What to See in an Hour | The Art Institute of Chicago (2023)

Please note: artworks occasionally go off view for imaging, treatment, or loan to other institutions. Click on the images to ensure the work is currently on view.

One of the most famous American paintings of all time, this double portrait by Grant Wood debuted at the Art Institute in 1930, winning the artist a $300 prize and instant fame. Many people think the couple are a husband and wife, but Wood meant the couple to be a father and his daughter. (His sister and his dentist served as his models.) He intended this Depression-era canvas to be a positive statement about rural American values during a time of disillusionment.

See American Gothic on view in Gallery 263.

  • American Gothic (The Essentials Tour)

    Artist Grant Wood discovered the house in this painting by accident. Judith Barter, Field-McCormick Chair and Curator, American Arts, tells the story.

    Well, he was riding around in the country one day, and he found this wonderful Gothic Revival house. And it is a wonderful house—I’d buy it in a heartbeat. And he said he wanted to paint the perfect couple that would live in a house like that. And so he engaged his dentist and his sister to pose for this picture.

    As the artist said:

    I imagined American Gothic people with their faces stretched out long to go with this American Gothic house.

    Grant Wood never said whether this was a husband and wife or a father and daughter. She’s wearing her apron, and on the left side of the painting are her flowerpots and the domestic chores. He is on the right, with his pitchfork, probably headed to the barn, which is also on the right side of the picture. Over his bib overalls, which mark him as a farmer, he wears a dress shirt and probably his only suit jacket, dressing up for this picture. And she wears her best apron and the family cameo.

    Ironically, in 1930, this neat, tidy little farm couple was already a dying breed. In 1920, this country was predominantly urban, and no longer rural. And particularly in the early 1930s, at the depth of the Depression, young people were leaving the farms. This couple would have been sort of left behind in the dust.

    This work reads both like a satire of the American dream…and a celebration of a way of life that was quickly disappearing.

    People in Chicago loved this picture because it was something so foreign to them. It was certainly an American scene, but it wasn’t something that people lived in big cities could relate to very well. And they found it rather exotic and fun, and so it was quite popular.

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  • For his largest and best-known painting, Georges Seurat depicted Parisians enjoying all sorts of leisurely activities—strolling, lounging, sailing, and fishing—in the park called La Grande Jatte in the River Seine. He used an innovative technique called Pointillism, inspired by optical and color theory, applying tiny dabs of different colored paint that viewers see as a single, and Seurat believed, more brilliant hue.

    See this work on view in Gallery 240.

  • A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884 (The Essentials Tour)

    This may be the most iconic work of art in the Art Institute. Gloria Groom, David and Mary Winton Green Curator and Chair of European Painting and Sculpture.

    What you see are a lot of different figures. And these figures represent different walks of life. They’ve gathered here on the banks of the Seine on a Sunday afternoon, and they’re in their Sunday best, most of them.

    It seems very alive, because of the color. But no one is really moving. There is really a stillness. Seurat wanted to extract from modern life, to distill it. And to make it, as he said, like the Parthenon frieze, but using modern people in all their traits.

    There are mysteries here: on the left, the boater with the cap seems disproportionately large in relation to the couple seated next to him. Why is the little girl in orange the only one captured in movement? What are those two orange shapes at the far right?

    For us,it’s an enigmatic painting. It’s one that we return to again and again. You never get tired of it. Because you’re always finding something else that is unusual, that makes you think differently about what you thought you knew. And that, I think, is the sign of a great painting.

    Seurat used a technique called ‘pointillism,’ and it’s what he’s famous for. He painted in tiny little dots, often in complementary colors.

    If you were an avant-garde artist in late 19th century, you would be thinking about complementaries on the color wheel. So purple and yellow, and blue and orange, and red and green.And when you lay them down next to each other, and you don’t blend them,they have a flickering quality.

    And so he breaks up the surface with these little dots of pigment. And that is what is his completely different approach to painting. And every artist after ‘the Grande Jatte’ had to reckon with what a painting should be, and how can we now accept this new technique.

