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Fine Arts

Artland Illinois: a Brief Introduction

On the way to something else (if not someplace more desirable), Illinois is the “crossroads of a continent,” according to the subtitle of one state history.1 It shares, perhaps epitomizes, the Midwest’s identity as a place defined in part in relation to other regions—or, more negatively, by what it is not. The region is the “inter ocean,” according to the title of a newspaper once published in Chicago (a city that sits on America’s “third coast”). Alternatively, it is “inland,” as in the name of Bradley University’s Inland Visual Arts Center, a collaborative research project dedicated to “the visual narrative of America’s geographic interior.” To Midwesterners, the region is the heartland; to outsiders, “flyover country,” or, more specifically, “the great middle, lacking extremes, lacking diversity.”

For writer and Illinois native Dave Eggers, however, the state is something far edgier and more interesting: it “ranks first in contradictions, in self-delusions, in strange dichotomies.”3 This might equally describe Illinois’ artistic legacy. Product of the state’s “crossroads” character, it is nothing if not diverse. Illinois’ artists have included women as well as men; immigrants, migrants, and the native-born; the self-taught and the professionally trained; the internationally celebrated and the virtually unknown; homebodies and exiles. They are, in short, Americans. The art they have made is equally varied. It has both engaged local place and transcended or repudiated it, hewed to academic tradition and rebelled through formal experimentation and provocative representation, embodied collective aspiration and expressed deeply personal visions. The settings in which Illinois’ artistic legacy is preserved and presented across the state also range widely, from museums, private collections, and commercial galleries to colleges and libraries, art associations and historic sites, schools and private clubs, and other less likely settings where it is often “hidden in plain sight,” acknowledged as décor but invisible as collective heritage. For many of us, even Chicago’s historical art remains, as scholar Neil Harris has written, a “closely guarded secret.”4 So much more so the art of Illinois, whose dichotomous character begins with the striking contrast between its vast rural expanse and its great metropolis.

As administrative units with geographic borders defined by accidents of history and geography, states are unlikely, indeed arbitrary, delimiters of artistic identity—an identity chosen for rather than by artists themselves. What is an Illinois artist? The state’s “crossroads” status makes this question especially fraught, for artists, along with artistic ideas, have come and gone across Illinois’ porous borders since frontier days. The state has claimed as its own many artists who spent more of their lives away than not, but who nonetheless had a significant cultural impact on Illinois. Boston-born and Paris-trained painter George P. A. Healy, for example, served as a founder of Chicago’s fledgling art life in the mere dozen years he spent in the young city. Native Chicagoan John Storrs lived in France for much of his life but left his mark on his hometown with such iconic works as the statue of Ceres that tops the Chicago Board of Trade Building. What makes an artist a Chicagoan or an Illinoisan may be in the eye of the local beholder, measured by their influence on the home community if not by the character of their creative expression.

Diversity and fluidity have equally marked the art life of the state throughout its two centuries, as a glance through the history reveals. At the time of the state’s birth, in 1818, the vast frontier lands of the young nation were already attracting visiting view-makers. Artists traveling through Illinois recorded the wonders of its prairies and rivers, native inhabitants, and burgeoning settlements for viewers in the nation’s eastern population centers. With the beginnings of settlement, itinerant portrait artists arrived, stopping in such towns as Galena, Vandalia (the state’s first capital), and Springfield (its successor) to leave behind likenesses of local worthies, politicians, and ordinary men and women with means.

With the nation’s very few art academies concentrated in East Coast cities in the pre-Civil War era, many artists were self-trained. To make a living creating objects regarded as useless luxuries on the frontier of settlement required flexibility. Traveling widely to find work, artists might offer lessons to interested amateurs eager for cultural attainments, thereby helping to spread art-making and appreciation. They adapted their skills to the range of consumer demand, undertaking decorative or sign painting or portraying livestock or houses as well as their owners. Although he worked into the early twentieth century, self-taught artist Olof Krans of Galva exemplified the pragmatic versatility of an earlier generation of artists: now known primarily for his easel paintings, he spent much of his career as a decorative and sign painter who could also handle gilding, glazing, and paper-hanging, create stage backdrops, and even make portrait photographs (from a mobile “studio”).

Chicago’s art has long been regarded as standing in for that of the state as a whole. Yet the city was a relative latecomer as a site for art-making and collecting, emerging as the art center of Illinois in the 1860s. Its booming wealth and population attracted a sufficient concentration of resident artists to support an essential cultural “infrastructure” that included art academies, clubs, exhibitions, and journalism, if not sympathetic dealers and patrons supportive of home artists. Chicago became a national, as well as statewide, center for making, studying, and exhibiting fine art. At the heart of the city’s art life was the Art Institute of Chicago, founded in 1879 as the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts: its leadership reflected the local business and professional elite’s commitment to ensuring that Chicago had culture as well as commerce, paintings along with pork.

