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Chicago Art and Artists in the Archives of American Art

A Sampling of Chicago Artists from Abercrombie to Zeisler

Gertrude Abercrombie

Painter Gertrude Abercrombie was a fixture in the Chicago cultural scene, playing host to legions of artists, literary figures and jazz musicians. Her work often focuses self-portraiture or autobiographical elements with a surrealist bent, and the sketches found in her papers are no exception.

Sketch of a tree
Abercrombie sketches, Gertrude Abercrombie papers, 1880-1986, bulk, 1935-1977
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
A maid bed is better made sketch
Abercrombie sketches. Gertrude Abercrombie papers, 1880-1986, bulk, 1935-1977
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Gertrude Abercrombie self-portrait sketch
Abercrombie sketches. Gertrude Abercrombie papers, 1880-1986, bulk, 1935-1977
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Emil Armin

A key figure in the No-Jury Society, Armin was also a friend of Abercrombie’s. He painted in a modernist style and one of his favorite subjects was the city of Chicago, as seen in this watercolor of the Augustus Saint-Gaudens statue of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln Park.

Watercolor sketch of sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln Park, Chicago, 1916.
Watercolor sketch of sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln Park, Chicago, 1916.
Emil Armin papers, 1922-1977.
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Macena Barton

Barton specialized in depictions of the female nude. When art critic C.J. Bulliet asserted in his book The Courtezan Olympia (1930) that women “have accomplished nothing first-rate in the art of the nude,” Barton took it upon herself to prove him wrong. She more than won his respect as is evidenced by this letter in her papers from Bulliet to the Governor of Illinois endorsing Barton as the artist to paint his official portrait, comparing her to the old masters and noting that “she is one of the few living portrait painters…who can catch a likeness and still make the portrait a ‘picture’.”

Macena Barton with two of her paintings, 195-? / unidentified photographer.
Macena Barton with two of her paintings, 195-? / unidentified photographer.
Macena Barton papers, 1839-1985, 1914-1985.
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
C. J. (Clarence Joseph) Bulliet letter to Dwight H. (Dwight Herbert) Green, 1941 May 14.
C. J. (Clarence Joseph) Bulliet letter to Dwight H. (Dwight Herbert) Green, 1941 May 14.
Macena Barton papers, 1839-1985, 1914-1985.
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Eldzier Cortor

Cortor grew up in Chicago’s South Side and studied at the Art Institute, where Kathleen Blackshear introduced him to African Art. He specialized in depictions of African American women, but also drew inspiration from the city of Chicago, sketching scenes from the South Side for the Works Progress Administration. 

 Eldzier Cortor in his studio
Eldzier Cortor in his studio, Halsted & Monroe. Eldzier Cortor papers, circa 1930s-2009, bulk, 1972-2009
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Sketch Halsted & Monroe
Sketch. Eldzier Cortor papers, circa 1930s-2009, bulk, 1972-2009
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Vera Klement

Vera Klement is a transplant to Chicago from New York, and she brought with her the style of abstract expressionism. She was a member of the artist group “The Five,” which decried what they saw as a regionalist bent in Chicago art. Over the length of her career her art has moved to more often include figurative elements. 

"The Five" exhibition announcement
"The Five" exhibition announcement. Vera Klement papers, 1946-2001
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
sketch by Klement
Sketch of horse and rider by Klement.  Vera Klement papers, 1946-2001
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Ellen Lanyon

Ellen Lanyon worked in a surrealist style that often featured insects, birds, and reptiles. She was active in the feminist art scene in Chicago. On this handout from a College Art Association report on the demographics of MFA degree granting institutions, she doodled a crow which squawks percent signs at the disparate distribution of studio art faculty positions between men and women. 

Summary tables from?CAA survey of MFA degree granting institutions, with sketch by Ellen Lanyon, 1977.
Summary tables from CAA survey of MFA degree granting institutions, with sketch by Ellen Lanyon, 1977.
Ellen Lanyon papers, circa 1926-2013
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Karl Wirsum

Wirsum was a key figure in the Chicago Imagist movement and a prominent member of the Hairy Who. The influences for his idiosyncratic art can be seen in photographs of his home which is covered floor to ceiling with his lovingly curated collection of tchotchkes. 

Karl Wirsum's studio, 1971 / unidentified photographer.
Lorri Wirsum, Karl Wirsum, and Ruby Wonder Wirsum, 1971 May / unidentified photographer.
Whitney B. Halstead papers, 1920-1982.
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Karl Wirsum's studio, 1971 / unidentified photographer. Whitney B. Halstead papers, 1920-1982. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Digital ID:?18076
Karl Wirsum's studio, 1971 / unidentified photographer.
Whitney B. Halstead papers, 1920-1982.
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Ray Yoshida

A professor at the School of the Art Institute for over 40 years, Yoshida was hugely influential both through his teaching and his artwork.  Much like Karl Wirsum his art was informed by his voluminous collection of three-dimensional objects but also of thematically organized clippings from advertisements and comics which fill several scrapbooks in his papers.

 Ray Yoshida photo strips, 197-?
Ray Yoshida photo strips, 197-?, Ray Yoshida papers, 1903-2010, bulk 1950-2005
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Ray Yoshida scrapbook of comic book clippings, 196-?
Scrapbook of comic book clippings, 196-?, Ray Yoshida papers, 1903-2010, bulk 1950-2005
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Claire Zeisler

Claire Zeisler was a pioneer in the field of fiber arts, innovating new weaving techniques to create voluminous sculptural works. Her papers contain extensive preparatory notes and fiber samples organized by artwork. 

Picture and wrappers from materials used in sculpture, 1977 Oct. 25
Picture and wrappers from materials used in sculpture, 1977 Oct. 25
Claire Zeisler papers, 1903-1992
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.