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  • Hero Construction, created in 1958, just a year after Chicago sculptor Richard Hunt graduated from the School of the Art Institute, is composed of found objects—old pipes, bits of metal, and automobile parts—that the artist discovered in junkyards and on the street. Inspired by mythology and heroic sculptures past and present, the welded figure suggests a hero for our times, humble yet resilient in the face of past, present, and future injustices and uncertainties.

    See Hero Construction on view on the Woman’s Board Grand Staircase.

    This iconic painting of an all-night diner in which three customers sit together and yet seem totally isolated from one another has become one of the best-known images of 20th-century art. Hopper said of the enigmatic work, “Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”

    See Nighthawks on view in Gallery 262.

  • Nighthawks (The Essentials Tour)

    Judith Barter, Field ¬McCormick Chair & Curator, American Arts.

    ‘Nighthawks’ is a really fascinating painting. It’s such an American painting. The Americanness is in many of the details: The ‘Phillies Cigar’ ad above the diner. The salt shakers, the heavy-duty porcelain mugs. The napkin holders. The big coffee urns in the back. The soda jerk, with his cap on. It’s what America was like and what America liked in the ’30s and ’40s.

    But look closer. There’s something unrealistic—and off-putting—about Edward Hopper’s scene.

    It looks real, but it’s not. There’s no sense of real depth. When you try to go deep into this picture, it pushes you back to the surface. He uses acid greens against bright yellows and oranges—the red dress of the woman with her orange hair. These set your teeth on edge, but they do work together; he was a brilliant colorist.] And if you look at the diner, there’s no way in or out except through that orange door that ostensibly goes to the kitchen. So it’s sort of a hermetically-sealed environment with these four people in this diner at night.

    And…no one is talking. To many, ‘Nighthawks’ evokes a sense of loneliness. But Hopper himself disagreed with this interpretation. In an interview, he said.

    I think those are the words of critics. It may be true, it may not be true. It’s how the viewer looks on the pictures. What he sees in them.

    What I see in Hopper is a sense of everyman. That any of us could be sitting in this diner. it’s really the idea of we are individuals, but we have a collective consciousness as well. I think people just relate to the everydayness of it. They can put themselves in these pictures.

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  • In the 1970s, Alma Thomas was enthralled by astronauts and outer space. Starry Night and the Astronauts not only captures her fascination with space flight but also shows the signature style of her abstract works, which use short, rhythmic strokes of paint. “Color is life,” she once proclaimed, “and light is the mother of color.” Thomas made this work in 1972, when she was 81—the same year she became the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

    See Starry Night and the Astronauts in Gallery 291.

    Pablo Picasso’s The Old Guitarist is a work from his Blue Period (1901–04). During this time the artist restricted himself to a cold, monochromatic blue palette and flattened forms, taking on the themes of misery and alienation inspired by such artists as Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin. The elongated, angular figure also relates to Picasso’s interest in Spanish art and, in particular, the great 16th-century artist El Greco. The image reflects the 22-year-old Picasso’s personal sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden; he knew what it was like to be poor, having been nearly penniless during all of 1902.

    See The Old Guitarist on view in Gallery 391.

  • The Old Guitarist (The Essentials Tour)

    Stephanie D’Alessandro, Gary C. and Frances Comer Curator, International Modern Art.

    You’re looking at Pablo Picasso’s ‘Old Guitarist’, from late 1903-’04. It’s a painting of a man, who, by his sunken eyes and closed eyelids, seems to be a blind man playing a guitar. Maybe his mouth is a little open singing, or maybe he’s breathing. Maybe because of the blue color, maybe because of the emaciated quality of his body and its angular position, sort of smushed into this composition—but there’s an emotional level to the painting as well.

    The color blue was an important color for many artists, artists interested in this kind of evocative feeling or kind of personal subjectivity, or psychology. Picasso was very much a part of that as much as anything else.