Soon, the Art Institute’s rapidly growing school, along with abundant work in applied and commercial arts fields such as illustration, was drawing aspiring artists to the city. This drain of talent from the hinterland was in turn replicated in a constant outflow of artists from Chicago as they sought even greater opportunity and further training on the East Coast and abroad. The young Lorado Taft was so sure he wanted to be a sculptor that he went straight from his hometown of Champaign to Paris, before settling in Chicago. Study abroad bolstered prestige at home, but many artists took the opportunity to desert Chicago altogether, even as new arrivals took their place. This instability in the community of local practitioners, which become a permanent feature of the city’s art life, also kept it open to new influences and ideas. Chicago art collectors as well as artists demonstrated both a deep conservatism born of cultural insecurity and a pioneering receptivity to new developments such as impressionism, of which Chicagoans Bertha and Potter Palmer were among the earliest American collectors.

Women were prominent among the young artists moving from rural areas to Chicago in the late nineteenth century. There, many acquired practical skills in applied arts or art teaching as well as the academic training considered essential to a professional fine art career; more than a few, among them Rockford’s Belle Emerson Keith, furthered their education in eastern U.S. cities and abroad. Those who remained there—or, like Keith, returned to their hometowns—might cultivate a modest livelihood, teaching locally and participating from afar in exhibitions and artists’ organizations in Chicago and elsewhere.

Professionally trained local artists, along with a largely female contingent of art supporters and patrons (many associated with local women’s clubs), were the mainstays of the varied art-related organizations that sprang up in many Illinois cities and towns in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These groups were essential to fostering a sense of cultural community and to providing practical opportunities for preliminary study and exhibiting. In Peoria, the Ladies Art Society, founded in 1878, held the city’s first art exhibition; the Men’s Sketch Club, formed in 1890 for art study, soon became the mixed-gender Peoria Art League, a center for social as well as artistic activity. The Decatur Art Class was formed in 1880 by interested amateurs, and by the mid-1910s the Decatur Municipal Art League and the Decatur Institute of Civic Art were hosting frequent exhibitions as well as art classes.

In their efforts to enrich hometown art life, these and similar downstate organizations invited professionally trained artists from Chicago and elsewhere as instructors, lecturers, exhibitors, and jurors. In Jacksonville at the turn of the century, both an art association created in 1873 and a School of Fine Art (originally part of Jacksonville Female Academy) showcased the current work of Chicago and St. Louis as well as local and Springfield artists. Such activity both linked small local art communities to the larger national art world and facilitated an exodus of talent in its direction. Chicago was not the exclusive destination for ambitious young artists from the heartland: art centers in southern areas of the state were oriented at least as much toward St. Louis, for example. Meanwhile, Chicago-area communities as far out as Aurora and Elgin were gradually drawn into the artistic orbit of the metropolis as many of its artists took up residence in its burgeoning suburbs. In acknowledgment, in 1913 the Art Institute’s annual Chicago artists’ show was renamed the “Chicago and Vicinity” exhibition.

Increasingly connected to urban America, Illinois’ smaller industrial cities manifested many of the cultural trends developing in Chicago and elsewhere. Among them was the rise of public art in the wake of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, an innovative model for the coordinated application of monumental painting and sculpture in architecture and city planning. One of many prosperous downstate cities that took note was Peoria. In 1896, its newly erected public library building was grandly embellished with a series of murals on lofty themes embodied in classically draped female figures incongruously set against a backdrop of local Illinois River scenery. Such an ambitious assertion of local identity reflected another important development stimulated in part by the astounding success of the world’s fair. Illinois landscape artists who had earlier traveled to Europe, New England, and the American West for their subjects now had a reason to stay home. Chicagoans in particular escaped the congested city for seasonal colonies across the Midwest, including at such picturesque spots as Fox Lake and Oregon, Illinois. For city-dwellers, the selective artistic interpretation of the state’s pastoral landscape offered not only an expression of regional pride but also an escape from near-at-hand reality.

At the turn of the century, cultured Illinoisans prided themselves on keeping abreast of current trends in art, but they also upheld traditional standards, often deriding radical new developments as transitory aberrations. Most locals were unprepared for the startling examples of radical modernism they encountered at the so-called Armory Show, a traveling exhibition of avant-garde European and American art presented at the Art Institute in 1913. By the late 1910s, some younger and more progressive Chicago artists, notably Manierre Dawson, were trying their own experiments in abstraction and other radical “isms.” In the following decade, the city’s progressive artists formed their own organizations and rebelled against the standards of the Art Institute’s prestigious juried exhibitions through such groups as the No-Jury Society of Artists. They united in support of artistic freedom and individuality, rather than endorsing or adopting any particular style or approach.

