Chicago's Art Institute Turns an Anniversary into a Reassessment an Exhibition Turns a Spotlight Back on the Museum's Own Colorful History

Article excerpt

FROM out of an endless black passage, hovering in shimmering silver brilliance, strollers on a warm Sunday linger by a lake in a park's shady green verdure and gaze at pure water and light.

"A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" is the cynosure for "Chicago's Dream, A World's Treasure: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1893-1993," an exhibition that marks the move by the museum into its stolid, Beaux-Arts building on Michigan Avenue 100 years ago.

As the title of the exhibition suggests, the institute's display of 350 of its most significant works is an act of self-congratulation. But it is also an opportunity for self-examination. "Chicago's Dream" reviews how the museum has collected and displayed its works since 1893, and it shows how one of America's most important museums has refined its tastes and those of its patrons.

"The museum is an active participant with the viewer in discussing, displaying, and understanding the works of art," says Teri Edelstein, deputy director of the Art Institute and organizer of the exhibit.

The "Palace on the Prairie," as the museum has been called, was built alongside the din and coal-smoke pall of an Illinois Central freight yard, a begrimed cultural pearl at the city's core. It included a backward-looking school and staid venue for plaster casts of ancient sculpture. "Chicago's Dream" illustrates how the Art Institute evolved in this century from a tradition-bound center for the imitation of classical works to a forward-looking museum.

In its early years, the identity of the museum was closely tied to the flamboyance and boldness of its donors. None were more lavish and extravagant than Bertha Honore Palmer, Chicago's glittering turn-of-the-century socialite.

With the help of her friend, the artist Mary Cassatt, Mrs. Palmer began in 1898 to collect the works of Pierre Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and other Impressionists.

The exhibition features many of these works in a room painted a dark shade of pink that matches the color of the velvet walls in the Paris gallery of Paul Durand-Ruel, the art dealer who sold many of the paintings to Palmer.

After returning to Chicago, Palmer showed off her acquisitions in a room in her home painted the same color.

Palmer's bequest of 52 paintings to the Art Institute in 1922 includes nine of Monet's "grainstack" series. Among the paintings on display in the "Chicago's Dream" exhibition, the pink walls most vividly draw out the shades of red in four of the grainstack paintings and accentuate the flesh tones and small flower bursts in "On the Stage," the pastel by Degas. …