    Take a look at how Picasso uses white highlights to emphasize the gauntness of the figure’s body. In both the composition and the sensitive rendering of the figure, Picasso references the great 16th-century Spanish painter, El Greco.

    Picasso was someone very sensitive to the plight of the downtrodden. He himself was a struggling artist at this time, and certainly would’ve been sympathetic to people like this old guitarist, who would’ve been an outcast in society.

    This is not only is an amazing painting by Picasso but it happens to be the very first acquired by an American museum. And it was the beginning of Chicago becoming known as a place for modern art.

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  • Over his short five-year career,Vincent van Goghpainted 35 self-portraits—24 of them, including this early example, during his two-year stay in Paris with his brother Theo. Here, Van Gogh used densely dabbed brushwork, an approach influenced by Georges Seurat’s revolutionary technique inA Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884(on view Gallery in 240), to create a dynamic portrayal of himself. The dazzling array of dots and dashes in brilliant greens, blues, reds, and oranges is anchored by his intense gaze.

    See Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait on view in Gallery 241.

  • Self-Portrait

    NARRATOR: Vincent van Gogh began his artistic career in his native Netherlands, making simple, often bleak depictions of peasant life in drawings and heavily dark toned paintings. In 1886, in his early thirties van Gogh arrived in Paris where his brother Theo already worked as an art dealer. Van Gogh’s exposure to the experimental, often brightly colored and light filled work of avant-garde artists then working and exhibiting there was a revelation to him. In particular, van Gogh admired the work of the young artist following on the heels of the impressionist such as Georges Seurat. In this self-portrait made in 1887 van Gogh explores the new color theories and techniques pioneered by Seurat and his circle. Following in Seurat’s footsteps, van Gogh builds up the painting with small dots of paint. He juxtaposes complimentary, or opposite colors to intensify their effect, for instance, the green and red in the background. The planes and contours of his thin, weary face are described with swift, lengthened brush strokes. They seem to radiate a nervous energy out toward the massive dots that swirls restlessly around his head.

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  • Caught in the heat of battle with sword raised and horse rearing, this mounted figure may match many notions of a knight in shining armor but actually represents a common hired soldier. The armors for both man and horse were produced in Nuremberg, Germany, in the 16th century, but the clothing was meticulously recreated in 2017 from period designs. Look for the special leggings: small plates of steel are sewn between two pieces of linen to protect the soldier’s legs. You’ll also spot some splashes of mud and grime from the battlefield.

    See Field Armor for Man and Horse on view in Gallery 239.

    The densely painted and geometrically patterned Kuba mask is a ngady mwaash, an idealized representation of a woman that honors the role of women in Kuba life. Ngady mwaah most often appear as part of a trio of royal masks in reenactments of the Kuba Kingdom’s origins, which are staged at public ceremonies, initiations, and funerals. In these masquerades, the ngady mwaash dances together with the mooshamb-wooy mask, which represents the king (who is both her brother and her husband), and the bwoom mask. Male mask characters like bwoom display aggression and heaviness while female characters like ngady mwaash dance in a sensuous and graceful manner even though the mask is always worn by a man.

    See this ngady mwaash on view in Gallery 137.

    This 12th-century statue of the Buddha comes from the south Indian coastal town of Nagapattinam, where Buddhist monasteries flourished and attracted monks from distant lands. He is seated in a lotus posture of meditation, with hands and feet resting atop one another. The mark on his forehead is called the urna, which distinguishes the Buddha as a great being.

    See this work on view in Gallery 140.

  • Buddha Shakyamuni Seated in Meditation (Dhyanamudra) (The Essentials Tour)

    MADHUVANTI GHOSH: As you walk into the Alsdorf Galleries, the sculpture that takes one’s eye is this very large Buddha who is seated in meditation.

    NARRATOR: Alsdorf Associate Curator of Indian, Southeast Asian, Himalayan and Islamic Art, Madhuvanti Ghosh.

