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The First Chicago Art Exhibition - 1859


In the spring of 1859 the Chicago Tribune announced people had cause for quote “pride…in our young city” striking down the thought that Chicago was “entirely devoid of all taste and culture in art.” In The Daily Chicago Times the stir was well summarized:


Taken in itself, and located in Paris, London or Vienna, our first art exhibition would attract only a limited attention; in New York, Boston or Philadelphia, it could not fail to excite the interest and curiosity of the citizens; but placed in a western city which, twenty-five years ago was only an Indian trading post in Chicago, it justly becomes an object of wonder and gratification.


The event changing the cultural landscape was an exhibit that opened on May 9th at Burch’s Building on the Northeast corner of Wabash and Lake, today’s 203 N. Wabash building. It was the city’s first fine art exhibition, a show of paintings, engravings and sculpture borrowed from local art collections. A copy of the exhibition catalogue may be found at the Chicago Historical Society research library. While a single painting or sculpture had been shown in Chicago from time to time the exhibit at Burch’s was the first exhibition to gather a group of works together for public viewing. It was a striking success in a town that only some twenty years earlier had incorporated and elected its first mayor. The collection of art brought over twelve thousand people to Burch’s in a city that had a population of a mere 110,000 who were generally naïve about art. Most importantly the show helped to popularize the collecting of fine art in Chicago.


The story of early art collecting in what was to become the country’s second largest metropolis is largely untold. The benefit to our community from these early pioneer collectors is markedly evident in the legacy of our cultural institutions today. Prior to 1859 art was hardly present in Chicago. A few of the wealthy citizens had brought paintings home from European trips or hung works that had been in their families back east, but there was no art impetus; no schools, exhibition halls or regular dealers. However the elite were a cultured group as critic James Spencer Dickerson recalled quote “Among the earliest settlers of Chicago, even in the 1830s, were people of refinement…” When the English writer Harriet Martineau visited Chicago in 1836 during her two year tour of the United States, she found the town leaders educated and refined. A generation later noted portrait artist George Peter Alexander Healy found city leaders such as William B. Ogden quote “remarkably intelligent” and “well informed.” A private collection of a dozen paintings spoke volumes about the owner’s sense of taste, their stature, and achievement of culture.


The city’s first collectors reflected patterns established decades earlier in east coast cities. Chicago’s early collectors were land speculators, merchants, bankers, businessmen, and lawyers, and most of them are now remembered as the pioneer builders of the city. Like their eastern colleagues, they believed they should bring art to their new city and thereby encourage civilization in Chicago and the Northwest. This artistic nationalism, common in New York and Philadelphia, furnished the philosophical basis for acquiring art and gave comfort that America would evolve into a center of the arts to rival European cities. In addition, art served as a means of education as it was thought to aid in enlarging minds and fostering noble ideas.


It was because of those intelligent and cultured men that the Burch’s exhibition, properly known as the Chicago Exhibition of the Fine Arts was made possible and was the culmination of early art interests in Chicago – and the singular event to propel the burgeoning city to a cultural heritage enjoyed by millions today.


The organization of the exhibit began with a meeting in March of 1859. Sculptor Leonard Wells Volk wrote a letter to a small group of prominent men proposing the exhibition and that the profits be used towards a public sculpture of George Washington. This letter was accepted in minutes of the meeting by four signors who included Thomas Hoyne an early Chicago settler who later became Mayor, and Dr. Daniel Brainard founder of Rush Medical School. To organize a subsequent meeting two weeks later a printed invitation was sent to a group of influential men:


You are respectfully invited by the undersigned, to meet a few gentlemen at the Rooms of the “Historical Society,” in Newberry’s Block, on Tuesday the 22nd instant, at 3 o’clock P. M., to devise a plan for an Art Exposition, to consist of such select and approved Paintings and Sculptures as are in the possession of our citizens, in order to afford to the public, and especially to all persons interested in the Fine Arts, an opportunity to gratify and improve their taste in Art matters.


