A Pitman’s guide to the Art Institute

A few weeks ago I emailed my friend, co-conspirator and TimeLine Marketing Director Lara Goetsch to see if she wanted to go to the Art Institute of Chicago and look for all the art mentioned in The Pitmen Painters.  She agreed and we met in the foyer of the museum on a rainy Thursday evening.

It’s so easy to get complacent when living in a city of artistic riches about how much access we have to art and how seldom we take advantage of opportunities to see it.

As I was running up the steps to meet her, I had a sudden memory of my first visit to Chicago and to the Art Institute and how impressive and imposing the museum looked with its grand steps and guardian lions. How I raced around trying to see paintings that were important to me and how I was surprised by paintings I had never intended to see. It’s so easy to get complacent when living in a city of artistic riches about how much access we have to art and how seldom we take advantage of opportunities to see it.

Like a good dramaturg, I had made us a list of paintings and gallery numbers by checking the museum catalog online first. Feel free to follow along on our journey and possibly map your own visit to the Art Institute using the museum’s online gallery map.

We started our quest by looking to find any Chinese paintings like those the Pitmen saw at the exhibition in London. It turns out that the Art Institute has a substantial Chinese pottery collection and a good Japanese print collection but no Chinese paintings. So we had our first disappointment, mitigated slightly by one of those great museum moments — finding something we hadn’t been looking for. This time it was beautiful restored Japanese carvings that were part of one of the Japanese Pavilions during the Columbian Exposition. They had even mysteriously resided under bleachers at Soldier Field for a time!

We tore ourselves away to continue our quest for paintings from the script.

Here’s me looking at Mrs. Philip Dupont

In the play Lyon mentions Thomas Gainsborough as painting at the same time as the Chinese artists, so we went up the grand staircase and headed to the hallway outside Gallery 217 (217A is what they call the hallway outside the gallery). There we looked at the portrait of Mrs. Philip DuPont c. 1778, or perhaps she looked askance at us. It was hard to tell.

A helpful security guard told us that she is the great great great aunt or grandmother of the DuPont petrochemical baron.

Fishing Boats with Hucksters Bargaining for Fish, 1837/38

Then we went further down the corridor to Gallery 220, where we encountered Fishing Boats with Hucksters Bargaining for Fish by Joseph Mallord William Turner.  There is a lot of movement in this painting — the sails, the ships, the ocean and even the people on the ships seem to be in perpetual motion.

Next we went through a lovely room of Monets … but without pausing I am afraid.

Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom”

We were headed to a favorite of the Pitmen … Vincent Van Gogh. In Gallery 241, you can see one of his self portraits and a painting of his bedroom, both of which are referenced in the play. I love the simplicity of his room. How you can see his own paintings on the walls (including a self portrait) and how at any moment it seems like he might return.

Lara noted that the self portrait also kind of looks like actor Dan Waller, who portrays Oliver Kilbourn in the play!

Vincent Van Gogh self-portrait

We lingered in this room for a while, as did many other patrons. It still stuns me that these paintings are here in Chicago.

“The Bay of Marseilles, view from L’Estaque”

The paintings by Paul Cezanne are only a few rooms away in Gallery 246. There you can see Standing Bather, Seen from the Back; The Bay of Marseilles, Seen from L’Estaque, The Bathers and The Basket of Apples. “The Basket of Apples” was my favorite. I like the sheer ordinariness of the apples on a table, that anything can be art. I have apples on my table at home and I walk past them every day without noticing their color and beauty. So Cezanne, in painting something I can see everyday, captures my attention and makes me take a second look at the ordinary.

Lara and I left the main building of the Art Institute, heading to the Modern Wing, where we ascended the floating steps to the third floor.

We wandered briefly trying to figure out the order of the gallery numbers, and Joseph Cornell’s lovely collage boxes distracted me. There is some storytelling aspect and magical quality to the boxes that always holds me in thrall.

Henry Moore’s “Sculpture”

We made our way to the Henry Moore sculptures in Gallery 395B, where we found Figure and Sculpture (there is also a large sculpture in the McCormick garden but it was too dark and too rainy for us to venture outside). The sculptures are so smoothly carved.  It made me think about Oliver’s line about art being not abstract, but concrete, because you could see the work required to make it.

Picasso’s “Mother and Child”

Pablo Picasso was fascinating because of the changing style of each of his paintings in Gallery 394, including Still Life, Head, Mother and Child and The Red Armchair.

“Lozenge Composition with Yellow, Black, Blue, Red, and Gray”

While I like the Piet Mondrian paintings that are what we expect, like Lozenge Composition with Yellow, Black, Blue, Red and Gray in gallery 339A, my favorite was actually his painting Farm Near Duivendrecht in gallery 392 B. I love the quality of the light and the reflection in the painting and the structural quality of the trees. I had seen this one before, but I was happy to stand in front of it again.

Mondrian’s “Farm near Duivendrecht”

Then, in another one of those serendipitous events that seems to happen in art museums and the city in general, when we were in the room with the Mondrians I caught sight of another name on the wall and realized that it was the Swiss painter Paul Klee — mentioned in TimeLine’s other production this fall, A Walk In the Woods. It was nice to see his work as well.

Many painters mentioned in The Pitmen Painters are part of the Art Institute collection but are not on display at the moment. Happily, the Art Institute now has a neat feature where you can create your own virtual tour. So if you can’t arrange a field trip like ours, try making your own online gallery!

Artists who are featured in the play but images are only available online include:

After racing around the museum to make sure we caught all the Pitmen Painters-related artwork we could, Lara and I still had time to visit the Windows on the War exhibit and the rotating photography exhibit in the basement.  It was a great reminder of the embarrassment of artistic riches the city has to offer.

Maren Robinson is the dramaturg for The Pitmen Painters.

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  1. Bernie Holicky

    Your Pitman’s guide to the Art Institute…Took the tour today…By chance was joining two friends for Iowa today and followed your post are we toured the third floor of the Modern Wing. Guiding us with commentary was a friend and knowledgable AIC volunteer (who had seen ‘Pitman’).

    • TimeLine Theatre

      That’s so great, Bernie, thanks for letting us you were able to take advantage of our little guide!