One of the Art Institute’s most popular holiday attractions is our decorated Thorne Miniature Rooms. Each year, a selection of rooms (12 this year!) are bedecked in tiny, period-appropriate holiday decorations.
But similar to your decorations at home, the carefully considered décor doesn’t just magically appear. Each year, the trees are meticulously trimmed by Thorne Rooms caretaker Lindsay Mican Morgan, who spends the days leading up to the holiday season installing the tiny pieces.
In these images, you can see her installing the English Drawing Room of the Victorian Period. This room dates from the mid 1800s, when many of the traditions we associate with Christmas now were just gaining popularity. Queen Victoria, who was married to the German Prince Albert, adopted the German tradition of Christmas trees and when a picture of the royal family around the tree was posted in the newspaper, Christmas trees became very trendy.
There are also a number of toys under the tree, which would have been a relatively new phenomenon. In the past, children had been largely left out of holiday festivities, which included balls and plays. However, with the rise of wealth in this age, children were increasingly doted upon and given gifts like the dolls and train that you see here.
The decorated Thorne Miniature Rooms were unveiled last week and will be up for your viewing pleasure through January 6.
Looking to interact with art? Like to play with puppets? Do we have a show for you! Opening December 6 in the Ryan Education Center, Puppets! is an experimental collaboration between the Departments of Education and Prints and Drawings. There is no entry fee, and no limits to your creativity. Puppets! lets visitors of all ages get their hands on whimsical renditions of art from across the museum collection, which we’ve transformed into shadow and hand puppets. They can use them to tell their own stories. The deeply weird creatures that populate the Belgian symbolist James Ensor’s Temptation of Saint Anthony take pride of place (tapeworms, anyone?) during a major exhibition on the artist and his enormous Art Institute drawing appearing concurrently in Regenstein Hall.
In fact, when we held a Creator Party in August to make the puppets for our show, we gave our willing volunteers (staff members, artists, actual puppeteers, and several children) details from Ensor’s amazingly dark and detailed drawing as inspiration. Here’s this tapeworm puppet in process. Simply composed of a papier mâché head, acrylic paint, and a cardboard tube, all that remains to add is the soft, movable body for maximum maneuverability and storytelling prowess. Others started with knee socks, or were cut out of posterboard with x-acto knives, and accented with glue guns. Some of the puppets that were made that day can already be seen in cases in Classroom 5, but visitors won’t be able to perform with them until the show opens.
Another of our tapeworm puppets recently appeared in action, dancing madly away inside the famous Chicago Puppet Bike while we were filming part of the video for the exhibition space. Ensor’s crazy creatures didn’t seem all that out of place in this context, surprisingly enough. You’ll have to come see Puppets! for the video, but be sure to expect the unexpected.
In addition to the hand puppets we’ve developed several shadow puppets by lasercutting designs taken from other works in the collection. Look for a separate blog post about that process next month. The shadow stage will be large enough that puppeteers can use their own bodies as part of the shadow play as well. Start practicing your shadow rabbits coming out of hats now!
Visitors will even be able to make their own puppets in the library and maker space across the hallway from the exhibition. The experimental gallery, where Puppets! will be seen recently housed a do-it-yourself installation exploring the idea of still-life painting. The dextrous can use their drawing skills to copy the still lives they construct out of plastic fruit, vases, and other items, while the camera-savvy can upload photographs of their ephemeral creations to a hashtag which populates an ever-changing monitor display in the space. Puppets! will do something similar, by collecting short Instagram videos, a selection of which will appear on a screen nearby.
If all this low- and high-tech puppetry sounds intriguing, come for the puppets, and stay for the movies. We’ll be hosting a screening of Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal in Fullerton on the evening on January 15, and a slate of related contemporary short films appropriate for teens and adults on select Friday afternoons from January to April in the Ryan Education Center. And you never know when the Puppet Bike might be putting in a live appearance!
—Suzanne Karr Schmidt, Assistant Curator, Department of Prints and Drawings
Painted in 1396, this Spanish retable and frontal, collectively known as the Ayala Altarpiece, are among the oldest paintings in the museum’s collection. The monumental pair of works, depicting the life of Christ and the Virgin, is impressive for its visual beauty, historical importance, and sheer size (the large retable measures 99 3/4” high x 263 ¾” wide). It was commissioned in 1396 by Pedro Lopez de Ayala and his wife, Leonor de Guzman, for the Ayala family funeral chapel in the Castile region of northern Spain. An educated man of many achievements, Pedro Lopez de Ayala (1322-1407) was chancellor of Castile, a chronicler of his times, and a poet. The altarpiece remained in the family chapel for over five hundred years until financial considerations led to its sale in 1913. Chicago industrialist Charles Deering, an avid collector of Spanish art, bought the artwork and displayed it in his mansion in Sitges, Spain. Shortly thereafter, Deering died and his daughters donated the altarpiece and many additional artworks to the Art Institute in 1928. Since then, it has graced the walls of the museum and it didn’t take long for this awe-inspiring piece to become a favorite among visitors and staff alike.
