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Must-Sees at the Art Institute of Chicago

Nestled in downtown Chicago’s Grant Park, the Art Institute of Chicago is one of the oldest and largest art museums in the world. Since its creation in 1879, the Art Institute has grown to house a permanent collection of over 300,000 works and dozens of special exhibitions. From contemporary paintings to historic artifacts, the museum has everything you can imagine. All it takes is walking through its halls—or even just looking at its gorgeous exterior—to see why millions consider it one of the top museums in the world.

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01 Buddha Shakyamuni seated in meditation

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This incredible Buddha statue originates from a coastal town in southern India. This town, Nagapattinam, was one of the only places where Buddhism was still thriving in the 12th century. The statue features several of the traditional physical characteristics of the Buddha—elongated earlobes, an urna between his brows, head protuberance, a long nose, and wheel marks on the palms. He sits in a meditative position, with his hands resting on his lap. The flame emerging from his head likely signifies wisdom.

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02 The Aztec Stone of the Five Suns

Also known as the Coronation Stone of Motecuhzoma II, this monument originally sat in the ritual center of Tenochtitlan—the capital of the massive Aztec empire. The stone depicts five “suns,” representing five cycles of creation and destruction. The current era is the fifth sun. Within the square carving is a year, 11 Reed or 1503, the year of Motecuhzoma’s coronation. This stone legitimizes his reign as yet another core port of the current cosmic cycle.

03 El Greco’s The Assumption of the Virgin

el greco art overview

Domḗnikos Theotokópoulos, better known as El Greco, is one of the master artists who left their mark on the world. His works served as the precursors to both the Expressionism and Cubism movements. The Assumption of the Virgin was his first major Spanish commission and was the beginning of a 37-year-long career in Toledo. The painting pulls direct inspiration from Michelangelo with a Roman school palette and a naturalistic style. The Virgin Mary floats upward, supported on a crescent moon that represents her purity, as angels flock around her.

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04 Thorne Miniature Rooms

One of the opportunities available to you at the Art Institute of Chicago is the ability to glimpse a tiny world through the lenses of the Thorne Rooms. Narcissa Niblack Thorne, the creator of these rooms, assembled a group of skilled and visionary artisans to build intricate and beautiful rooms at 1:12 scale. From a sacred Gothic-style church to a traditional Chinese interior, the rooms take you on a journey of different cultures, lifestyles, and delicate skills.

05 Marc Chagall’s America Windows

To celebrate the U.S. bicentennial, Marc Chagall created stained glass pieces that combine classic symbols of American history with the arts and the Chicago skyline. These pieces, known as America Windows, tell a story from left to right, featuring music, painting, literature, theater, dance, and architecture. The windows allowed Chagall to use intense colors on a large scale, fully expressing his admiration of America’s religious freedom, technological innovations, and creativity.

06 Grant Wood’s American Gothic

Painted in 1930 by Grant Wood, American Gothic is one of the most legendary paintings to ever exist. The piece depicts a farmer and his daughter, standing stiffly outside of their Carpenter Gothic-style home. The oil painting is beautifully simple in its composition, leaving the viewer to create their own stories about the figures. Wood intended American Gothic to convey a positive image of rural Americans, but many art critics and viewers feel that it comes across as satirical—mocking rural living as being out of step with the modern world.

07 Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte

Arguably the most well-known pointillism work, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte depicts people from different social classes relaxing in a park on La Grande Jatte, an island in the Seine River. Seurat began the painting in 1884, beginning with horizontal brushwork and then adding a series of dots to create the various forms within the painting. He wouldn’t finish the work until 1889 when he added a border of dots to provide a transition from the painting to the frame.

08 Armory Collection

overview of stairs in art museum

The Art Institute of Chicago doesn’t only contain beautiful paintings and classic sculptures. In fact, some of its most iconic pieces are select objects from the history of our world—such as the absolutely massive collection of arms and armor. Some of the most iconic arms on display include the Walking Stick-Hammer-Sword-Wheelock Pistol from the late 1500s or something a bit more classic, like full sets of tournament armor.

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09 Modern Wing

overview of art

The Art Institute conveniently places many of the most prominent modern artists together in the Modern Wing. Walk through the 264,000-square-foot building and admire some of the greatest works from the 20th and 21st centuries. Works from artists like Matisse, Picasso, and Dali are some of the most notable, but you can also find a range of sculptures, architecture and design pieces, and photography.

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10 Gio Swaby's Fresh Up Exhibition

Among the many exhibitions that call the Art Institute home, Fresh Up is a particular standout. Gio Swaby is a multidisciplinary artist who uses textiles to push the definition of what a portrait can be. She focuses on her subjects’ styles, including their hair, clothing, and jewelry, creating pieces that highlight what makes them unique. Fresh Up is one of those exhibitions that you need to see in person to truly appreciate.

11 Dining options

chicago chicken sandwich

Visitors can also enjoy the delicacies of the culinary arts while taking in all the Art Institute has to offer. The Market is home to some of Chicago’s favorite foods, featuring chicken sandwiches, flatbreads, and burgers. The Modern Café overlooks Griffin Court, giving you a cinematic experience while you sip on a cup of coffee and some lighter food offerings.

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12 Van Gogh and the Avant-Garde Exhibition

Van Gogh art exhibit

Vincent van Gogh led a complex and difficult life, battling mental illness and poverty. Though he was unappreciated as an artist in his lifetime, we now know him as the father of a revolutionary style of painting, featuring exaggerated forms, vivid palettes, and loose, flowing strokes. The Art Institute's avant-garde exhibition dives into his life and style before going on to explore some of the other most notable avant-garde artists.

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13 Double Feature with Short Subject

art exhibit

A mere 300 feet from the Modern Café is one of the most unique exhibitions available at the Art Institute. Margaret Honda uses 126 glass panes of a skylight to create a reel of film. As visitors move through the hall, the sunlight acts as a projector, creating a feature film. The art piece’s appearance can change dramatically as the sun sets and the seasons change. Rather than sitting still in a dark room, Honda created a piece you can enjoy with any lighting, any movement, and even in reverse.

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14 Exuberus Teen Night

Every year, the Art Institute hosts a museum-wide party exclusively for Chicago teens. The goal is to get young individuals excited about art while also providing a safe, professional space for artists to exchange pieces and skills while meeting like-minded friends. Dance parties and meals make for a fun night, but it’s the art exchange, scavenger hunts, and photo booths where teens will make the most memories.

15 Art-making activities

The museum wants everyone to be interested in art, regardless of your age. By hosting a variety of art-making activities, anyone can show up and begin the creative process. Discover new mediums and subjects with the Saturday Studio or just swing by and enjoy some Drop-In Sketching. At the Ryan Learning Center, you can create an art piece, explore new tools, or exchange art with other creatives.

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