    MADHUVANTI GHOSH: This is the first sculpture that I decided to install in these galleries because it’s location determined how everything else fitted around. {musical pause} So the Buddha faces sculptures from South East Asia, which you see on either side of him. I’ve placed a pair of Thai monks in front of him honouring him. {pause} What is really beautiful about him is the fact that he has these markings on his body — these 32 markings that special beings were supposed to have.

    NARRATOR: If you look between the Buddha’s eyes, you’ll see one of those markings. A small dot, called the urna, is a sign of divine vision. On the palms of his hands you can see the the symbol of the chakra, or wheel of law.

    NARRATOR: Now, start to make your way around the sculpture. From the side you’ll notice his unusually large ears, the shell-like curls of his hair, and the flaming knot atop his head, representing spiritual knowledge. As you circle toward the rear of the Buddha, you’ll see an inscription across his back. The writing is likely a dedication from or about the person who donated this sculpture to its original location, a monastery at the port city of Nagapattinam, near the southwestern tip of India.

    MADHUVANTI GHOSH: Unfortunately, it’s quite illegible so it so we haven’t been able to decipher it yet. But it also helps us realise that this sculpture would’ve been seated somewhere in the round. It would’ve been possible for pilgrims to circumambulate the Buddha and that is the way in which you honour a sacred being.

    MADHUVANTI GHOSH: I hope that seeing this beautiful, big Buddha gives you a moment to just be silent and appreciate what the Buddha stood for… his ideals.

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  • A native Chicagoan and graduate of the School of the Art Institute, Archibald Motley used his art to represent the vibrancy of African American culture, frequently portraying young, sophisticated city dwellers out on the town. One of Motley’s most celebrated paintings,Nightlifedepicts a crowded cabaret in the South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville. The dynamic composition, intense lighting, and heightened colors vividly express the liveliness of the scene.

    See Nightlife in Gallery 263.

  • Nightlife (The Essentials Tour)

    ARCHIBALD MOTLEY: I think every picture should tell a story and if a picture doesn’t tell a story then it’s not a picture.

    NARRATOR: ‘Nightlife’ by Archibald Motley, depicts the vibrant scene of a jazz nightclub in Bronzeville, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. During the 1930s and 40s, this area was home to 90 per cent of the city’s African-American population, who, like Motley’s family, moved to Chicago from southern states in search of economic opportunity and freedom from racism. Here they faced discriminatory housing policies and a climate of violence. But in Nightlife, Motley depicts the pleasure and sense of community that many people found in the city’s urban nightlife. Field-McCormick Chair and curator of American Art, Judith Barter.

    JUDY BARTER: He was well known for his palette. You can see the hot pinks that give this painting a lot of energy and strong diagonals that define the motion of the figures.

    NARRATOR: The strong angular lines enliven the painting, making the figures move and dance across it’s surface. The man to the left gestures to a woman at the bar, maybe he’s asking her for a dance? His arm carries our eyes toward the centre of the dance floor, where a couple is frozen in mid-step. The diagonal of their bodies draws us deeper into the crowd of expressive faces and personalities.

    Motley complicated stereotypes about African-Americans by painting compelling and diverse groups of people in his works. In an interview in his later years he said…

    ARCHIBALD MOTLEY: You notice in all of my paintings where there’s a group of people, that they’re all a different colour — they’re not all black, they’re not all brown. And I try to give each one of them character, you know as individuals.

    NARRATOR: The hot pink hue that covers the walls and the floor, is an impression of the interior lighting you might find in a the artificially lit bars of the day. The portrayal of light in an interior scene is a reaction to other works Motley saw at this time.

