ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 84 Amy Irwin McCormick
A year following the death of Degas in Paris in the war period of 1917, there was a great auction sale of his work, and through hours and hours of the sale sat Amy Irwin McCormick with $5,000 her husband, Col. Robert R. McCormick (on United States military duty in France) had given her to buy what her heart most desired at the moment, a Degas painting of dancing girls.
Bid after bid she made on picture after picture, but always somebody eventually bid higher.
It was not until a decade later, and back in Chicago, that Mrs. McCormick, in 1927, eventually gratified her desire to own a find Degas, a pastel of the ballet, which she bought from the Cheater Johnson galleries.
The Degas was the start of a collection of “moderns” that has become one of the most interesting and most important in Chicago. The central canvas in the collection is “Bathers” by Cezanne — a finished painting, one of several studies he did for his masterpiece. Of almost equal caliber is Gauguin’s “Sunflowers,” of date 1901, painted in his full maturity, mingling the spirit of the South Seas islands with memories of Brittany. Both were in the first A Century of Progress exhibitions at the Art Institute.
Other paintings in her collection are a “Venus” by Redon; “Antibes” by Matisse; two caryatids by Modigliani; a young girl with blonde hair by Renoir; “Exotic Landscape” by Rousseau; and good examples by Picasso, Derain, Chirico, and Marie Laurenein.
Her lively interest as a collector brought back to Mrs. McCormick a desire to paint, for in her youthful maturity, she not only had that desire but took such means to further her ambitions and acquired such skill that in 1915 the City of Chicago bought, for its permanent collection, her “Girl in Front of a Mirror.” It is signed Amy Adams, she being then the wife of Edward S. Adams of the Chicago Board of Trade.
She had gone to classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, where her instructors were Ralph Clarkson, William P. Henderson, and Lawton Parker.
The story of her first day at the Academy is becoming a “classic.”
She was sitting at her drawing board sketching the model when Clarkson peered over her shoulder.
“How long have you been taking art lessons?” he asked.
“I started only today,” she replied modestly, coyly awaiting the compliment.
“I thought so!” said Clarkson.
Aside from her studies at the Academy, the big impetus of these early days came with the visit to Chicago of the Spaniard Sorolla in 1912. He was a social lion in art circles the world over at the period and, while here, did a number of portraits on commission, including the Ira Morrises.
Sorolla was a friend and a frequent visitor at the home of the Adamses, which was the gray-fronted mansion across from the water tower, now occupied by the Quest Galleries. It was in a front parlor of this old mansion, which she once used as a studio, that Mrs. McCormick told me of her enthusiasm at the time for Sorolla.
It seems that, unlike most artists, he liked to have a “gallery” when he painted, and he talked incessantly while at work. He not only invited her to accompany him to the homes where he was painting portraits, but “did her the honor” of using her palettes.
After each portrait, he would autograph that palette to her. On one, he made a quick sketch of her, and this palette is among her “treasures.”
Despite having to pay close attention to Sorolla’s chatter to keep up with its drift, for he spoke no English, Mrs. McCormick is sure she got some valuable pointers from his as to how to be a fashionable portrait painter.
Shortly after the purchase by Chicago of “Girl in Front of a Mirror,” her “art career” was abruptly interrupted and for a dozen years she didn’t touch a brush.
She became the wife of R.R. McCormick, part owner and now publisher of the Chicago Tribune, and she accompanied him immediately to Russia, in 1915, as war correspondent for his paper.
On his return from Russia, he went to the Mexican border, bristling with war threats, and again she went along.
The border calming down and the United States getting into the war abroad, the McCormick’s returned to Europe, he going to the battlefront in France and she remaining in Paris, doing also her “bit.” She was decorated by the French government eventually for her work with the Duryea War Relief.
Besides his military duties on Gen. Pershing’s staff, Col. McCormick founded the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune, primarily to send to the boys at the front. Mrs. McCormick regarded this little paper as her “baby,” for while she didn’t help in the editing, she took a great personal interest in its career. It persisted for a while after the way and was then discontinued.
Though in Paris — which even in war time was still the art capital of the world — Mrs. McCormick had little time to devote to art, her one big enthusiasm in this respect being the Degas sale — a sale so important, by the way, that its fame traveled round the world, along with war news.
The decade following the war was as busy as the war years. Mrs. McCormick was frequently in Europe. It was not until 1927 that she got around to buying her first Degas, and it was two years after that that she started painting again — setting up first a studio in the Fine Arts building.
She painted industriously for three years, holding two exhibitions during that time at the Chester Johnson Galleries. The death, then, of Johnson, who had spurred on her work, was followed by a lull. But about a year ago, on the big country estate of the McCormick’s at Wheaton, Mrs. McCormick resumed painting vigorously, using as models her dogs.
She has at Wheaton a pack of hounds numbering 40, and about a fourth that number of police dogs. The hounds take part in a favorite sport of the McCormick’s and their guests, on the order of English fox hunting. The estate has jumps for hunting horses and all the accouterments of the chase.
“Portraits” of her dogs, which occupy of late a good part of her imagination, were shown a few weeks back at the Quest Galleries — Adelbert Quest being the former partner and now the successor to Chester Johnson.
Mrs. McCormick’s environment through most of her life has been military.
Her father was Gen. B. J. D. Irwin, who distinguished himself as surgeon and fighter in both the Civil War and the Indian wars that followed.
She was born at the army post, Fort Riley, Kansas, while he was stationed there, on Indian service.
He wore a decoration of honor for distinguished bravery in the wars against he Apaches. In the Civil War, he set up at the Battle of Shiloh the first hospital tent every to be used on a battle field.
A portrait painted of Gen. Irwin by Mrs. McCormick, from photographs and family recollections, now hangs in the Army Medical Library at Washington in the vicinity of a portrait by Sargent of Gen. Leonard Wood, who was a “pupil” of Gen. Irwin.
Gen. Irwin was Scotch-Irish and came to America from Ireland before the Civil War. He studied medicine in New York, and on the outbreak of the war was equipped to join the Medical Corps for the North.
Amy Irwin was dragged away from Fort Riley a protesting infant of a few months of age. Nor does she remember much more about what happened at West Point the next five or six years of her life.
After that, Gen. Irwin was granted leave of absence for a year, and he took his family to Dresden where they remained for that year and for two more after he resumed his army duties back home.
Mrs. McCormick remembers her father at this period as being a great lover of paintings, collecting album after album of reproductions from the many museums of Europe. Interest in these albums and in his conversations was the beginning of her conscious love for art.
After they returned from abroad, Gen. Irwin had his family with him in New York, San Francisco and other cities, and eventually Chicago on the staff of Gen Miles during the 1893 World’s Fair.
It was a life of restless roving, and it was not until she married and settled down in Chicago that Amy Irwin found the opportunity to develop an inclination to paint.
In addition to the portrait of her father in the Army Medical Library at Washington, another portrait of hers with medical connotation is on public view — the portrait of Mrs. Joseph Coleman at Passavant Memorial Hospital, Chicago. Mrs. Coleman was the hospital’s president.