Art as a Response to Change: My Visit to the Art Institute of Chicago

This past week, on a vacation to the Midwest, I found myself at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of Chicago, Illinois’ most iconic art museums. After clumsily navigating the El and getting lost on State Street – which is almost impossible to get lost on – I happened upon the grand facade of the museum, and carved out a few hours in the day to navigating its immense and fascinating collections.

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Facade of The Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois.

While at the Art Institute of Chicago, I spent a considerable amount of time in the Pritzker Galleries, which are home to the second largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings in the world, second only to the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. I enjoyed this wing immensely: the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist styles and artists have always been my favorites to study. Art is full of rule-breaking – without it, periods and styles would not have evolved in quite the same way – but the way the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists “broke the rules” has always captivated me the most. With brand-new inventions like photography, trains, and the telephone transforming contemporary life, traditional forms of art could no longer express the immense change that was unfolding.

Instead, artists developed and used different techniques, for example plein air painting, which Impressionist Claude Monet was famous for. Artists were now going outside to paint, capturing a scene in a single moment, with all its beauty and imperfections, rather than painting from a fixed model in a controlled environment like a studio. Artists sought to capture movement, everyday life, the changing times, instantaneous moments that could never be recreated twice. I feel that Monet’s Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare (1877), a painting in the Pritzker Galleries, addresses these four concepts well. There is something beautiful and particular about how Monet depicts the clouds in the background and the steam spewing out of the train chimney. His placement of the clouds and steam is quite unique, and the way he encrusted the paint stays true to the form of his subject matter. One can almost hear the train arriving at the station and conjure up the smoke and clouds in the background.

Given how rapidly society was changing in the late Nineteenth Century, dystopia was also a common theme in Impressionist and Post Impressionist art. This theme is well reflected in Post Impressionist Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884), one of the most renowned and famous works in the Pritzker Galleries. At first glance, the painting seems to depict upper class Parisians enjoying a sunny afternoon by the water. However, at second and further contemplations, the viewer realizes that no one depicted in the painting seems to be interacting. Each figure seems frozen in the confines of the canvas, cooly detached from one another. Therefore, this painting serves as a larger commentary on society at the time: a society so disillusioned by modern technology and rapid change that everyone began to separate from one another. The themes in this painting, as my cousin Mark astutely pointed out, are not much different from those reflected in today’s society. “You could just give them little iPhones and the painting could apply to today,” he cleverly remarked as we were both viewing the painting.

(As an aside: of all the witty parodies I’ve seen of this painting, I have yet to encounter the “miniature iPhone” version, though I think this rendition is also clever!)

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Georges Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, oil on canvas, dimensions 81.75″ x 121.25″, 1884. Art Institute of Chicago, 1926.224. Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection. Image per Wikimedia Commons.

I particularly enjoyed the Pritzker Galleries, especially because they encouraged me to activate the prior knowledge I had about Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. I was also able to contemplate how artists respond to rapid changes in society, a timeless theme that can easily inform our perspective today.

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