Chicago: The Art Institute and Willis Tower

Technique does not constitute art. Nor is it a vague, fuzzy romantic quality known as ‘beauty,’ remote from the realities of everyday life. It is the depth and intensity of an artist’s experience that are the first importance in art.
– Grant Wood, American painter, Midwestern Regionalism

The iconic lion appropriately sporting a Seahawks helmet.

The iconic lion appropriately sporting a Blackhawks helmet.

Art Institute of Chicago
The Art Institute of Chicago (111 S Michigan Avenue, 312.443.3600) was established in 1879, although the museum moved to its current location after the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition closed. The massive Beaux-Arts style building is one million square feet, making it the second largest art museum in the country next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Once again, here is a museum that you can spend an entire day and not see it all. The two bronze lion statues flanking the museum were sporting Chicago Blackhawks helmets, as the Stanley Cup Finals were being held while we were there the week of June 17th [they won after we left].

Renoir's Two Sisters, 1881.

Renoir’s Two Sisters, 1881.

The museum has impressive Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections. It was thrilling to walk into one of the rooms and see paintings I’ve seen in art books and studied in art history class. Such was the case with Mary Cassatt’s The Child’s Bath (1893), Toulouse-Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge (1892), Renoir’s By the Water (1880) and Two Sisters (On the Terrace) (1881), van Gogh’s Self-portrait (1887) and Bedroom in Arles (1888), and Monet’s series of wheat stacks (1890s). Unfortunately, we saw Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930) from the entryway, as paintings were being installed and therefore the room was roped off.

Grant Wood's American Gothic, 1930.

Grant Wood’s American Gothic, 1930.

We didn’t see Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942), and Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-1886) and Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day were temporarily removed for the Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity exhibit (June 26 through September 22), which we were six days off from the opening. Of course, this means putting the museum back on the list of places to see on a return trip to Chicago.

The Print Collector, 1857-1863.

Daumier’s Print Collector, 1857-1863.

Resting, 1887.

Mancini’s Resting, 1887.

Amid all of the rock stars, the two paintings that stood out for me were The Print Collector (1857-1863), an oil on cradled panel piece by Frenchman Honoré-Victorin Daumier, for its haunting quality and use of light and dark, and Antonio Mancini’s Resting (circa 1887), an oil on canvas painting whose thick brushstrokes evoked glass, fabric, and skin. Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones’ Shoe Shop was memorable for me for her rendering of fabric, especially the white blouses of the women. Finally, I love how John Singer Sargent drapes the fabric of the curtains and his models’ clothes with his fine brushstrokes and intense colors, such as the brilliant whites and sparkling sapphires.

Sparhawk-Jones' Shoe Shop, circa 1911.

Sparhawk-Jones’ Shoe Shop, circa 1911.

John Singer Sargen's The Fountain Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy, 1920.

John Singer Sargent’s The Fountain Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy, 1920.

A Thorne miniature room.

A Thorne miniature room.

The Thorne Miniature Rooms delighted me because I have loved dollhouses and miniature furniture since I was a child. Mrs. James Ward Thorne – nee Narcissa Hoffman Niblack, who wed her childhood sweetheart, the son of the co-founder of Montgomery Ward & Co. in 1901 – came up with the idea of creating miniature rooms, with a scale of 1 inch to 1 foot, from Europe’s late 13th century to the 1930s and America’s late 17th century to the 1930s. The 68 rooms have been on permanent exhibit since 1954. The Indiana native, who lived in Lake Forest, IL, but had an apartment and studio in Chicago, sought master craftsmen to build the rooms in her studio from 1932 to 1940, which included textile masterpieces such as the room-size rugs, wallpaper, and paintings. One of the rooms is an impressive miniature of the inside of a European cathedral. They are mesmerizing to look at. I wish I had more time to inspect the craftsmanship, the painstaking details. How fun it must have been to watch them take shape and for the artisans to be asked to bring their craft to this project.

A closer look at one of the rooms. Note the details everywhere!

A closer look at one of the rooms. Note the details everywhere!

Looking down on skyscrapers from the Skydeck.

Looking down on skyscrapers from the Skydeck.

Willis Tower
No visit to Chicago, especially for kids, is complete without going to the top of Willis Tower (233 S Wacker Drive, 312.875.0066), formerly the Sears Tower, which is what native Chicagoans still call this architectural giant. In 2009, the Willis Group, which has offices in the building, got the rights to rename the tower. At 110 stories, 443 meters, or 1,450 feet, Willis Tower used to be the tallest building in the world. Dispute over counting antennae (Willis Tower stands at 1,730 if you include its antennae) and spires as part of the height aside, that honor belongs to Burj Khalifa at 2,722 feet tall in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which was built in 2010. Willis Tower used to be the tallest building in the U.S., but that honor now belongs to the newest World Trade Tower that was recently completed, according to our architectural tour guide on our river boat excursion.

If you go down the south fork of the Chicago River you would hit the Gulf of Mexico in one week.

If you go down the south fork of the Chicago River you would hit the Gulf of Mexico in one week.

Willis Tower currently holds the distinction of being the eighth tallest freestanding structure in the world. It cost Sears, Roebuck & Co., then the largest retailer in the world with 350,000 employees, $150 million to build a structure that would enable it to consolidate its thousands of workers in the Chicago area. Work began in 1970 with 2,000 workers on site and opened in 1973. Skidmore, Owens and Merrill’s Bruce Graham led the architecture team, with Fazlur Khan as the structural engineer, which, of course, was of interest to David.

Stepping back for a more expansive view below.

Stepping back for a more expansive view below.

Supposedly you can see four states – Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin – from the Skydeck on the 103rd floor, some 40 to 50 miles out, but unless you know what you’re looking at, you just appreciate that impressive fact. We went to the top when dusk was settling over the city, and met a bustling crowd. The elevators operate at 1,600 feet per minute! It figures that people would want to see the skyscrapers at night with their winking lights, and not surprising, given that 1.3 visitors come to the Skydeck every year.

We stood in line for one of the four glass balconies, called the “Ledge,” which extends out 4.3 feet from the skyscraper’s Skydeck, 1,353 feet in the air. Built to hold 10,000 pounds and withstand four tons of pressure, the Ledge nonetheless swayed, according to David. A confessed acrophobic, I was actually too busy trying to get our family in a pose and have the group behind us take a good picture. Thank goodness for my preoccupation! While not one to do these kinds of tourist activities, I admit that it was thrilling to have such an expansive view, which literally took my breath away.

On the "Ledge," with downtown Chicago below us.

On the “Ledge,” with downtown Chicago below us.