Brushing up on the world of art

Trisha McGrenera

Most people recognize the famous painting “American Gothic” by Grant Wood. The image of the stern Protestant farmer, pitchfork in hand, and his spinster daughter framed by a Victorian farmhouse is an icon of Americana, seen in everything from advertisements to textbooks.

But of all the people who are familiar with “American Gothic,” how many could find it within the massive Art Institute of Chicago.

The Art Institute, located at 111 S.Michigan Ave., is one of America’s largest art museums, consisting of three floors, three connected buildings, 10 curatorial departments and 300,000 works of art. Unlike New York’s renowned Museum of Modern Art, which focuses on just one artistic era, the Art Institute is an “encyclopedic” museum (one of the largest of its kind), meaning that it houses art from a variety of periods, genres and regions. Such an enormous warehouse of artwork from the famous to the obscure can overwhelm a first-time visitor.

But fortunately, there are many ways to joyfully digest the giant feast of art that the Art Institute serves up.

The Art Institute provides guided general tours of the museum, free with admission. The tours are about one hour long and are available every Tuesday and Saturday at 2 p.m.

“(The tour) is a general introduction to the collection to show people around and show them what the different pieces are,” said Toby Norris, an Art Institute tour guide and Northwestern graduate student in art history. “For people who don’t really know their way around the museum and who aren’t quite sure what they want to see, it’s a good idea to start on a tour of the museum.”

The museum also offers thematic tours every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday at 1 p.m. Tour guides show visitors seven or eight works and explain in some detail the pieces and their relationship with each other and the world. Thematic tours range in topic from “nature and art” to “people and art.”

“The idea is to pick works that are related to each other so you can tell a story,” Norris said. “It’s a really good way to look at a small number of works and get some background close up. If you try to see everything at once, you can get exhausted. Personally, I find that after about an hour and a half, it all starts passing in front of you like wallpaper.”

Regardless of how long people decide to stay in the museum, the Art Institute has certain prize collections that can’t be skipped. Norris gave several suggestions of must-see galleries for those who want to focus on smaller sections of the museum rather than seeing it all in one visit.

Norris said one of the most acclaimed exhibits is the 19th-century French Impressionist collection, which features “Haystacks,” a set of six paintings of the same subject by Claude Monet. Because these works are intensely sought after by collectors and other museums, it is uncommon to find large displays like these in one museum, Norris said.

This gallery also features “Sunday Afternoon on La Grand Jatte-1884”, the “acknowledged masterpiece” of Impressionist Georges Seurat, in addition to works from the most acclaimed Impressionist artists, Norris said.

“They’ve got Renoir, Degas and representations of pretty much all the Impressionists,” Norris said. “It’s really rare to get a chance to see so many examples of works by that group of artists.”

Another gallery worth a visit is the 20th-century American art gallery, Norris said. In one room alone, Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” Wood’s “American Gothic” and Archibald Motley Jr.’s “Nightlife” are featured.

“Those are iconic images in American 20th-century painting, and they’re very familiar images that many people will recognize instantly,” Norris said.

Still another valuable sight is the Abstract Expressionism gallery, which includes paintings by the field’s leaders: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Clifford Still.

Another member of the NU’s art history department, Prof. Christine Bell, suggested looking beyond the work to see the creative efforts they required.

“For me, what’s most exciting is seeing (works) in a way that you can’t see on a slide or in a book,” said Bell, a former Art Institute employee who received her Ph.D. from NU. “One example is (Gustave Caillebotte’s) ‘Paris Street; Rainy Day.’ When you look at it, it’s as if you’re on the street (in the painting).”

A specialist in 19th century art, Bell also recommended looking at artists’ initial paper sketches in the Art Institute’s European galleries. These works allow the viewer to look closely at detailed works of art and appreciate the time, skill and expertise that go into creating them, she said.

Although navigating the vast Art Institute might be a daunting task for a first-time visitor, Norris encourages prospective museum-goers by pointing out that the affordable $6 student admission price is only a suggested contribution.

“You can give anything, and they’re really nice about it when you do that,” he said. “You shouldn’t be put off by the price.”

As far as avoiding art overload when visiting the museum, Norris prefers spending blocks of time there instead of the whole day.

“I suggest that you sit down with a particular country or period and focus on that,” he said. “And get a map.” nyou