New Acquisition: Cotton Pickers

POSTED BY , ON April 11, 2013, Comments Off on New Acquisition: Cotton Pickers


The Art Institute is proud to announce the recent acquisition of Thomas Hart Benton’s Cotton Pickers. Best known for his sinuous lines and frank treatment of rural subjects, the Missouri-born Benton is considered a critical figure in the history of American art for his mediating role between American Regionalism and the emerging forces of abstraction and modernism. He was deeply influenced by the work of the Old Masters , but also energized by modern art, including that by Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, and Paul Signac. In a very rare combination for the time, his work was both formally and politically progressive, as can be seen in Cotton Pickers, which brought into focus the bleak social and economic landscape of the South in the early 20th century in an inventive visual idiom.

Cotton Pickers is based on notes of a trip he made through the South in the early 1900s. Rendered on a relatively large scale, the painting shows the dignity of African American cotton pickers enduring backbreaking labor and southern summer heat. As the workers pick the cotton by hand, to be collected by the horse-drawn wagon in the background, one woman offers another a drink of water from a pail. A makeshift lean-to protects a sleeping child from the relentless sun. Benton renders the unforgiving Georgia clay, the dry fields, and the contorted bodies of the workers in a unified composition, the delicacy of which almost belies the progressive agenda of the work. Cotton Pickers , one of a limited number of large paintings created by Benton, will be shown alongside Grant Wood’s American Gothic and John Steuart Curry’s Hogs and Rattlesnakes at the Art Institute and will complete an important chapter in the museum’s representation of American Regionalism.

Image Credit: Thomas Hart Benton. Cotton Pickers, 1945. Prior bequest of Alexander Stewart; Centennial Major Acquisitions Income and Wesley M. Dixon Jr. funds; Roger and J. Peter McCormick Endowments; prior acquisition of the George F. Harding Collection and Cyrus H. McCormick Fund; Quinn E. Delaney, American Art Sales Proceeds, Alyce and Edwin DeCosta and Walter E. Heller Foundation, and Goodman funds; prior bequest of Arthur Rubloff; Estate of Walter Aitken; Ada Turnbull Hertle and Mary and Leigh Block Endowment funds; prior acquisition of Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan Purchase Prize; Marian and Samuel Klasstorner and Laura T. Magnuson Acquisition funds; prior acquisition of Friends of American Art Collection; Wirt D. Walker Trust; Jay W. McGreevy Endowment; Cyrus Hall McCormick Fund; Samuel A. Marx Purchase Fund for Major Acquisitions; Maurice D. Galleher Endowment; Alfred and May Tiefenbronner Memorial, Dr. Julian Archie, Gladys N. Anderson, and Simeon B. Williams funds; Capital Campaign General Acquisitions Endowment, and Benjamin Argile Memorial Fund.

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Whose Flag is it Anyway?

POSTED BY , ON June 14, 2011, Comments Off on Whose Flag is it Anyway?

In honor of Flag Day, we thought we’d share a little background with you about our newest acquisition, Robert Rauschenberg’s Short Circuit.

Short Circuit was originally submitted by the artist for an annual exhibition at the Stable Gallery in 1955. As the story goes, participants in the gallery’s annual shows could propose new artists for the following year’s exhibition—but that rule changed the year Short Circuit was submitted to the gallery. To protest this new policy that excluded new artists, Rauschenberg invited artist friends Jasper Johns, Ray Johnson, Stan VanDerBeek, and his ex-wife, Susan Weil, to produce small works of art that could be incorporated into the cabinet-shaped construction of Short Circuit. Johns and Weil were ultimately the only artists who contributed works in time to be “smuggled” into the exhibition, behind Short Circuit ‘s two hinged doors of different sizes. A painting by Weil appears behind the right door, and a flag composition by Johns once sat behind the left door but was stolen ten years after Short Circuit was made, in 1965.

Following the theft, Rauschenberg asked the artist Sturtevant—whose artistic practice centered on repeating immediately recognizable works by contemporary artists, particularly Johns, to question notions of originality and authorship—to create a reproduction of Johns’s flag painting as a replacement. As a result, the Sturtevant Flag within Short Circuit is an original work of art by Sturvetant, neither a copy nor a nostalgic replica. This replacement Flag fits perfectly into Rauschenberg’s practice of placing existing images into new referential contexts that challenge accepted definitions of art.

See the flag-based-on-a-flag-within-a-Combine for yourself in Gallery 297!

Robert Rauschenberg (American, 1925–2008), Short Circuit (Combine Painting), 1955. Oil, fabric, and paper on wood supports and cabinet with two hinged doors containing a painting by Susan Weil  (American, born 1930) and a reproduction of a Jasper Johns (American, born 1930) Flag painting by Sturtevant (American, 1930). 41-1/2 x 38-1/4 x 4-1/2 in. Grant J. Pick Purchase Fund.