To make way for the Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art, the altarpiece was taken off view several years ago and put in storage. Now, in preparation for a new installation of Medieval and Renaissance art, scheduled to open in March 2017, the altarpiece is undergoing a comprehensive conservation treatment that will address both structural and aesthetic issues. The main challenge of the treatment is the removal of a thick, tan overpaint applied to mask paint loss in the cream-colored background.
The overpaint was liberally, but unevenly, applied in several restoration campaigns prior to arriving at the Art Institute and it covers almost all the background of the retable. As you can see in the above detail from the Pentecost episode, small spots of the much brighter and lighter original cream paint are visible through the tan overpaint. Little effort was made to match the overpaint to the original paint color and the restoration paint is much darker and warmer in color. The effect is a dramatic darkening of the tonality of the artwork and a decrease in the brilliance of the jewel-like tones used in the composition.
It is not known when the overpaint was first applied, but the majority of it may have been added to “spruce up” the painting before its sale in 1913. Analysis of the various paint layers by the museum’s Conservation Science Department confirmed the binder of the original paint layer is egg tempera while the overpaint is oil-based. This was good news for conservation, as the use of different media allowed us to devise a cleaning solution that solubilizes the oil paint without affecting the underlying original tempera paint.
With a successful system in hand, treatment is progressing full force on the altarpiece. The dramatic improvement gained by removing the dark overpaint is clearly visible in the photograph above. Without the dark, muted overpaint, tonal harmony is restored and the brilliance of the original paint is once again allowed to shine.
Stay tuned for updates as the artwork continues its amazing transformation.
—Julie A. Simek, Paintings Conservator
Image Credits: Retable and Frontal of the Life of Christ and the Virgin (Ayala Altarpiece), 1396. Gift of Charles Deering.
Details from Retable and Frontal of the Life of Christ and the Virgin (Ayala Altarpiece) showing multiple applications of overpaint.
Detail from Retable and Frontal of the Life of Christ and the Virgin (Ayala Altarpiece) showing overpaint partially removed from the background.
You may be surprised to discover that one of Walker Evans’s most iconic images (Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer’s Wife, pictured above) was rejected by the first publisher it was submitted to. In fact, in 1936 Fortune magazine sent James Agee (as the writer) and Evans (as the photographer) to Hale County, Alabama to document the effects of the Great Depression on tenant farmers. They spent time with three poor families, including the Burroughs family. Evans took this photo of Allie Mae Burroughs during his stay.
Ultimately, Fortune passed on the article and accompanying photos due to length, but Agee later published an adapted version of his writings—with Evans’ photographs—as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941. The straightforward Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer’s Wife quickly became the most famous image from the book, showcasing the subject’s quiet dignity mixed with an expression that can be alternately read as shy, bored, or annoyed.
Today marks what would have been Walker Evans’s 111th birthday. Click here to see more of Evans’ images in the Art Institute’s collection.
Image Credit: Walker Evans. Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer’s Wife, 1936. Restricted Gift of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.
I have many roles in my stewardship of the Thorne Miniature Rooms. Research is one of the largest areas, encompassing everything from the locations Mrs. Thorne replicated to the history and practice of miniature-making to Mrs. Narcissa Thorne herself. One avenue that has sparked my interest lately was Mrs. Thorne’s collaborations with a well-known metal craft artist, Marie Zimmermann… leading me to a long overdue visit to the Thorne Family crypt.
Mrs. James Ward Thorne, creator of our beloved Thorne Miniature Rooms, was a serious patron of the arts. Not only did she collect wonderful miniature works but she had an impressive collection and library of decorative arts—most of which she donated to the Art Institute’s Ryerson and Burnham Libraries—and a collection of early American street photography, also donated to the museum. You could say she lived a life full of art; you could also say she died by it too…
Art filled Mrs.Thorne’s life so she took it upon herself to be well versed in historic as well as contemporary artisans. Marie Zimmermann was one of these artists. A member of the prestigious Arts Club in New York City, she was considered one of the greatest craftspersons in America. Mrs. Thorne commissioned her to create the ironwork for the miniature room E-29: English Roman Catholic Church in the Gothic Style and Zimmermann was commissioned to design and create the Thorne Family Memorial gates for the family crypt.
As it is the time of year many celebrate the dead I thought it a wonderful time to honor two amazing women artists by visiting Mrs. Thorne’s resting site as well as seeing the gorgeous metalwork of Mrs. Zimmermann. This pilgrimage led me to Rosehill Cemetery on the far north side of Chicago, where not only lies the Thorne crypt, but also those of John G. Shedd, Richard Warren Sears and many other Chicago notables. The Roeshill Cemetery Mausoleum, designed by Sidney Lovell, dates back to the Victorian era and has many beautiful stained glass windows set in marble, but—and this might be a personal bias—the gates for the Thorne Family crypt are truly the stars. Mrs. Thorne’s impeccable taste and Zimmermann’s stunning skills come together for a gracious end to the life of one of the grand dames of Chicago.
—Lindsay Mican Morgan, Department Technician, Thorne Rooms