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Georgia O’Keeffe didn’t travel in an airplane until she was in her 70s, but when she did, she was fascinated. She started a series of paintings inspired by her in-flight experiences. The works began small and progressively got bigger until the final canvas in the series, Sky above Clouds IV, which is so large that it has never traveled since coming to the Art Institute.
One of America’s most famous paintings, American Gothic, debuted at the Art Institute of Chicago, winning a $300 prize and instant fame for Grant Wood. It has long been parodied and is often seen as a satirical commentary on the Midwestern character, but Wood intended it to a positive statement about rural American values.
One of the best-known images of 20th-century art, Nighthawks depicts an all-night diner in which three customers, all lost in their own thoughts, have congregated. It’s unclear how or why the anonymous and uncommunicative night owls are there—in fact, Hopper eliminated any reference to an entrance to the diner. The four seem as separate and remote from the viewer as they are from one another. (The red-haired woman was actually modeled by the artist’s wife, Jo.)
Known today for his paintings and murals depicting Mexican political and cultural life, Diego Rivera enjoyed a brief but sparkling period as a Cubist painter early in his career. In this work he portrayed his then-lover, the Russian-born painter and writer Marevna Vorobëv-Stebelska, clearly conveying her distinctive bobbed hair, blond bangs, and prominent nose—despite or with the aid of the Cubist style. Like many other artists in Paris, Rivera rejected Cubism as frivolous and inappropriate following World War I and the Russian Revolution.
A native Chicagoan and graduate of the School of the Art Institute, Archibald Motley used his art to represent the vibrancy of African American culture, frequently portraying young, sophisticated city dwellers out on the town. One of Motley’s most celebrated paintings, Nightlife depicts a crowded cabaret in the South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville. The dynamic composition, intense lighting, and heightened colors vividly express the liveliness of the scene.
The only American artist invited to exhibit with the French Impressionists, Mary Cassatt concentrated on the human figure, particularly on sensitive yet unsentimental portrayals of women and children. In The Child’s Bath, one of Cassatt’s masterworks, she used cropped forms, bold patterns and outlines, and a flattened perspective, all of which she derived from her study of Japanese woodblock prints.
Eldzier Cortor lived in Chicago and attended the School of the Art Institute, and while drawn to abstraction, he felt that it was not an effective tool for conveying serious social and political concerns. In The Room No. VI, the artist exposes the impoverished living conditions experienced by many African Americans on the South Side through a brilliant use of line and color, reinvigorating the idiom of social realism.
Though Stuart Davis studied with the so-called Ashcan School, who sought to depict a realistic look at modern urban life, he came to embrace a more abstracted and energetic style, as seen in Ready-to-Wear. The bright colors intersect and interrupt one another in a distinctly American way: jazzy, vital, and mass produced—all qualities summed up in the title.
In addition to architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright designed furniture like this chair from his home in Oak Park, Illinois. Though his early experiments were heavy, solid cube chairs, he eventually added the refinements seen in this design, such as spindles, the subtly tapering crest rail, and gently curving leg ends, all of which produce an effect that is equal parts sophistication and simplicity.
In The Herring Net, Winslow Homer depicts two fishermen at their daily yet heroic work. As the small boat rides the swells, one fisherman hauls in the heavy net while the other unloads the glistening herring, illustrating that teamwork is essential for survival on this churning sea that both gives and takes.