May 24: 1879: The Art Institute of Chicago is incorporated

·2 min read

On this date, five civic leaders incorporated the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, descendant of the Chicago Academy of Design, which had sprung up in 1866 and had mounted several exhibitions before the Chicago Fire claimed it. Thus, in 1882, when the Academy of Fine Arts changed its name to the Art Institute of Chicago, the organization already had 16 years of experience. The institute did not have, however, a home of its own. So trustees purchased a lot on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Van Buren Street, moving into the building at the front of the lot while constructing another building for the school and gallery behind.   

Overseeing a series of expansions that took place during the institute’s first decade was banker Charles Hutchinson, who was — for 43 years — the museum’s first president. Hutchinson was also chairman of the committee on fine arts for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and he proposed a new building that would be used by both the fair and the institute.   

To design a structure in classical style, museum trustees chose the Boston architectural firm of Shepley, Ruttan and Coolidge. The result influenced museum design throughout North America. The bronze lions that flank the entrance to the building arrived in 1894. Wings, courts and galleries were added in following decades to form a complex that bridges the Illinois Central railroad tracks in Grant Park.   

The museum’s earliest holdings were 500 prints and a far larger collection of plaster reproductions of classical sculptures. The first important paintings — by Meindert Hobbema, Jan Steen and Jean Francois Millet — entered the collection as gifts in 1894. Trustees made the first major purchase, El Greco’s “The Assumption of the Virgin,” in 1906.   

A commitment to acquiring first-rate works, including many by Impressionist masters, was fulfilled many times over in bequests from Bertha Honore Palmer (1922) and Martin Ryerson (1933), which helped establish the museum among the finest in the world.   

One of the most admired canvases, Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884,” came to the collection in 1926. Other popular works include Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” the Thorne Miniature Rooms and Marc Chagall’s “The America Windows.”

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