    JUDY BARTER: This picture was painted in 1943. In the next gallery you’ll see Edward Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’ which is also a study of interior space and of lighting. Motley saw Hopper’s work, including ‘Nighthawks’, when it was on view here at the Art Institute here in 1942 and chose to do his own rendition of an interior space and nighttime lighting. (0’29”)

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  • Painted in the summer of 1965, when Georgia O’Keeffe was 77 years old, this monumental work culminates the artist’s series based on her experiences as an airplane passenger during the 1950s. Spanning the entire 24-foot width of O’Keeffe’s garage, the work has not left the Art Institute since it came into the building—because of its size and because of its status as an essential icon.

    See Sky above Clouds IV on view in Gallery 249.

    More than 100 years ago, Agnes F. Northrop designed the monumental Hartwell Memorial Window for Tiffany Studios as a commission from Mary Hartwell in honor of her husband, Frederick Hartwell, for the Central Baptist Church of Providence, Rhode Island (now Community Church of Providence). Composed of 48 panels and numerous different glass types, the window is inspired by the view from Frederick Hartwell’s family home near Mt. Chocorua in New Hampshire. The majestic scene captures the transitory beauty of nature—the sun setting over a mountain, flowing water, and dappled light dancing through the trees—in an intricate arrangement of vibrantly colored glass.

    See the Hartwell Memorial Window on view at the top of the Woman’s Board Grand Staircase.

  • Hartwell Memorial Window, and Hartwell Memorial Window

    Elizabeth McGoey: One of the things that I think visitors wouldn’t know about the window when you’re standing in front of it is how deep those glass layers can go. It’s not flat at all.


    Narrator: Associate curator, Liz McGoey.

    Elizabeth McGoey: We see this dazzling landscape, these naturalistic details—the back of the window, in fact, looks like a topographical model, it sort of undulates and changes in size.

    Narrator: Curator, Sarah Kelly Oehler

    Sarah Kelly Oehler: This is actually comprised of 48 panels of glass, but what you don’t see is that each individual panel might be up to five layers thick of glass, sort of pancaked together.

    Narrator: This intricate arrangement of glass comes together in a soaring view of Mount Chocorua in New Hampshire, long the homeland of Algonquin peoples as well as many other Indigenous communities. It is also a landscape that meant a great deal to the family that commissioned this work from Tiffany Studios as a memorial.

    Elizabeth McGoey: This window was a commission made by Mary Hartwell in honor of her husband Fredrick Harwell who was a deacon of the Central Baptist Church in Providence, Rhode Island. Frederick Hartwell was born in New Hampshire and his family had a home there. Even now it still has deep resonance with the family.

    Sarah Kelly Oehler: Mary Hartwell would have chosen Tiffany Studios because, at that time, they were the preeminent maker of glass products.

    Elizabeth McGoey: Louis Comfort Tiffany had started a glass company in 1885, which would then become Tiffany studios. And the firm had become synonymous with technical innovation and radiant brilliance.

    Sarah Kelly Oehler: And the woman who designed this was named Agnes Northrop and she was, in fact, Tiffany Studio’s leading landscape designer

    Elizabeth McGoey: She really had an eye for natural compositions, for how to create well-developed, interesting, intricate passages of foliage and water.

    Narrator: Northrop, Tiffany, and the many talented specialists across the firm were celebrated for their innovations in stained glass. One distinctive example is the leaves of the trees, made of what is appropriately called “foliage glass.”

    Elizabeth McGoey: Which is where shards of glass are thrown onto another molten color and went through the rollers, where you get this dazzling confetti-like effect that conveys dappled light coming through trees.

    Sarah Kelly Oehler: What they ended up doing was really thinking about how to use the glass itself to achieve different aesthetic effects.

    Narrator: To take in the full complexity and intricacy of the landscape, from the mountain peak to the lush foliage at the waters edge, we encourage you to do some up-close observation as well as from across the room.

    Elizabeth McGoey: It’s a work of deeply resonant beauty. I absolutely can see people coming here and reflecting on time they’ve spent in nature, on remembering a loved one. I think this is a work that will allow that kind of respite, that kind of joy, but also bring a sense of wonder that is unparalleled.

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  • What to See in an Hour | The Art Institute of Chicago (14)


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