are the northern cities where Black travelers are headed in this painting by Walter Ellison of a Southern train station during Jim Crow. Ellison was himself one of more than six million African Americans who left the South in search of work and opportunities for a better life. Born in Georgia, he came to Chicago and later studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The artist included himself in this composition—the man lifting a suitcase bearing the initials “W. W. E.”—in the right foreground. He contrasted himself and fellow Black passengers on the right, who all carry their own bags, with the white travelers on the left, who are assisted by Black porters as they leave to vacation in Florida. 

Todros Geller

The imposing steel frame of a stairway to the Chicago “L” cuts through this painting at a diagonal as a train in the distance runs across the elevated track. Todros Geller was born in modern-day Ukraine and immigrated to Canada before settling in Chicago in 1918. In Chicago he encountered what he termed the collision of “strange worlds”—the clashing and melding of immigrant traditions and modern, urban life. Here, he depicted a man, his face lined and his long beard neatly groomed, who stares out at the viewer from beneath the industrial infrastructure of Chicago. A blur of people in the background and newspapers layered behind his shoulder hint at the anonymity and busyness of city life, and the social tumult of the era.

Joan Mitchell

The dense tangle of color and gestural brushstrokes in City Landscape captures the energy of a bustling metropolis. The artist Joan Mitchell, born and raised in Chicago, spent much of the 1950s traveling between the artistic hubs of Paris and New York. “I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me,” she once said. City Landscape can be interpreted in various ways: a skyline and its reflection on a body of water, the commotion of a downtown street, or the view from an airplane window—a cluster of buildings blurring into the surrounding patchwork of fields. 


This distinctive West Mexican sculpture depicting an ancient ceremonial center may have been included in a tomb as an offering for the afterlife. It features houselike temples populated by flute players, a drummer, conch-shell trumpeters, dancers, women with children, and animals. In the middle of the circle, a masked figure—likely the ruler—stands atop a stepped pyramid. It symbolizes the way cities grow outward from a cultural or spiritual center. A similar model of a modern city might feature financial districts and cultural institutions such as art museums.

Yasuhiro Ishimoto

Yasuhiro Ishimoto turned his camera upward to capture this view of the sky above a street in Chicago. Telephone wires cut neat lines across the flat background, its gridded form echoed by the metal platform in the upper right. Ishimoto first experimented with photography while he was incarcerated by the US government at Camp Amache, in Colorado, during World War II. After the war, Ishimoto was one of the nearly 8,000 Japanese Americans resettled by the government in Chicago, where he enrolled at the Institute of Design. Here, Ishimoto transformed a fragment of urban infrastructure into a highly geometric composition characterized by bold tonal contrast.

This work is on view in the exhibition Foreign Exchange: Photography between Chicago, Japan, and Germany, 1920–1960 through September 9, 2024.

Scipione Del Campo

Bridges are not only marvels of design and engineering—they are essential to a city’s commerce. It turns out that Chicago has more moveable bridges than any American city. During the Great Depression, one of the many unemployed, and now unknown, artists hired by the WPA created this stone relief for a bridge house, where the bridge tender worked. The Art Deco–inspired relief casts the worker as a god-like figure—not unlike Mercury, the Roman god of trade and commerce—pulling a lever to engage the cogs that raise the bridge for passing boats. This mingling of design and mythology speaks to the intrinsic value placed on the practical magic of bridges. 

Claude Monet

The changing urban environment nurtured new painting techniques and inspired the Impressionists, especially Claude Monet. With support from his friend, artist Gustave Caillebotte, Monet rented a studio space in Paris that was located a few blocks from the Gare Saint-Lazare, the terminal linking Paris and Normandy. Monet responded to both the industrial and natural effects of this setting, capturing the sensation of atmospheric changes billowing against a modern glass structure. He painted this site repeatedly in 1877, examining his subject at different angles and in varied lighting—a pattern of working that he would carry over to his landscapes. 

See more works that capture the lives of cities.

Did you enjoy this self-guide? We’d love to hear your thoughts.



Sign up for our enewsletter to receive updates.

Learn more

Image actions