Lee Godie, French Impressionist

POSTED BY , ON March 15, 2011, 4 COMMENTS

Forty years ago, a self-described “French Impressionist” named Lee Godie created original artworks on the steps of the Art Institute and peddled them to museum visitors. Although Godie (1908-1994) was neither French nor a contemporary of Berthe Morisot, she recognized the Art Institute’s collection of Impressionist artworks as a touchstone of her own painting and drawing career. Godie spent a lot of time at the museum; she often camped her roving art studio on the edge of the museum’s north garden, just outside the windows of the Prints and Drawings study center.

Recently, Prints and Drawings acquired three artworks by Godie, the first by the artist to enter our permanent collection. Godie drew with ballpoint pen, ink, and watercolor on canvas, and these canvases are loose, like sheets of paper; they are not stretched onto wood bars as is typical of a finished painting on canvas. Loose canvas panels are easy to roll up and transport, which conforms to accounts that Godie would flash open her fur coat to reveal a stock of paintings to potential patrons.

It was common for Godie to have stitched together several canvas panels with thread so that the painting unfolds or opens like a triptych or book. Sometimes Godie also created pillow paintings by stitching together all sides of two canvas panels after filling them with crumpled newspaper.

The artworks the museum acquired depict several portraits of a woman, which are likely self-portraits. One panel shows a still-life of foliage, and another shows a man, variously referred to as a waiter and Prince Charming, although sometimes our own portrait drawing of Léonide Massine by Picasso is cited as Godie’s inspiration.

Opening up Godie’s stitched canvas panels reveals fascinating details about the artist and her art practice. The versos sometimes contain smaller sketches in pen or pencil, and this is also where she inscribed her appellation “French Impressionist,” and provided the “value” or selling price of the artwork. One is marked as $25, another $30, and a third is $90.

Even more revealing is a photograph that Godie attached to the verso of The Waiter. It was likely taken in a photobooth and shows the artist holding one of her artworks, proudly serving to verify the artwork’s attribution. The black-and-white photo is hand-colored to give the artist blonde hair. Likewise, Godie sometimes painted her own cheeks and eyes with the materials she used to paint her canvases.


Color and Rhythm: Henri Matisse’s “Jazz”

POSTED BY , ON March 02, 2011, Comments Off on Color and Rhythm: Henri Matisse’s “Jazz”

Henri Matisse’s Jazz is often considered the pinnacle of livres d’artiste, or artist’s books. Livres d’artiste are typically collaborations between artists and authors resulting in limited edition, fine-crafted, beautifully printed books with original graphic work. The tradition was particularly strong in France in the beginning-to-mid 20th century.

Like many of his contemporaries, Matisse was part of this movement; Jazz was by far his most ambitious and beautiful book. He composed the copy and then hand-wrote the curvy, playful calligraphic text in addition to creating all of the images. The images are the primary focus, and as Matisse himself explains at the beginning of the book, the role of the text “is purely visual.” I think people will be surprised to learn that so many of these iconic images (including the one of the horse shown here) come from a book.

The Art Institute was savvy enough to purchase one of the 270 copies when they were produced in 1947. For the first time in more than 20 years, this beautiful book will be exhibited in the museum. The Ryerson and Burnham Libraries will display 10 of the book’s 20 pochoirs—plates that were hand-colored using a stenciling technique—between March 15 and April 11, and the second half between April 12 and May 10. A variety of motifs—the circus, the sea, algae, leaves—runs throughout the book, displaying Matisse’s famous technique of brightly colored cut-outs. The end result is a lush, lively creation that feels as fresh today as at its conception.

—Susan A., Head of Reader Services, Ryerson & Burnham Libraries

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Shake It!

POSTED BY , ON February 18, 2011, Comments Off on Shake It!

Ever wonder what former Genesis member Phil Collins and nineteenth-century French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec have in common? Of course not.  Answer: both incorporated the lowly drum with jingles known as the tambourine into their art.  While we don’t know the exact origins for Lautrec’s interest in the tambourine (which Collins called “the most important instrument in Motown”), the Art Institute’s recent acquisition of a tambourine that Lautrec painted around 1887 shows his appreciation for this object associated with gypsies and bohemian life.

I really love this new addition not only because it so perfectly complements Lautrec’s first important (in scale and intention) painting of the ringmaster at the Cirque Fernando sadistically cracking the whip at the bareback rider about to jump through the paper hoop, but it is such a great work with which to talk about Lautrec’s wit and unequaled ability to make high art out of low life subjects. That he painted directly onto the animal skin, with its greasy hand and finger stains (think of Esmeralda’s frenetic thumping in Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, book or Disney version), further links Lautrec’s art to le people and dance halls on the Butte of Montmartre, where he lived and worked.

Without a reference to the oil painting, this painted tambourine would remain a curiosity—which is why we are so pleased to be able to reunite it with its larger relative. Now the seemingly random paint strokes in-the-round are easily decoded, and we see that Lautrec is showing the moment after the rider has jumped through the hoop, the hoop being the tambourine itself.  To me, it’s a brilliant riff on the goals of “high” art and the recycling of found objects as art that would inform the twentieth-century moderns.

–Gloria G., The David and Mary Winton Green Curator of 19th-Century European Painting and Sculpture


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