International Exhibition of Modern Art/Armory Show, The Art Institute of Chicago, March 24–April 16, 1913 Institutional Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

Photo courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY.

The ranks of Chicago’s modernist artists reflected the city’s status as a destination for immigrants, with such artists as William S. Schwartz and Emil Armin drawing inspiration both from contemporary developments in art and from their ancestral heritage. As an important destination for African Americans moving north during the Great Migration that began around World War I, the city nurtured a flowering of black culture in visual art as well as music and literature. Art Institute-trained painter Archibald J. Motley Jr. (whose family had migrated to Chicago even earlier, in the 1890s) pioneered the artistic interpretation of everyday African American urban life in his jazz- and blues-inflected images of the city’s vibrant Bronzeville neighborhood. In the 1920s and 1930s, the work of these and other Chicago artists gave a particularly urban flavor to regionalism, the national artistic movement that focused on the ordinary American worker and citizen.

Downstate art communities watched these developments from a safe distance while expan-ding their reach in response to the populist impulses of the Progressive and New Deal eras. The exclusive fine arts clubs and societies of the late nineteenth century evolved in the 1910s and 1920s into art associations and art leagues with a focus on broad-based art education and appreciation, occasionally admitting a cautiously progressive outlook on emerging trends. As a longtime teacher at the Springfield Art Association, where she had first studied art, Lillian Scalzo, for example, brought home the lessons of her subsequent study at the Art Institute and at the Chicago Bauhaus, an innovative school of art and design that encouraged modernist abstraction.

The heyday of downstate and suburban art associations in the prosperous 1920s coincided with a spirit of statewide identity in the arts. The All-Illinois Society of the Fine Arts and the Illinois Academy of Fine Arts, separate organizations formed in 1926, aimed to promote and coordinate art activity statewide. Both organizations’ memberships and exhibitions were overwhelmingly dominated by Chicago-area practitioners and patrons. Nonetheless, the Friends of Illinois Art, a patrons’ offshoot of the Illinois Academy of Fine Arts, succeeded in laying the foundation for what remains the only dedicated public collection of art from across Illinois—a “permanent art gallery for Illinois” at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, which had been founded in 1877 to document the natural history of the state.

A decade later, the Illinois Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was another ostensibly statewide endeavor, albeit one created by the federal government. The IAP and other Depression-era artists’ relief programs in Illinois were also overwhelmingly oriented toward practitioners from Chicago and vicinity, even as the mural paintings destined for small towns highlighted local history and settings. The WPA programs treated downstate regions more as recipients than as generators of fine art creativity and as historical and potential sites of craft production, an attitude confirmed by the documentary work of the WPA’s Index of American Design and reified in the establishment of craft workshops under the auspices of the WPA’s Art and Craft Project. When the WPA funded a program of community art centers across the nation to promote art in culturally underserved communities, the only one established in Illinois was sited, not surprisingly, in Chicago: the South Side Community Art Center quickly became an important incubator for African American talent, counting sculptor Marion Perkins, for example, among its many associated artists.

Children painting murals at the Springfield Art Association.

Photo courtesy Springfield Art Association.

In relation to the New York art world, Chicago artists had long shared the sense of margin-alization that their downstate counterparts felt in relation to the big city. By the 1940s, art in Chicago had begun to follow its own distinct paths. Hometown art manifested a decided tendency toward surrealism, fantasy and dream imagery, and deeply personal, visionary expression, as revealed in the intimately scaled autobiographical paintings of Gertrude Abercrombie and the obsessively detailed painted grotesqueries of Ivan Albright. Notwithstanding Chicago’s reputation for adherence to figural representation, the city produced its own brand of abstract art influenced not least by the Chicago Bauhaus and its successor institutions. They encouraged an experimental interplay of art and design, the industrial and the organic, as in the work of Richard Koppe, among others.

