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Must-See Exhibits at the Art Institute of Chicago

dinoc February 5, 2020

Throughout human history, art has shifted and evolved many times. Each period in art history is equally as beautiful as the last and provides a deep insight into the lives and emotions of the people living during that time. Classical works have stood the test of time and continue to touch viewers to this day. Likewise, modern works continue to emerge and incite meaningful conversations regarding the complexities of life as we currently know it. Displaying classic works from famous painters and sculptors inspires an entirely new generation of artists, and it’s for this reason that art preservation and appreciation is so important.

The Art Institute of Chicago is one organization that devotes itself to the preservation and display of notable works and lesser-known pieces in an attempt to further appreciation for art in all forms. This guide to the top must-see exhibits at the Art Institute of Chicago will help you maximize your time as you experience the beautiful works of past and present artists.


For many visitors, the top must-see exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago is the Impressionism collection. This exhibit is set within the European Art Before 1900 exhibit, which stands to reason as many classical European artists made impressionism popular. Art movements often blend together a bit and draw upon the styles and techniques of previous movements. The style and subjects favored by impressionist painters gave way to many of the techniques later used during the post-impressionist and expressionist movements. The works in this gallery tend toward lighter tones and lighter brush strokes, taking on an altogether softer tone and appearance. Famous paintings by Claude Monet and Edgar Degas grace this exhibit. Some of the most notable works in this gallery include Water Lilies by Monet, Ballet at the Paris Opera by Degas, and Two Sisters (On the Terrace) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. You can even recreate an iconic scene from the movie Ferris Buellers Day Off and stare longingly into the pointillist masterpiece A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat, which is also on display in this exhibit.

European Art Before 1900

The European Art Before 1900 exhibit encompasses several different movements in art history and houses works by some of the world’s most renowned artists. Many of these works depict the daily activities of individuals throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Paris Street; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte, Madame Cézanne in a Yellow Chair by Paul Cézanne, and The Girl by the Window by Edvard Munch. The paintings in this exhibit follow a chronological order, with many of the older paintings depicting specific stories in the Bible or ancient mythological tales. Saint George and the Dragon by Bernat Martorell and Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers by Édouard Manet are notable works in this collection. It is also in this exhibit that visitors can view paintings by Vincent van Gogh. One of van Gogh’s most recognizable works is The Bedroom, which has sat on exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago since 2016.

Modern American Art

Modern artists took a more abstract and creative perspective than their impressionistic predecessors. This era in art history depicted slightly mundane subjects in a new and exciting light. The pieces in this exhibit focus on the works of American artists between 1900 and 1950 and often feature brighter hues and more angular and definite brush strokes. Paintings by many famous American artists grace this gallery, including Georgia O’Keeffe and Ivan Albright. In addition to the many paintings on view in this exhibit O’Keeffe is also responsible for the largest painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. Sky Above Clouds IV stands at 8’ x 24’ and visitors can view it in the second level grand staircase. Other notable works in this collection include Nightlife by Archibald John Motley Jr., American Gothic by Grant Wood, and Nighthawks by Edward Hopper.

International Modern Art

Modern art reached far beyond the borders of the United States and influenced many artists around the world. This exhibit pays homage to notable works by some of the most renowned international artists in this movement. Works in this exhibit tend toward the fantastical and are more open to interpretation than many works in earlier art movements. Cubism was a popular style during this period and became more famous by Pablo Picasso. Picasso’s powerful painting The Old Guitarist is on display in this gallery, as is Salvador Dalí’s stunningly surreal and slightly macabre masterpiece, Inventions of the Monsters.

Honorable mentions

Every work housed in the Art Institute of Chicago is a true masterpiece. However, as the collection is rather expansive, it would be impossible to include every stunning piece in this guide. Below are a few honorable mentions that will serve as the cherry on top of your next trip to the Art Institute of Chicago.

America Windows

The America Windows was a gift the Art Institute of Chicago received in 1977 by Marc Chagall. They were originally commissioned to commemorate the nation’s bicentennial and were later presented to the city of Chicago in memory of Mayor Richard J. Daley. This piece is sometimes referred to as the Chagall Windows and consists of three separate panels. Each panel illustrates a different era in Chicago’s history and depicts the city’s rich and vibrant culture through a mosaic of beautiful blue stained glass. This piece was also prominently featured in the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Thorne Miniature Rooms

Borne from the imagination and talents of American artist Narcissa Niblack Thorne, the Thorne Miniature Rooms allow visitors a microscopic view into elaborate European homes throughout history. The miniature models depict scale replicas of homes from the 13th century to the 1930s and are all ornately decorated with period-specific furniture and architecture. Thorne has even crafted minuscule replicas of classical-style paintings to hang on the walls of the miniature rooms.

The Lions of Michigan Avenue

The final honorable mentions actually stand outside the walls of the Art Institute of Chicago. The Lions of Michigan Avenue stand at the steps to the Institute and warmly welcome visitors from far and wide. The lions have become something of a symbol in Chicago and even have their own Twitter account. The lions both bear rightfully regal names. The north lion bears the moniker “On the Prowl” and the south lion “In an Attitude of Defiance.”

To explore the entrancing exhibits listed above and to purchase Chicago art museum tickets, click here.

Must-See Exhibits at the Art Institute of Chicago