The First Art Exhibition in Chicago

By Dryer, Joel S. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The First Art Exhibition in Chicago


Dryer, Joel S., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


In the spring of 1859 the Chicago Tribune announced people had cause for "pride - in our young city" striking down the thought that Chicago was "entirely devoid of all taste and culture in art."1 In The Daily Chicago Times the stir was well summarized:

Taken in itself, and located in Paris, London or Vienna, our first art exhibition would attract only a limited attention; in New York, Boston or Philadelphia, it could not fail to excite the interest and curiosity of the citizens; but placed in a western city which, twenty-five years ago was only an Indian trading post in Chicago, it justly becomes an object of wonder and gratification.2

The event changing the cultural landscape was an exhibit that opened on 9 May 1859 at Burch's Building on the northeast corner of Wabash and Lake. It was the city's first fine art exhibition, a show of paintings, engravings, and sculpture borrowed from local art collections.3 It was a striking success in a town that only some twenty years earlier had incorporated and elected its first mayor. The collection of art brought over 12,000 people to Burch's in a city that had a population of a mere 110,000 who were generally naïve about art.4 Most importantly the show helped to popularize the collecting of fine art in Chicago.

The story of early art collecting in what was to become the country's second largest metropolis is largely untold. The benefit to our community from these early pioneer collectors is markedly evident in the legacy of our cultural institutions today. Prior to 1859 art was hardly present in Chicago. A few of the wealthy citizens had brought paintings home from European trips or hung works that had been in their families back east, but there was no art impetus; no schools, exhibition halls or regular dealers.5 However, the elite were a cultured group as critic James Spencer Dickerson recalled, "Among the earliest settlers of Chicago, even in the [1830s], were people of refinement. ..."6 When the English writer Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) visited Chicago in 1836 she found the town leaders educated and refined, while a generation later noted portrait artist George Peter Alexander Healy (1813-1894) found city leaders such as William B. Ogden "remarkably intelligent" and "well informed."7 A private collection of a dozen paintings spoke volumes about the owner's sense of taste, their stature, and achievement of culture.

The city's first collectors reflected patterns established decades earlier in east coast cities. Chicago's early collectors were land speculators, merchants, bankers, businessmen, and lawyers and most of them are now remembered as the pioneer builders of the city. Like their eastern colleagues, they believed they should bring art to their new city and thereby encourage civilization in Chicago and the Northwest. This artistic nationalism, common in New York and Philadelphia, furnished the philosophical basis for acquiring art and gave comfort that America would evolve into a center of the arts to rival European cities. In addition, art served as a means of education as it was thought to aid in enlarging minds and fostering noble ideas.8

It was because of those intelligent and cultured men that the Burch's exhibition, properly known as the Chicago Exhibition of the Fine Arts, was made possible and was the culmination of early art interests in Chicago-and the singular event to propel the burgeoning city to a cultural heritage enjoyed by millions today.

The organization of the Chicago Exhibition of the Fine Arts began with a meeting in March of 1859. Sculptor Leonard Wells Volk (18281895) wrote a letter to a small group of prominent men proposing the exhibition and that proceeds from the exhibition be used towards a public sculpture of George Washington. This letter was accepted in minutes of the meeting by four signors who later formed part of the executive committee.9 To organize a subsequent meeting on 22 March 1859, a printed invitation was sent to a group of influential men:

You are respectfully invited by the undersigned, to meet a few gentlemen at the Rooms of the "Historical Society," in Newberry's Block, on Tuesday the 22nd instant, at 3 o'clock P. …

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