A presiding Chairman and Secretary were chosen and the meeting began with a well detailed plan of organization including the contribution of ten dollars each for organizing expenses, about $5,000 in today’s funds. Specified was:


First. The exhibition would consist of approved works of sculpture, paintings and engravings and meet a “standard of merit.”

Second. It would be opened in May and last for one month.

Third. All persons known to own works of art would be solicited to lend to the exhibit.

Fourth. A catalogue would be printed.

Fifth. A board of thirteen “citizens” would be appointed for general management and any profits would be used for the furtherance of the interests of art in the city.


The board of directors was then chosen and included: Lt. Col. James Duncan Graham, who served as Chairman. Graham came to Chicago to superintend harbor improvements in 1854. As an engineer Graham had an interesting career. For example he was in Texas surveying border disputes with Mexico in 1851. He had named a 10,000 foot peak in Arizona, Mt. Graham and later a county in Arizona Territory was named after him. Isaac Newton Arnold settled in Chicago in 1836 and practiced real estate law in partnership with Mahlon D. Ogden, brother of William Butler Ogden. An ardent abolitionist, Newton was later elected to Congress and served during the Civil War. He later wrote a biography of Abraham Lincoln entitled The Life of Abraham Lincoln. George F. Rumsey was named Secretary. Rumsey arrived in Chicago in 1836. Later he was Treasurer of the Chicago Board of Trade and then of the National Board of Trade. He also served as vice president of the Chicago Historical Society.


Mark Skinner came to Chicago in 1836 as a lawyer. His career included City Attorney for Chicago, U. S. District Attorney for Illinois, a member of the Illinois State Legislature, Judge in Cook County and through his involvement as director of several railroads a close relationship with many of Chicago’s wealthy pioneers was formed. Skinner, a law partner with Hoyne, became Walter Newberry’s attorney. When Newberry was making out his will, Skinner suggested that if Newberry’s daughters died without heirs he should bequeath a substantial sum for the establishment of a library; what is today the Newberry Library. Isaac H. Burch whose eponymous building housed the exhibition, was named treasurer. An obvious choice as he part owner of The Chicago Bank. Earlier he and Walter Newberry had opened the Newberry & Burch Bank and he was credited as opening the first “savings” bank in 1849. He was also on the first board of directors of the Chicago Board of Trade. Burch later became the unfortunate player in a fantastic divorce from his wife Mary, that made headlines for almost a year. Little is known of E. K. Rogers other than that he was a member of the early 1840s volunteer fire brigade known as the “Forty Thieves.” Joined by other prominent men in the group they gave rousing socials for several years. Imagine that, Chicago’s most prominent citizens serving as the volunteer fire brigade.


John Edwards Wilkins was a British subject who was admitted to the Bar in England in 1854. Shortly thereafter he arrived in Chicago and formed a partnership with George Steele as lumber dealers and produce merchants. In 1855 he was named the first British Consul in Chicago and served through the end of the Civil War. Leave it to the British and their sense of history for when I sought information on this obscure government official they had in fact published a brochure covering the career of Wilkins. William Barry was educated at Brown and studied law under Chief Justice Shaw of Boston. Not finding the field agreeable he then graduated from Harvard Divinity School. After years as a pastor in Boston he retired due to ill health and was advised to move west to improve his condition, settling in Chicago in 1853. I’m not sure the move to a frigid, filthy, disease ridden Chicago was exactly what his doctors had in mind. From the founding of the Chicago Historical Society he was its Recording Secretary and librarian between  1856 and 1866. In his obituary the Chicago Tribune called Wilkins one of the ablest writers in the West. Haines H. Magie’s greatest feat was to influence his daughter, who became the wife of Judge Lambert Tree. Together the couple built the artist’s residence and studios known as Tree Studios in Chicago.


Walter Loomis Newberry was a merchant and banker, having moved to Chicago as early as 1833. Here, like so many others, he made early real estate investments. He later became president of the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad as well as president of the Chicago Historical Society. Samuel Humes Kerfoot was an attorney who was active in the founding and building of the library association. Another real estate developer he owned large tracts of land in Lakeview. His home was located on nine acres of property that extended to the lake shore.


