Creating Art in the Windy City: Chicago Artist Colonies

By Nicky M. | Arcadia Staff
Today, Chicago is known as a cultural hub for the visual arts, but the city wasn’t always so in touch with its creative side. Once upon a time, Chicago was a city built on commerce and industry alone, but that all changed at the end of the 19th century. In Chicago Artist Colonies, author Keith Stolte dives into the rise of artistry in Chicago, and the communities that built themselves alongside it. Read on for a sneak peek at the book, out now!
In 1916, a Chicago arts magazine published its September edition with the first twelve of twenty-eight pages completely blank. Not a word, not a picture appeared within these pages. This was a dramatic and bold protest by the Little Review of what it regarded as the low quality of art and literature in the United States at that time. The Little Review was essentially signaling that there was little going on in the nation’s art scene that was worth its ink, and the first twelve pages of the September issue were offered as a want ad for merit-worthy art. That this magazine had the presumptuousness to stage such a stunt is remarkable for two reasons: first, the Little Review, self-proclaimed arbiter of art and literature in America, was only about two years old at the time and still trying to gain traction among the cultured elite; second, Chicago, its home base, had been a cultural backwater a mere twenty-five years before, certainly not a place where critical judgments on the state of the arts were to be expected.

Artists in Chicago, with one or two notable exceptions, were virtually nonexistent prior to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. From its incorporation in 1837 through the fire that all but decimated the city, only two artists of note worked in Chicago. Remarkably, one of those artists, George Peter Alexander Healy, was internationally famous, and his works appear in some of the most prestigious art museums and civic institutions in the world. But even after the fire, Chicago had little time for art. Despite the fire’s devastation, much of Chicago’s infrastructure, particularly its transportation systems, remained intact. Reconstruction efforts immediately following the fire spurred great economic development, and the city’s population rose from a pre-fire level of about three hundred thousand to more than one million in 1890. Chicago was racing to become a vast commercial center, where, ultimately, its role as an important transportation hub guaranteed its place as the nation’s second-largest city by the turn of the twentieth century. Commerce, not art, ran through the city’s veins at this time.

So how was it that this newborn Chicago publication, the Little Review, could presume to judge the state of the nation’s arts and literature in 1916? By what authority did art critics in the most cynically commercial of all commercial centers in the United States claim the right to condemn the arts establishment of the country? The answers to these questions reside in the aftermath of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Along with the 1871 fire, the Columbian Exposition constitutes one of the great historical milestones of Chicago. Indeed, the 1893 World’s Fair, properly considered, is an important milestone of the cultural, technological and commercial development of the United States. The Fair provided the majority of its twenty-seven million visitors their first experience with electric lights—electric anything, for that matter. This was the advent of mass consumerism, and many visitors to the Fair had their first encounters there with soon-to-be staples such as Cracker Jack, Wrigley’s chewing gum, Cream of Wheat and the zipper.

World’s Columbian Exposition, Palace of Fine Arts, Main Hall.The Columbian Exposition also offered the vast majority of its visitors their first opportunity to view thousands of works of art by artists from around the country, and indeed the world, and to rub elbows with some of these artists who traveled to Chicago for the Fair. American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens described the 1893 fair as “the greatest meeting of artists since the fifteenth century.” This, in a city that could boast only a handful of artists two decades before.

The Palace of Fine Arts, a vast building designed to house these works of art, was one of the most popular sites of the Fair. And although works by Chicago artists constituted a very small portion of the art displayed (significantly less than 5 percent), Chicagoans, particularly wealthy businessmen and their wives, were proud that, for a few months at least, their city was the cultural center of the world. It was true that Chicago was already home to the Art Institute, which had existed in one form or another since 1866, and a handful of very impressive private art collections owned by wealthy collectors. But the works in the Art Institute’s collection and the collections of wealthy Chicagoans were almost exclusively by the hands of East Coast and European artists. The residual pride that the Columbian Exposition instilled in Chicagoans would ultimately change that.

Thus, following the Columbian Exposition, there was a sweeping effort by Chicago artists and wealthy art patrons to consolidate and attract artists of all stripes to come and stay in Chicago and enhance the cultural life of the city. And the effort worked. The School of the Art Institute soon attracted some of the best art instructors in America and became one of the foremost art schools in the world, a distinction it still enjoys. Wealthy patrons donated significant, world-class works of art to the Institute, ultimately transforming that institution into one of the world’s great art museums, and the second largest in the United States.

Within ten years of the Fair, Chicago boasted the most vibrant literary scene in America, claiming Theodore Dreiser, Henry Blake Fuller, Hamlin Garland and, a little later, Sherwood Anderson, Ben Hecht and Carl Sandburg. The city’s architecture, already famous before the fair, was further strengthened by innovations created by the early modernist Louis Sullivan and his most astute pupil, Frank Lloyd Wright. No one could seriously dispute that Chicago was then home to the most progressive and influential architects in the world.

Lorado Taft and apprentices sculpting a portion of the Fountain of Time at Midway Studios, circa 1919.Born out of civic pride inspired by the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, the artist colonies of Chicago thrived for many decades and became home or work space or both for hundreds, if not thousands, of artists of every field of endeavor. The Fine Arts Building is still home to dozens of artist studios, art publications and other art-related organizations. Artists continuously occupied the Tree Studios for more than one hundred years, prior to the building being redeveloped in the early 2000s into a more general office and retail space. Both of the summer artist colonies are still in operation, now under the auspices of institutions of higher education. The funky, “handmade” artist studio buildings on West Burton Place and Wells Street have always been home to artists or people associated with the arts in some fashion.

The story of Chicago’s artist colonies is integral to the city’s historic role as a major cultural center in the United States throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The city’s most famous and influential artists were members of at least one, and most were members of several, of these artist colonies. Oliver Dennett Grover, probably the most well-known Chicago painter at the time of the Columbian Exposition, later painted his landscapes and portraits in studios at the Fine Arts Building, Tree Studios and Eagle’s Nest Camp. His contemporaries Lorado Taft and Nellie Walker, Chicago’s most prominent sculptors, both created their art at the Fine Arts Building, Midway Studios and, during summers, at the Eagle’s Nest Camp. Frederic Milton Grant, one of the most successful artists during the interwar period, painted his still lifes and colorful village scenes at the 57th Street Artist Colony, Tree Studios, Eagle’s Nest Camp, Ox-Bow colony and the Italian Court Building. Edgar Miller, a Renaissance man who mastered the arts of virtually everything he touched—oil and watercolor painting, sculpture, wood carving, textiles, ceramics, mosaics and stained glass—had a hand in creating the Carl Street Studios and other studio buildings on West Burton Place, the Kogen-Miller Studios on North Wells Street and the Fisher Studios in the Gold Coast.

Chicago’s rich history of artist colonies continues to this day. As stated already, some of the oldest artist colonies are still in operation. Small communal artist enclaves have been established in the Wicker Park and Logan Square neighborhoods. Ragdale, the Lake Forest home of early Chicago architect Howard Van Doren Shaw (who designed the handsome Fisheries Building at the Columbian Exposition), has been transformed into an artist colony that provides fellowships and temporary residential and work space for writers, composers, visual artists and choreographers. Chicago’s artist colonies helped to establish, and continue to enhance, Chicago’s role as a world cultural center.
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