Using The Art Institute of Chicago [Prints and Drawings]

Back in early August 2011 I wrote a piece on using the “Yale Center for British Art.” For the first time ever, I finally understood why book and art historians talk about how enjoyable “working with the object” is. There’s something exhilarating about being in close proximity with the cultural documents we study–whatever the medium. This term, I dropped by the Art Institute of Chicago to conduct research. The institution’s collection presents phenomenal opportunities for visual studies scholars (Art History, English, or otherwise) of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries to engage in direct object study. While this post will be followed by a sequel this spring–when I’ll be looking at some paintings in the collection for a seminar on the interior in art–this autumn’s primary course research falls on animals. Since the Art Institute has a wonderful impression of George Stubbs’s “Horse Frightened by a Lion” (fig. 1),

Fig. 1. George Stubbs. “Horse Frightened by a Lion.” Etching with Engraving on Paper, 13.59 x 18.11 in. (34.50 x 46.00 cm.), 1777. 1982.498. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL.

I found myself in the Art Institute’s Prints and Drawings Department. In what follows, I’ll describe how to best access the Prints and Drawings Department at the Art Institute, what information to assemble beforehand to use this resource effectively, and describe how the Art Institute structures visiting scholars’ interaction with their prints and drawings collection. From there, I’ll close with some remarks on what I got out of visiting the Art Institute for my own research this first time and by sharing some advice based on what I’ve gleaned from direct object study. In the end, what I hope you get from reading this blog post is an impetus visit Chicago and the Institute and, for some readers, a new way to think about how to approach visual art objects in your research.

Getting There: What’s the best part about the Art Institute of Chicago? Its central location in the Midwest. With Southwest Airlines’s third-largest hub positioned at Chicago-Midway and with United Airlines’s headquarters at Chicago-O’Hare International, getting to Chicago is easy given the number of inexpensive non-stop flights between these two airlines’ route networks. Both airports are directly linked to the Art Institute by the CTA “L” line (the paradigmatic Chicagoan mode of public transportation). What this all means is that one can catch a direct flight that leaves for Chicago early in the morning, arrive for the only appointments that the Prints and Drawings Department offers in the afternoon, spend about three and a half hours viewing artworks, and then still have time for dinner downtown before heading back to the airport for an evening flight home. Traveling to the Art Institute can be incredibly cost efficient.

Amassing Information Beforehand: In my experience doing direct object research it’s best to have a primary object of interest in mind, and then subsequently stage other objects in a given collection next to it to create meaningful avenues of comparison to bounce ideas off. I knew I wanted to look at this particular Stubbs work, and knew it was in the collection. So in building my trip I spent some time researching what other prints were in the Institute’s collection that matched up to a project on “horse art” (I chose two: Eugène Delacroix’s Cheval Sauvage and Albrecht Dürer’s The Small Horse, but you can view up to ten works on a single visit). Upon selecting the prints to look at, I used Zotero to sketch my preliminary ideas on why I was looking at what, and to make note of the accession numbers which match the object with their location in museum storage (these typically take the form of the year the work was acquired, followed by another number—for location purposes). I returned to these numbers when I emailed the Prints and Drawings Department to make an appointment, since this is the data the curatorial staff will use to pull the art you want to look at (as opposed to title/artist).

Arriving at The Art Institute & The Experience of Viewing: Upon arrival, you’ll want to check in at the front desk, as opposed to purchasing a ticket to view the museum exhibitions. A fellow from Prints and Drawings will escort you to the department. You’ll first receive a brief introduction to working with objects, after which you’ll enter the study room. Here, the works you and your colleagues of the day are set to study will already be put up on easels around the room’s periphery.  There are tables in the center of the room were you can leave your laptop and/or pad of paper and pencil while you look closely at your chosen selections. In my experience, at this point, I grabbed my magnifying glass and was off to the races. While I was used to having the works I’ve looked at presented right in front of me, I ended up appreciating the time it took to walk back and forth—from the art to my laptop on the center table—between taking notes, since it forced me to meditate a bit more on the ideas the objects were generating for me. It was a different structure of interaction, but I liked it.

Conclusion: Even with the fabulous facsimiles and reproductions we’re privy to as 21st-century emerging scholars, I still always end up finding things in person I don’t see under any other circumstances. In this case, it was the sense of facture in terms of the organization of the print according to diagonals that lead the viewer’s eye in certain ways across the pictorial surface. But, in the end, what can I say? As much as I love to read theory, there’s just something about reveling in objects that moves me in a way that nothing quite else does–even when it comes to reproducible media, like prints. So while I recognize that most of the NASSRgrads readership has engaged in some form of direct object study in England, or elsewhere on the continent, I’d encourage everyone—who hasn’t, already—to visit some visual art objects. Indeed, one might even be surprised by what’s accessible at your own institution’s library special collections and university art museum (I was astonished at how many Blake holdings there are at Deering Library here in Evanston, for instance). In the end, seeing prints that weren’t on show at the Art Institute was a valuable experience for me—and I can’t wait to do the same with some nineteenth-century paintings in the spring.

And (last): looking forward to seeing many of you and hearing your papers in Tempe next month!




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