Sculptor Leonard Wells Volk was appointed Curator. Volk was to have control over the standard of art in the exhibit after discussion and agreement with the directors to quote “render the collection as select and valuable as the case may allow.” The organizers were concerned that a representative view of meritorious works be offered to the public and that quote “such paintings and sculptures as do not possess sufficient merit be returned to the lenders. Conversely they also wished to encourage quote “those whose wealth and good taste have put them in possession of choice pieces of statuary or well conceived and well executed paintings” in hopes such persons “will not refuse to be contributors to this the first exhibition of the kind ever attempted in this city.”


Advertisements seeking the loan of fine arts began to appear in the newspapers and formal invitations were sent to those people known to possess such works. The outpouring from the press was impressive as people began to realize this first fine art exhibition would represent an important milestone and a major opportunity for the education and acculturation of the populace. Scanning the press clippings in the Leonard Volk scrapbooks at the Chicago Historical Society I gained the ample impression of a ground swell of support and building anticipation for the opening of the exhibition. Thank goodness someone in the Historical Society’s research library had the good mind to make photocopies of the scrapbooks when they were lent by a family member. When the scrapbooks were returned they eventually made their way into a dealer’s hands in Milwaukee who thought nothing of auctioning off the pages in batches of five or six leafs on E-bay. With absolutely no sense of history, this dealer scattered the scrapbooks to the four winds.


First among collectors and art activists to lend works was the distinguished and respected lawyer Ezra Butler McCagg (1825-1908), who also served on the board of the exhibition. Born in the Hudson River town of Kinderhook, he shared his hometown with future President Martin Van Buren. McCagg was the son of a wealthy merchant who could afford to educate him at home. He settled in Chicago in 1847 and formed a legal partnership with Jonathan Young Scammon who later donated funds to sponsor the Scammon lectures at the Art Institute. McCagg’s friend, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, described the reservations of Chicago’s early elite:


Having all migrated to the West while young and lived for a while on the very frontier and in the midst of the maddest whirl of speculation ever known you might expect them to be  very different from what they are. In fact, the children are clever and well-bred. They are rather sensitive about the West and Chicago lest anyone should think that people are not likely to be as well informed and cultivated there as anywhere.


In 1854 McCagg married Caroline Ogden, the widowed sister of the city’s wealthiest man and first mayor William Butler Ogden. Ogden and McCagg had been partners in McCagg, Reed & Co., a manufacturer and dealer of lumber goods. The McCaggs established themselves in high style with a large house and enormous gardens covering two city blocks on North Clark Street. Besides his art collection McCagg built a formidable library, as might be expected of a man of culture in the middle 19th century; reportedly among the finest in the country. In total McCagg assembled an impressive record of philanthropy and activity in Chicago’s cultural institutions as one of the original trustees of the Chicago Symphony Orchestral Association, President of the Board of Trustees of the Eastern Hospital for the Insane at Kankakee, Trustee of the University of Chicago, Director of the Chicago branch of the United States Sanitary Commission, a founder of the Chicago Historical Society serving as its Vice President, and later was responsible for assembling the parcels to create Lincoln Park.


McCagg’s brother-in-Law also became one of Chicago’s most important collectors. Ogden, the son of a successful upstate New York lumber merchant trained in law and served in the New York state Legislature in 1834. In 1835 he moved to Chicago to supervise the landholdings of a group of eastern investors in the American Land Company who had purchased large tracts surrounding the Chicago frontier settlement. Real estate led him to railroads and he became head of the Chicago & Northwestern, the Illinois & Wisconsin, and the Buffalo & Mississippi lines. Later when the Union Pacific was organized to create a transcontinental line he became its first president.

Ogden involved himself in every civic activity that to him seemed worthy. Urbane, quick witted, educated and charming, it was said, quote “in conversation he was a worthy rival of Louis Phillippe, King of France and John Quincy Adams. Ogden began to collect art in the early 1850s perhaps encouraged by his friend Henry Gilpin (1801-1860) who after serving as Attorney General under President Martin Van Buren became President of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His home, covering an entire block, soon became filled with art including many works by American masters such as Asher B. Durand, Jasper Francis Cropsey, John Frederick Kensett, Frederick Edwin Church, Hiram Powers and George P. A. Healy. Works by these American artists are found in every museum of consequence in the United States.


