Shortly after the Civil War, a small group of Chicago artists met to lament the fact that there was nowhere west of the Alleghenies where a would-be artist might further his education in his chosen pursuit. Shortly thereafter, these men began organising classes amongst themselves. A year or two later they founded the Chicago Academy of Design, which received from the French government a modest gift of plaster casts - then the only socially acceptable means by which art students might engage in figural studies. The school grew and prospered, moving from one rented facility to another, each one larger than the one before. Then, on a warm, dry, breezy Sunday night, October 8, 1871, their fledgling art school with its precious French plaster casts burned to the ground. Worse yet, so did most of the rest of Chicago. Mrs. O'Leary's cow had kicked the lantern, and probably the bucket as well.
In the wake of the worst disaster to ever hit the country at the time, Chicago was reborn with incredible rapidity. Where once there had been two and three story wooden structures, there arose towering, cast iron or steel (and fireproof) "skyscrapers," some of them soaring an unprecedented ten or twelve stories into the windy Midwestern sky. And, with this startling rebirth, came the rebirth of the Chicago Academy of Design, re-founded in 1879 as the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Their name was brand new, their building was brand new (as were virtually all buildings in the fire ravaged city), and so too was their resolve to be the biggest and best art school in the Midwest. As the result, in 1882 they changed their name again, this time to the Art Institute of Chicago. And in 1893, they moved into their present Classic Revival abode, one of the few permanent structures left standing on the shore of Lake Michigan from the great World's Colombian Exposition.
Today we think of the Art Institute of Chicago as one of the great museums, not just of this country, but the entire world. Justly most famous perhaps for its extensive holdings of Impressionist masterpieces (some 30 by Claude Monet alone), the museum, in fact, houses more than 300,000 works of art from all eras within its various departments. But, at the beginning of the last century, before the paint was barely dry on some of its most renowned masterpieces, such as Georges Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, the institute's school of art was still far more important than any works of art its meagre museum might house. However, in the years that followed, the institute benefited from one of the great, undying rules of the art world - great wealth begets (or at least gets) great art. And if Chicago had nothing else, the windy city was perfectly placed, midway between the industrial East and the agricultural West, in the paths of ten rail lines and a seemingly endless line of cold, hard, green cash.
And while you might be tempted to simply dote on the Monets, just around the corner are major works by El Greco (The Assumption of the Virgin), Manet (The Mocking of Christ), Hopper (The Night Hawks), Wood (American Gothic), and Chagall (The America Windows), as well as important paintings by David, Reynolds, Tiepolo, Ingres, and a pantheon of lesser known but, nonetheless, outstanding artists and artisans from China, Korea, Japan, Peru, Germany, Austria, Mexico, Russia, even the tiny Ivory Coast. If one never gets past Renoir's enchanting Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando or Seurat's Pointillism, or Wood's wooden Gothic Americans, then one might as well just browse the gift shop or pig out in the cafeteria. Four football fields is a lot of space for a lot of art, and some of the best, such as an exquisite teardrop shaped ceramic vase by Kenyan Artist Magdalene Odundo, or the Abstract Expressionist City Landscape by Joan Mitchell, or Ice 1-4 German artist Gerhard Richter, you've probably never seen nor heard of; yet, they are as much a part of the powerful images of this powerhouse city as a certain cantankerous cow, which shall go unnamed.