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The Chicago Art Institute Reconsiders Its Relationship To Women Artists

Art museums across the United States, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Baltimore Art Museum, are bringing a new urgency to diversity and inclusion and shaking up how they represent art history at the same time.

The Art Institute of Chicago has joined that crusade, and those efforts can especially be seen in the museum’s arts of the Americas department, where 33 percent of its acquisitions in 2016-23 were by named women artists — 61 out of 183 objects.

That pace is significantly higher than that of the museum world at large. Although the period covered is not exactly the same, a study conducted for Artnet News and Studio Burns Media and published in December 2022 in the Art Newspaper provides a useful point of comparison. It showed that at the 31 museums examined, only 11 percent of acquisitions were by women in 2008-20.

Many of the arts of the Americas acquisitions fall within 19th- and early 20th-century American art, the focus of Associate Curator Annelise K. Madsen. She has long been interested in women artists but really began to focus on them five years ago.

The availability of a couple of works, including Theresa F. Bernstein’s 1921 oil on canvas, “The Milliners,” served as a catalyst and propelled the project forward, allowing Madsen to address what she saw as a historical wrong rooted in entrenched sexism.

“These are historical women artists,” she said, “who are making an impact on their moment in the art world, obstacles and all. And so many of them are just not part of the stories we tell about American art, and we need to change that pattern, because those are stories worth telling.”

In many cases, because these artists have been long overlooked and forgotten, little archival material is readily available about them. Madsen has had to undertake extensive original research, and she hopes her findings will benefit not only the Art Institute but the wider scholarly and curatorial community as well.

“It’s about collectively laying the groundwork,” she said, “and doing the research that just hasn’t been done but needs to be done to help all of us do this work.”

Researching women artists leads to surprising finds

In some cases, Madsen has been pursuing information on one artist and another fascinating one pops up along the way. She cited the example of Ellen Emmet Rand’s “Woman Before the Mirror” (1925), a Manet-like oil portrait of a self-confident woman in a fancy black dress and hat looking at herself in a mirror.

Several female members of the Emmet family were professional painters in the late 19th and early 20th century, including Rosina Emmet Shorewood and Lydia Field Emmet, who created murals for the Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exhibition held in Chicago in 1893. The curator also knew of Jane Emmet de Glehn, who is shown painting in John Singer Sargent’s 1907 work, “The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy,” in the Art Institute’s collection.

Several years ago, Madsen saw “Woman Before the Mirror,” on a dealer’s website, and she was immediately intrigued. “I didn’t know Ellen very well, but I knew the Emmet name, and it was a great, forceful picture, and it really captured my attention,” she said.

Madsen researched Rand, and it turned out she was cousins with the three other Emmet artists, and the museum acquired her work in 2019. “So, that was a particularly memorable exercise and acquisition that I’m really proud of here at the Art Institute and that connects those dots within the art world but also reflects my path through this material,” the curator said.


Now that the Art Institute has made significant acquisitions by women in the American realm, art dealers have taken notice. “It’s part of cultivating those relationships,” Madsen said. “You let them know what you are interested in, and sometimes you have the good fortune of a dealer coming to you.”

Another new work to the collection that Madsen highlighted is Lilly Martin Spencer’s “This Little Pig Went to Market,” a circa 1857 painting that depicts a mother reciting a nursery rhyme to her child. The 24-by-20-inch oil on canvas was acquired in 2021.

Though Spencer has fallen into obscurity today, Madsen describes her as one of the most popular American artists of the mid-19th-century. “She is a name who had been on my wish list for a very long time, and the odds of finding a really great work were not high, so when this work came on the market a few years ago, I was really excited.”

Lilly Martin Spencer. This Little Pig Went to Market, c. 1857. The Art Institute of Chicago, Roger and J. Peter McCormick Endowment Fund; through prior gifts of the George F. Harding Collection and the Chicago Normal School Alumni.

Lilly Martin Spencer, “This Little Pig Went to Market,” c. 1857.

Art Institute of Chicago/Roger and J. Peter McCormick Endowment Fund

Yet another notable addition is a lyrical landscape, “Looking Upon the River” (1880) by Julie Hart Beers. When conservators examined the work, they realized it had two conflicting layers of varnish that gave it a cloudy look, a problem they solved by removing the top one and adding a fresh coat of the clear surface finish over the original resin layer below. “It really made the painting glow in a way that it hadn’t before,” Madsen said.

Beside acquiring additional works, the museum is also focused on shining a new spotlight on objects by women already in its holdings. “We had women artists in the collection but not enough,” Madsen said. Some of those are obvious names like Georgia O’Keeffe and Mary Cassatt, the famed Impressionist, but others are less known like Bessie Potter Vonnoh, the first named female sculptor to enter the Art Institute collection in 1915.

Julie Hart Beers. Looking upon the River, 1880. The Art Institute of Chicago, purchased with funds provided by the bequest of Muriel J. Kogan.

Julie Hart Beers, “Looking upon the River,” 1880.

The Art Institute of Chicago/Bequest of Muriel J. Kogan

“Those are works that, in some cases, have long been in the collection,” Madsen said, “but they need fresh eyes on them to think about how they can make an impact in the galleries again.”

Similar efforts at inclusion and diversity are happening at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, where 54.5 percent of the works it collected in 2017-22 were by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) artists.

In October 2022, the museum announced a $1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to fund a Latinx and Caribbean art initiative, including exhibitions, acquisitions and curatorial research, as well as a push to make the museum a “fully bilingual institution.”.

What’s the future for women in the American collection at the Art Institute? Madsen points to continued acquisitions as well as what she called further “reinvestments” in the permanent collection through public programming and exhibitions.

An exhibition devoted to O’Keeffe, “My New Yorks,” is set to open June 2. Another in 2025 will focus on Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), an African-American artist who spent much of her life in Mexico, and a third in 2026 will showcase Cassatt.

“We’re constantly writing histories and revising them,” Madsen said. “There isn’t just one way to tell the story of American art, and we need to try broaden that narrative.”

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