In 1852 Ogden engaged landscape artist Durand to paint Landscape After a Shower, which most likely introduced Chicago to its first significant work by an American artist. On several trips to Europe Ogden purchased a wide variety of artwork including other works by American artists working abroad and copies of great masters, the later genre a frequent desire of many collectors. Collecting on a grand scale was designed to fill a home with treasures and none was more treasured than Ogden’s, quote:


There is not to-day in our wealthy and luxurious City – there never has been in fact – a residence more attractive, more homelike, more beautiful than that of Mr. Ogden, … with all its treasures of art and books.


Ogden, like McCagg, entertained frequently enjoying visits from William Cullen Bryant, former president Van Buren with whom he served in the New York legislature, Ralph Waldo Emerson and statesman Daniel Webster. The connection to Webster may have come through portrait painter G. P. A. Healy whom Ogden met in Paris and successfully lured to Chicago in 1855 with the promise of a steady stream of wealthy portrait sitters. Healy was friends with Webster and painted his portrait on numerous occasions. One well-known work of Webster at his home in Marshfield is in the collection of the Union League Club here. Two Healy portraits of Ogden are in the collection of the Chicago Historical Society today. Healy’s arrival began countless portraits of Chicago’s elite and he was later considered by many the most famous painter of great men in the nineteenth century. The Chicago Historical Society today houses close to ninety works by Healy. He painted almost six hundred portraits during an eleven year span in Chicago. Ogden knew the vanity of Chicago’s elite well as over time the families who sat for Healy portraits included the names of Blair, McCormick, Newberry, Ryerson, Scammon, and Wentworth.


The bringing of Healy to Chicago was important as the artist, along with Leonard Volk, who in 1855 had also adopted Chicago as his home, became active in local art. The sculptor painter duo later founded the Chicago Academy of Design, precursor to the Art Institute. Certainly significant influence upon Chicago’s wealthy men to collect art came from Healy and Volk. Ezra McCagg said of him quote:


It is due to Mr. Healy to say, that to his ability, devotion to art and untiring efforts to educate and correct public taste, more is owning, than to the labors of any other person, in the progress of art in Chicago.


The Ogden family was connected to a great deal of Chicago’s early wealth. That one family could be so ubiquitous can be expected from a dominant and prominent family early in almost any town’s history. Ogden’s sister Frances was married to another transplanted easterner Edwin Holmes Sheldon who moved to Chicago in 1846 and married Frances that same year. This familial connection caused the two men to enter a real estate partnership. The Sheldons were so close to the Odgen’s that they shared half of his palatial double house. As would be expected the Sheldons amassed a tidy collection of art. Sheldon said of his living arrangement, quote: “we lived under the same roof for nearly a quarter of a century, and for nearly all that time carried on our house jointly. Sheldon was a member of the Board of Managers of Graceland Cemetery from its inception, Trustee of the Northern Insane Asylum and President of the Chicago Historical Society. A Chicago Literary Club member, a tribute to Sheldon may be found in our archives.


The largest contributor of art to the exhibition was Alexander White. Emigrating from Scotland he arrived in Chicago in 1837 after meeting Stephen A. Douglass. He soon began a paints, oils and dyestuffs business and built that to a sizeable enterprise. This led him to begin investing in real estate where he made his fortune, like so many other early Chicagoans. Around 1857 White built a large residence and filled it with art purchased while traveling east and in Europe. His formidable collection provided ten percent of the over three hundred works in the exhibition at Burch’s. Among his splendid collection was George Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, today the most recognizable imagery in the entire exhibition. Seven years later he sold the collection in New York thereby saving this monumental work from the Chicago Fire. Other works in the collection reflected White’s sagacity for acquiring the best works by American artists


In total, the works of art in the exhibition were a mixed bag of genuine articles, reproductions, outright fakes, attributions and honest works by American artists. Some of the press in their outpouring of praise was either looking the other way or naïve in their effort to promote this civic boosting event. Comments such as “the genuineness of all is beyond doubt” were not uncommon.


