The Art Institute of Chicago
One of TripAdvisor’s “Top Museums in the World” for 4 straight years, the Art Institute of Chicago, truly offers a world-class museum experience.
Founded in 1879 as both a museum and a school, the Art Institute has grown considerably since its inception. Today it has 1 million square feet of space among its buildings and an art collection of over 300 thousand individual works ranging from Chinese bronzes to contemporary design (with just about everything in-between).
- The two patina lions guarding the entrance to AIC are not identical, are over 100 years old, and have names! The artist, Edward Kemeys, unofficially named the north lion “on the prowl” and the south lion “stands in an attitude of defiance”.
- The largest painting in the museum’s collection is Georgia O’Keeffe’s Sky Above Clouds IV. It is 24 by 8 ft!
- AIC is the second largest art museum in America – trailing just behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City!
When you come on a Museum Hack tour at the Art Institute of Chicago you are sure to hear sassy “insider” stories about the art, play fun games in the galleries, and take lots of selfies. We guarantee you will leave both entertained and excited to brag about your experience with friends!
For more info about what you can and can’t bring with you into the museum, dining options, and special events, scroll down to the FAQ Section and logistical info section on this page. Want to get your bearings of the Art Institute of Chicago before you get there? Check out our 5 Things to See section below for a quick virtual tour.
5 Things to See at the Art Institute of Chicago
Thorne Miniature Room exhibit
Down in the oft-overlooked basement of the Art Institute is a small gallery where you will discover 68 incredible tiny rooms!
AIC has the largest collection of Narcissa Niblack Thorne’s dioramas. Thorne’s small rooms, built on a one-inch to one-foot scale with meticulous detail, are far more involved than the shoebox diorama you made in third grade! Every diorama represents a different room from history: Victorian-era opulence, chic homes of 1940s American elites, humble nooks of early American Quakers, and much more…
What makes these rooms so f***ing awesome is the EXCEPTIONAL level of detail.
- Why does that silky curtain look so good? Because it’s real silk!
- Why does that bear skin rug look so real? Because it’s quite literally a bear skin rug!
- Why does that chair seem so comfy? Because a true chairbler (chair-maker) crafted it with real mahogany and the finest upholstery.
Everything inside these rooms were designed by Mrs. Thorne, however, she hired trade craftsmen and artisans to make the miniature creations irrefutably authentic.
Looking inside, you can’t help but imagine that you have traveled back in time!
The Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room
If astonishingly little rooms aren’t your thing and instead you prefer a massive space with immaculate attention to detail where you can actually step into history instead of just imagining it, AIC has you covered too!
This hidden gem was originally built in 1893 by the infamous architects Adler and Sullivan. It’s high vaulted ceiling, magnificent pillars and elaborate ornamentation are a sight to behold. But how did it end up at the Art Institute of Chicago?
The Chicago Stock Exchange has been a mainstay of commerce in the city for over a hundred years, but this ornate trading floor was only in operation for 14 of them. By the late 1960s, it was popular opinion that the old stock exchange floor should be demolished. But not everybody was ready to let this historic beauty go!
Richard Nickel led the crusade to save many of Chicago’s historic buildings, including the old Chicago Stock Exchange floor. Tragically, while working in the very building he was determined to save, a portion collapsed and killed Nickel. It was only after his death in 1972 that people took pause and decided that at the very least this room indeed needed to be saved.
Piece by piece the Art Institute carefully removed the old trading room and rebuilt it in its entirety in AIC’s Rubloff Building. It premiered in the late 1970s in honor of architects Adler and Sullivan, as well as historical preservationist Richard Nickel.
In summary, you have got to see this room. It’s to die for!
The Impressive Impressionism Collection
The AIC is home to the second largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings in the world! Here you’ll find over thirty paintings by Claude Monet, the well-known father of Impressionism.
- The term impressionist all started with Monet’s 1874 painting, which he called Impression, Sunrise. He titled the work in response to many critics reviews that the work seemed more like an unfinished sketch or a mere impression than the work of a great master.
- While many critics were not impressed with the impressionist movement, Chicago’s own Bertha Palmer was enamored by these paintings and is responsible for providing the AIC with much of its expansive collection. (Bertha, you da f***ing best!)
If Monet isn’t your thing? Worry not! There are many works from Renoir and Degas too.
Perhaps even more remarkable is the collection of Post-Impressionist artwork on display, with masterpieces from Lautrec, Gauguin, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Rousseau, and Georges Seurat’s well-known painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. This renowned piece will leave you mesmerized! To truly appreciate Seurat’s pointillism technique and keen impression of high society you have to see this piece in person and up close.
Georgia O’Keeffe is a School of the Art Institute of Chicago alum and as such the AIC has many of her paintings proudly on display. Including the largest painting in the entire museum, Sky Above the Clouds IV.
O’Keeffe decided to paint this massive canvas at age 77 because she felt there was nothing holding her back from making a big deal about a big piece of art. This work is 8 feet tall and 24 feet wide, the exact dimensions of her two-car garage in New Mexico where she painted it. O’Keeffe climbed on tall ladders and laid on the ground to reach every piece of canvas. Occasionally a rattlesnake slithered through the open garage door to critique her work – yikes!
This HUGE painting was meant to be part of a traveling retrospective of O’Keeffe’s work in 1970. The plan was to go from NYC to Chicago to San Francisco, but the massive painting never made it out of the Second City when the SFMOMA realized they could not fit it through their doors!
Sky Above the Clouds IV is a spectacular reminder from the elderly Georgia O’Keeffe that the sky is not the limit, you can reach beyond it at any age!
Picasso’s Old Guitarist
The Art Institute of Chicago houses one of the most comprehensive and extraordinary modern art collections in the world. From the iconic American Gothic to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, around every corner, you’ll find yourself taken aback by legen – wait for it … DARY works of art that you’ve seen time and again, but didn’t expect to experience in person.
Tucked away in a gallery on the third floor of the Modern Wing is a hidden gem you don’t want to miss: Picasso’s The Old Guitarist.
Make sure to look closely, there is much more than meets the eye!
The Old Guitarist is one of Picasso’s most recognized works. At first glance, you might not notice this painting has a few secrets of its own.
Do you see a woman’s face? Look again in the top center, there is a ghostly face listening to the old man’s guitar music. It is indeed a ghost from Picasso’s past that he painted over.
In fact, revelations from x-ray imaging show that Picasso made multiple attempts on this canvas that still show through, including
- a naked woman
- a child suckling at her breast
- a cow
Even the masters make mistakes! When you can’t afford another canvas, as was the case for 22-year-old Picasso, you have to roll with it and just keep painting. Thankfully he did!