Work of the Week: St. Patrick’s Day Edition

POSTED BY , ON March 15, 2013, Comments Off on Work of the Week: St. Patrick’s Day Edition

 Women Are Beautiful

Gary Winogrand’s publication Women Are Beautiful (above) is an actual binder full of women. This portfolio includes 85 photographs of women that were originally presented at New York’s Light Gallery in 1975. The images highlight Winogrand’s signature aesthetic that encouraged appreciation of chance juxtapositions and an erratic shooting style.

One of the images showcases a group of women in the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1975. If you’re a Chicago resident, it’s easy to tell that the group is traveling down State Street with the Chicago Theatre and the El in the background. Although at this time, the Chicago Theatre was a movie theater—don’t miss The Godfather or the Clint Eastwood double feature! All of the images are currently on view in the museum’s photography galleries.


(Bleeding) Hearts and Hummingbirds

POSTED BY , ON February 14, 2013, Comments Off on (Bleeding) Hearts and Hummingbirds

Many people may have spent $50 or more on their Valentine today. But how many would shell out that much for a card with a dead bird on it? In 1860s London, a decorative box with an intricately designed, three-dimensional valentine inside could cost half a guinea ($50 in 2013) with no aphrodisiacs, champagne, or chocolate in sight. The Department of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute holds an amazing and extensive, but little-seen collection of early Valentines. Its star may well be one of these very expensive three-dimensional items. This little white satin pillow is studded with artificial flowers (feather fronds, sprays of wax baby’s breath, acorns, and pink cloth rosebuds), surrounded with perforated printed lace in white edged with gray, and topped with  . . .  a real taxidermied hummingbird!

While some stuffed-bird valentines from this period have seen better days, and look roughly like something the cat dragged in, this particular specimen was given to the museum relatively early by an Illinois resident in 1937. It was evidently kept free of moisture until then in a box—which, if not necessarily original, afforded it plenty of protective clearance—and so the hummingbird retains its glossy blue, green, and brownish red feathers in their initially sleek, careful arrangement. Its eyes were replaced with beads in the stuffing process, and so lack a little life, but not surprisingly so considering how delicate the task of preparation and preservation must have been for such a small creature. A colorful printed label at the bottom of the pillow (showing musical instruments and even more flowers) marks the concoction as “A tribute of my Love.” Unfortunately, there are no other inscriptions that might give us a clue as to the 19th-century giver or recipient. The care with which the object was maintained, however, suggests the gift was happily received!

Birds, particularly lovebirds, have been tied to romantic love and the selection of a mate as far back as the poetry of the 13th century. Hummingbirds were native only to the Americas, but found immediate appeal overseas once the New World served as a viable trading ground, and the tiny birds became part of costuming and even hairstyles, as well as ostentatious gifts. However, by the 1890s, this style would become not only outdated, but even offensive to certain members of the public, especially those engaged in the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in England or in various Audubon Societies in the United States. The painter George Frederick Watts created his Sorrowing Angel around 1899 to aid an anti-plumage campaign, which he inscribed with the words: “A Dedication to all who love the beautiful and mourn over the senseless and cruel destruction of bird life and beauty.” Reproduced several times, and quite poignantly in the case of the Art Institute mezzotint with white chalk heightening, this image shows an angel weeping over the bodies of several birds crushed on an altar with a relief design denoting the pure evil of those who would mindlessly buy or sell these bright feathers.

So, this Valentine’s day, consider the full historical significance of the iconography of the birds and the bees, including the comedic bird-themed valentine, whether angry, lovey-dovey, or sophomoric (Owl be Yours?). If your Valentine disappoints, appreciate the fact that their gifts are at least taxidermy-free.

Image Credits:

British, possibly Jonathan King (active 1845-1869), Hummingbird Valentine, 1845/69, 1937.1118

Sir Frank Short, after George Frederick Watts, The Sorrowing Angel, 1901, 1991.622.

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Happy Holidays!

POSTED BY , ON December 12, 2012, 1 COMMENTS


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Home for the Holidays

POSTED BY , ON December 11, 2012, 2 COMMENTS

Every year Lindsay Mican Morgan, the caretaker of the Thorne Miniature Rooms, chooses a new room to add to our collection of rooms decorated with historically accurate holiday decorations. This year, she picked the Pennsylvania Dutch Kitchen from the 1750s and conducted extensive research on how the family that might have lived in this home would have celebrated the holidays.

She discovered that the people who lived in this house would likely have been Lutheran and would have celebrated the coming of the Christ-kindel, or Christ child. The Christ-kindel would bring small gifts for the children in the house and leave them in a rye basket filled with linen, which was meant to signify the manger and swaddling clothes. A bale of hay sits by the door to reference hay that the family would leave out for the old grey mule that would carry the Christkindl—another reference to the Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. It’s also quite similar to how, in present day, some people leave out carrots for reindeer. Other holiday decorations in the room include a hand-carved wooden cookie mold, a turkey, and ice skates hung over the bannister.

But it doesn’t stop there. Because you can see through the doors and windows “outside” the room, Morgan worked with a local artist to reproduce the landscape, but change it to a winter scene. She also changed the quality of the lighting in the warm to a bulb with a cooler tone that more accurately reflects the sun’s light in colder months.

Stay tuned for more on the Thorne Rooms in the coming weeks!


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Girls in (Tiny) White Dresses

POSTED BY , ON December 07, 2012, Comments Off on Girls in (Tiny) White Dresses

One of the most popular holiday traditions at the Art Institute is the annual decoration of a selection of the Thorne Miniature Rooms. The tiny, dollhouse-like rooms are beloved year round, but there’s even more excitement when diminutive, historically accurate holiday decorations are added.

The decorated rooms represent a variety of holiday traditions, including Christmas, Hanukkah, Las Posadas, and the arrival of the Christkindl, among other practices. In New Orleans in the 1860s, people predominantly celebrated Christmas, but also enjoyed a popular holiday custom called réveillon. This late-night celebratory—and very formal—meal happened after a day of fasting and midnight mass on Christmas Eve.

The Thorne Room above obviously doesn’t show the réveillon, but rather the preparation for the event. I imagine that the girl who lives in this room has just stepped out after trying on some options for the night ahead. And oh, what options they are!

The dress on the form is a spectacular addition to the room this year. It would have been quite cutting edge for the time, reflecting the shift from the round, bell-shaped dresses of the 1850s to a style that was flatter in the front and showcased a larger bustle in the back. The exact design was inspired by a gown from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection and is remarkably close to the original.

The Spanish artisan who designed and hand sewed the dress, María José Santos, meticulously crafted it using multiple kinds of silk, organza, and taffeta. Materials are a huge challenge for miniature dresses because the scale of the actual fabric becomes an issue. Where a designer normally would use silk tulle (the material used in ballet tutus) on such a voluminous, diaphanous skirt, tulle looks like a net at that small size. So organza has to be used instead, creating a more opaque effect. Santos spent dozens of hours manipulating the fabric, and also hand sculpted the tiny drop-like pieces that adorn the dress.

We hope you’re able stop by and enjoy the Thorne Rooms over the holiday season, but if not, we’ll be posting more information about these tiny treasures in the coming weeks!


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