A special section of the exhibition was held for works from the Meade Gallery owned by Lt. Col. James Duncan Graham. Passed off as original were works by da Vinci, Titian and Correggio. Some years later Graham’s collection when sold was described by a Boston critic as “suspicious old masters” in response to a review of works hung in Boston’s Athenaeum. Art collecting in the middle to later 19th Century, especially in a frontier town like Chicago, was fraught such problems. A supposed Titian in the exhibit while being assumed original had quote “been rescued from the common decay by being transferred from old to new canvas by some ingenious artist.” The same commentator noted that several of the Mead collection paintings owned by Graham had quote “been transferred from panel to canvas.” This should have been a strong indication of their questionable authenticity. If the reader of newspapers looked dutifully enough, though, there would be found a fairly accurate description of the proffering of supposed old masters:


On the other hand, we are also aware that copies of the great masters, and unmitigated daubs bearing their monograms, have been, are and ever will be manufactured by the cart load, for the especial benefit and gratification of a large, wealthy, and highly accomplished class of traveling amateurs.


However as one critic noted the exhibition had provided a quote “convincing refutation of the oft alleged statement that our people cared for nothing except the rise of corner lots and the advance in breadstuffs.”


American works Thomas Rossiter’s whose Joan of Arc in Prison is now owned by the New York Public Library and was lent by Ogden; Leonard Volk’s sculpture of Stephen A. Douglas that now sits atop the Douglas Memorial in Chicago; a life-sized sculpture in marble of Pocahontas by Joseph Mozier, a copy of which is in the Chrysler Museum, and Greek Slave, a bust by Hiram Powers, one of his most noted pieces and considered by many “the gem of the Exposition.”


Wisely the organizers granted early access to the press who wrote in anticipation of the exhibit, noting quote “there appears to be more noticeable works of art, especially paintings, in the city, than was at first known – more than any one person could have known.” A steady stream of visitors came to the exhibition. And while the exhibition was yet open, a constant stream of paintings and sculpture also kept coming, so much so that the organizers had to take additional rooms. Season tickets at twenty-five cents afforded the luxury of coming time and again. So successful was the show that it was held open longer than originally intended and extended. The printed catalogue was a success as well for at least three editions were printed and sold at ten cents each to accommodate over 12,000 patrons of the exhibit.


By the time the show was originally planned to end the one man whose tireless efforts had brought about such a resounding success, Leonard Volk, had departed for Europe reportedly to live in Florence for a few years. Before the close of the exhibition however the executive committee voted to advance him $150 from the proceeds prior to a final accounting for his services. It was clear from this resolution and advance that the executive board sought encouragement for one of their own local artists.


In total 369 works of art were catalogued from about seventy lenders attracting twelve thousand visitors producing $2,000 in revenue and $800 in profit. Remember that $10 in those days was equivalent of about $5,000 today. It had been determined at the meeting on the twentieth and ratified a week later that the best use of profits was to support Volk in his European travel and study and at a later time to secure a marble sculpture from his hand. This in their view was best calculated to promote the interest of the fine arts in Chicago and that quote “…this amount was placed at the disposal of Mr. Volk the curator to assist his wish of revisiting Italy, the artist in return to execute a bust in marble for the library of the historical society.”


The importance of the Chicago Exhibition of the Fine Arts is in its success. The directors found in Volk and indefatigable worker. No doubt he knew of his reward early on but he strived toward the goal of a fabulously successful introduction to the arts for Chicago citizens. The complete unity of the directors and lenders toward one goal made Volk’s job possible and likely is unprecedented in the annals of Chicago history. Because of the successful exhibition other attempts were made to bring forth art to the public. In succession this resulted in a series of exhibitions in 1860, 1863, 1865 and 1866.


Today millions enjoy the flourishing art of Chicago that had its foundation set by the 1859 exhibition at Burch’s. An unquestionable success that could well have been otherwise the Pioneer builders of Chicago achieved everything they had set out to accomplish in encouraging art and bringing their beloved city to a new and unprecedented level of aesthetic understanding.

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