Developments in Chicago art after World War II are dizzying in their variety. The influence of surrealism remained powerful as Chicagoans largely defied the dominant aesthetic of abstract expressionism, with its privileging of purely formal considerations. Even the abstract art of Chicagoans—for example, the paintings of Miyoko Ito and the sculptures of Richard Hunt—allude to natural and man-made forms. More typically, Chicago artists favored deeply affective figural imagery and looked to indigenous and “outsider” art as inspirations. In the 1960s and 1970s, the loosely defined movement called Chicago Imagism took its cues from “low-brow” culture and mass media: its adherents, Ed Paschke and Roger Brown among them, combined deliberate vulgarity, raw humor, distorted bodily imagery, and scathing social commentary. A more active engagement in contemporary social and political concerns motivated Chicago’s feminist art movement, in which Ellen Lanyon played a central role, and the rise of grassroots expression in outdoor mural-painting in black and Latino neighborhoods, where Marcos Raya first made his mark. The public art movement, among others, has had its echoes beyond Chicago: in his hometown of Joliet, for example, Javier Chavira began his career in the mid-1990s participating in a city-wide mural-painting program sponsored by the organization Friends of Community Public Art. An activist spirit continues to infuse the work of many Chicago artists who view creative practice as an intersection of the cultural and the political.

By the time Chicago Imagism became the first movement to win national attention as a “Chicago school,” in the 1980s, the city had solidified its reputation as a home for creative spirits, albeit one strongly marked by a Second City attitude of scrappy resistance to indifference. Meanwhile, the relationship between Chicago and Illinois’ small art centers had been rebalanced as the national art world underwent a process of decentralization and fragmentation. Notwithstanding a brief flowering of innovative commercial and nonprofit galleries in the 1980s, Chicago had never supported a robust market for hometown, much less regional, artists. In the postwar era, the declining power (and eventual termination) of large serial contemporary exhibitions with a national or regional scope—notably the Art Institute’s long-running American art and “Chicago and Vicinity” shows—further diminished the city’s specific importance for downstate artists.

At the same time, the nature of art communities in Illinois’ college and university towns shifted with the postwar expansion of campus art programs, which attracted artists from across the nation to join their faculties. From out of state, Carolyn Plochmann and later Harold Gregor arrived in Carbondale and Bloomington, respectively; sculptor Nita Sunderland was teaching in Mexico when she returned to her native central Illinois to become the first female professor of art at Bradley University, her alma mater. In rural Illinois, the presence of such professional working artists with their heterogeneous practice injected a cosmopolitan element into some former conservative satellites of the Chicago art world. It also catalyzed the creation of college collections and galleries that nurtured and supported creative activity beyond campus, while former patron-run art associations and leagues, notably in Quincy, reinvented themselves as broad-based community art centers. In many respects, the art-life of downstate communities has returned to the state of independence from Chicago that marked their early eras.

Nita Sunderland at work in her studio, circa 1995, from a photo in the announcement for her exhibition Figure & Metaphor: Nita Sunderland, Sculptor at the Lakeview Museum, Peoria (now the Peoria Riverfront Museum), 1995.

Courtesy of Peoria Riverfront Museum.

Beginning in the 1960s, which ushered in a new golden age for state and federal arts funding, the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, took a leading role in supporting the creation and dissemination of contemporary art across the state as well as documentation of Illinois’ historical art. Much of this work was effected by the Illinois State Museum through its collecting and exhibiting activities, often in partnership with institutions around the state. Between the mid-1980s and early 1990s, the museum’s opening of branch galleries in Chicago, Lockport, and Rend Lake and artisans’ shops in Springfield, Rend Lake, and Chicago testified to the vitality of artistic production across Illinois and in particular brought greater awareness of it to Chicago. Despite recent curtailments of these extensions, the museum continues to embody an understanding that Illinois’ collective artistic identity is the default property of the State itself. This exhibition of Illinois art past and present in the “People’s House” of Illinois is an especially apt acknowledgement that the state’s artistic legacy belongs to all. As the examples here demonstrate, Illinois remains as much a “crossroads” of creative activity as ever. Its art may be an expression of contradictions, self-delusions, and strange dichotomies. It is equally an art of home.

Wendy Greenhouse is a Chicago-based independent art historian who has written extensively on Chicago’s art and artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At the Chicago History Museum, where she served as curator of paintings and sculpture, she organized the first retrospective exhibition on Archibald J. Motley Jr. and co-authored the catalogue (1991). Among her many other publications are co-authored collection catalogues for the Union League Club of Chicago (2003), the Terra Foundation for American Art (online; 2005–2010), and the M. Christine Schwartz Collection (online; 2009–2018), and exhibition catalogues for Chicago Painting 1895 to 1945: The Bridges Collection (2004), Illinois State Museum; Chicago Modern, 1893-1945: Pursuit of the New (2004), Terra Museum of American Art; and Re: Chicago, DePaul Art Museum (2011). Greenhouse is also a co-author of Art in Chicago: From the Fire to Now (University of Chicago Press, 2018). She earned a BA in History and a PhD in the History of Art at Yale.