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Highlights of Chicago's Art Institute: A Family Day Trip

Updated on September 15, 2018

Impressionists, Modern Art, Grant Wood's American Gothic and So Much More!

The Art Institute is one of the truly must-see attractions for any visitor to Chicago. World-renowned for its Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and American paintings, the institute says it contains about 300,000 artifacts and pieces of art spanning more than 5,000 years.

We recently spent a full day touring the institute, moving through the place at a quick pace because we wanted to see so many things. That may not be the best plan for most visitors, especially those who live close enough to the institute that return visits are likely. Because we are on the East Coast and don't know when we might return to Chicago, we tried to pack as much in as possible.

Here are some of the highlights of the institute. All photos are by us unless otherwise noted.

The photo here is a close-up of Two Sisters (On the Terrace), an 1881 painting by Renoir.

Two Sisters Renoir Art Institute Chicago
Two Sisters Renoir Art Institute Chicago

Renoir, Monet, Moriset and Van Gogh

Among the Masters on the Second Level

We decided to start our visit with the Impressionists, and we were glad that we did. They are located on the second level, and when you get to the top of the staircase you feel like you are walking among the Masters. Some of the more magnificent pieces that you can see are Claude Monet's On The Bank of The Seine, Bennecourt from 1868 and his Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare (1877).

I was happy to recognize Pierre-August Renoir's Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise (The Rowers' Lunch) from 1875 (A portion of the painting is reproduced here). It is smaller and earlier than his absolutely magnificent Luncheon of the Boating Party from 1881 (that is on display in the Phillips Collection. S see here for our Phillips review). This earlier piece is similar and well worth a visit.

One of the most rewarding things about a first visit to an art museum is that you may be introduced to a painter you didn't know. In this case it was Berthe Morisot, a female artist who was married painter Edouard Manet's brother. I thought she did a great job with her Woman in a Garden from 1882/83, especially how the strokes used for the woman's fan contrasts with those of her dress. It's worth checking out.

From the Impressionists it's easy to segue to the post-Impressionists in the collection, and that section's best works to me were the Vincent Van Gogh's. His Self-Portrait (1887) is one of two dozen he made in the final years of his life. Also worth looking for is Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle (La Berceuse), 1889.

Our Pick For Most Helpful Guidebook

We usually travel with three or four guidebooks, as we find that each one contains slightly different but useful information.

This book was the one we found most helpful. An added plus is that it is slender so it wasn't a bother when we carried it around.

Modern Art Chicago Art Institute
Modern Art Chicago Art Institute

Laughing at Mao, Picasso and Other Modern Art

After seeing the European paintings, my 12-year-old son and I wandered over to the contemporary art wing at the back of the building. We were greeted by Andy Warhol's 15-foot-tall portrait of Mao Zedong (or Tse-tung). Called Mao, this 1975 piece dominates its room but the colors used seem a bit weird. We weren't sure what effect Warhol was aiming to convey.

We later joined a group of people listening to a tour guide (see photo) explain the importance of Pablo Picasso's portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler from 1910. From his cubist period, Picasso wanted to remove perspective and color from the painting, the guide said. He accomplished that, I suppose, since we couldn't really make out the picture frame, bottle or anything else in the picture very clearly. She said Picasso added a mouth and eyes after being told it was so abstract that it didn't even appear to be a portrait.

We bumped into the same group in front of a Jackson Pollock painting. The guide explained he developed his famous style because in the ``new age of travel and entertainment'' he needed a new way to express himself. My son took great glee in that phrase, and for days afterward when he was doing something that we didn't want him to do, such as leave his pajamas on the hotel floor, he would respond ``I was just looking for a new way to express myself.''

Where's Kahnweiler?

Picasso Portrait Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler
Picasso Portrait Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler

Can You See Mr. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler In Picasso's Portrait?

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American Gothic Art Institute Chicago
American Gothic Art Institute Chicago

French Fashion and American Gothic

We walked through a special exhibition called ``Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity,'' which focused on the importance of fashion for the painters of the Impresionist period. It was very nicely done, with displays of fashionable dresses from the period displayed near some of the great masterpieces of that time, including James Tissot's The Ball on Shipboard (1874) an from the Tate Museum in England. The exhibition ends with one of the institute's own masterpieces, Georges Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte-1884. This is probably Seurat's best-known painting, and it is a gorgeous example of Pointillism.

Unfortunately, the special exhibit ended shortly after our visit.

We then walked through the American Modern Art area, stopping to admire two paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe: Black Cross, New Mexico (1929) and Yellow Hickory Leaves With Daisy (1928). I find some of O'Keeffe's paintings to be fairly pedestrian, but these two are very nicely done (and the Black Cross one is considered an institute highlight).

The most popular piece in the wing was Grant Wood's American Gothic from 1930, which has to be one of the most parodied paintings of the 20th century. There was a crowd in front of it (see photo) but once we got close He recognized it from The Simpsons. I can't complain, though, because my introduction to the painting was probably one of the many Mad Magazine covers that parodied the work! By the way, it is a nice piece of art and worth checking out if you get to the institute.

To Learn More About American Gothic

Since 1930 this painting has been one of America's most famous and most popular art pieces. Find out the history of the work and its impact on American culture by reading this 2006 book.

Miniature Room Art Institute Chicago
Miniature Room Art Institute Chicago

Asian art, Medieval Armor, Paperweights and Miniature Rooms

The Rest of the Museum in a Flash!

By this point in the visit our energy and attention began to flag. We quickly strolled through the African, American Indian and Asian art, stopping only to check out the seated Buddha that the institute says is one of the place's highlights. It is quite cool, and fairly large.

We slowed down a bit for the European decorative arts, though the Wedgwood and other fine china in the exhibit didn't seem much better than pieces we have seen in other museums. The same thing with the weapons and armor area. If you have been to a museum that has similar pieces this is an area that you may be able to miss, though I think this is the first time I ever noticed that some armor breast plates have a special hook attached to support lances during a joust. I just always assumed a knight needed strong arms to hold up his lance!

A quick walk through the American Folk Art area is also advised, unless you really like that kind of artwork. The wood-and-metal whirligig that Frank Memkus made during 1939-1945 is certainly something that you won't easily forget. Standing about 40 inches high, it is a super-patriotic red, white and blue piece of art with lots of American flags. It's too bad the museum doesn't have it spinning around because then it would be a real spectacle.

We ended our visit in the basement, where the museum has a few small rooms dedicated to its paperweight collection and a larger exhibit of miniature rooms that were built starting in 1932 by Narcissa Niblack Thorne and workers she had in her studio. Thorne made the rooms, illustrating interiors from Europe, Asia and North America from the late 13th to the early 20th century, at a scale of about 1 inch to 1 foot. The photo here is one of the 68 rooms in the exhibit.

All in all, the institute took us almost six hours to walk through (we did stop for lunch). We didn't get to see everything in depth, but we very much enjoyed the day and hope to return soon.

Remember When Ferris Bueller Visited the Institute?

Ferris Bueller's Day Off

This classic comedy from the 1980s is also a great tour of Chicago. One slight warning. There is some profanity, so it's not for little kids.

Chicago Art Institute
Chicago Art Institute

Have You Been to the Art Institute?

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I hope you enjoyed reading this review as much as we enjoyed our travels and writing it. Now it's your turn!

Please let us know what you think of this article, the art institute or anything else relevant.

Thanks for visiting!


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