Chicago’s Art Institute from Home: My Virtual Favorites

Published: May 17th, 2020

Perhaps the writing was on the wall when, as a child, I fell in love with The Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. Many Chicagoans can understand how those tiny treasures of home design on a 1:12 scale, set in a museum brimming with artistic masterpieces from around the world, might launch a passion for both interior design and artistic excellence.

Thorne Room: English Drawing Room of the Modern Period

To this day, whenever I travel to great cities, I revel in fine museums of art and design. Consequently, a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago always feels like a vacation day in my hometown. Especially in this time of the pandemic, a virtual visit to the Art Institute’s online resources is an adventure that takes me out of this confinement into a world of passion and pleasure. Care to join me?

For a quick survey of the “best of the best” at the Art Institute, head over to the Essentials Tour.  My favorites there include works that may already be familiar to you, like Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,  Archibald John Motley Jr.’s Nightlife, and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Seurat’s iconic piece is even more compelling now amidst our longing for a carefree return to our lakefront, just as Motley’s work tantalizes with its depiction of a local jazz club energized by music, community and movement. Hopper’s Nighthawks , on the other hand, stirs reflection of what all of us might feel during this time – a moment of forced separation, confined to a place with no apparent entry or exit.

Fortunately, I find many of my “old friends” in the Art Institute’s Impressionist collection, like Renoir’s vividly floral ‘’Two Sisters (on the Terrace)” and Caillebotte’s massive and immersive “Paris Street; Rainy Day.”  Each is exquisitely evocative of mood and moment, along with Toulouse-Lautrec’s “At the Moulin Rouge.” (Tune in to the audio for great commentary).

And who isn’t awe-struck walking into that roomful of Monet’s “Stacks of Wheat,” an assortment of seasonal moments, each in spectacularly variant light.

I’ve often struggled to define surrealism in art, but one of the best definitions I’ve ever encountered involves an 11-year-old boy who, upon being told that “surreal” art depicts images that could not occur in the real world, replied, “Oh, so surreal is not so real!” (Ha!) Fortunately, one of the best collections of surreal masterpieces is at the Art Institute. Check out the Surrealism Highlights and spend time with the works of Dali, Miro and Magritte. We are all transfixed by Magritte’s “Time Transfixed,” while Dali’s “Inventions of the Monsters,” completed in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, sounds an alarm still timely today.

For a journey through the Art Institute’s vast American Art collection, head to “Visions of America.” Two works in particular that I enjoyed learning about both involve our history of slavery. The audio attached to Joshua Johnson’s “Mrs. Andrew Bedford Bankson and Son, Gunning Bedford Bankson” relates the remarkable tale of the artist himself, a former slave whose father, a slave owner, bought him his freedom. The other is John Quincy Adam Ward’s “The Freedman,” whose 1864 sculpture of a freed slave wearing a broken shackle celebrates the humanizing moment of release.   

If you missed the El Greco exhibit in person due to the pandemic, by all means take the El Greco Audio Tour. You’ll find the discussion of an artist’s struggles with the business aspects of art in 16th century fascinating and you’ll be surprised to find so many modern elements in El Greco’s work.

Chicago interior designer best of Art Institute of Chicago
View of Toledo

Finally, if you’re looking for a way to spruce up your Zoom game, download some Art Institute masterpieces from their Virtual Backgrounds page. I’ll probably zoom from one of those Thorne rooms before this confinement is over, but zooming from Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom” looks pretty irresistible!

Chicago interior designer best of Art Institute of Chicago
The Bedroom