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Art at the Union League Club

  

Chicago's Private Jewel Near the Magnificent Mile


The Union League Club of Chicago has one of the oldest and most important collections of American art held by a private institution in the Midwest. With a particular strength in artists of the Midwest, the Club has distinguished itself as having one of the best collections of Illinois art anywhere.

 


      

Only seven years after it was founded, the Club began acquiring art in 1886. The collection began with a gift from ULC member J.M. Thatcher of Ross Turner’s watercolor Cologne Cathedral (1884). In a letter that accompanied his donation, Thatcher wrote: “I trust this gift may soon find company.” Club members quickly took his words to heart and, within a decade, had established an Art Committee and an art acquisitions fund derived from a modest allocation of members’ dues. Most of the collection has been amassed through purchases. Frederic Arthur Bridgman’s Hot Bargain in Cairo (1884) was the Club’s first purchase.


Those involved in building the Club’s collection in those early years viewed art, as many did then, as encouraging the—to use their words—“uplifting betterment of the mind and soul.” Most art purchased was by living artists; the Art Committee stated in

its acquisition policy that “art should be of its time.” The Committee also decided that it was better to “invest a considerable amount in one really great painting carefully selected and commanding the price, than in several paintings of lower rank.”


One of the boldest purchases the Club made—both astonishing and prescient for the time—occurred in 1895. Members of the Art Committee—then comprised of W.M.R. French, president of the Art Institute of Chicago, Martin Ryerson, noted art collector and city benefactor, and art collector Judge John Barton Payne—purchased Claude Monet’s Pommiers en fleurs (Apple Trees in Blossom, 1872). At the time, this painting outraged some Club members since impressionist art was still considered relatively radical in Chicago in 1895. Once derided, today Monet’s Pommiers en fleurs is a highlight of the collection.


      

The Club’s early acquisitions were nearly all artworks by contemporary American and European artists. Since 1907, however, the Club’s collecting focus has been on American art, with an emphasis on works made by artists who lived and worked in the Midwest.


In 1997, the Club established an on-site conservation laboratory and added a Painting Conservator to the staff, making it the only private club with a full-time Curator and an in-house Painting Conservator.


Today there are nearly 800 works of art in the Club’s collection which includes a variety of media—paintings, photographs, works on paper, sculpture, and decorative arts—and represents over 150 years of art making in America. The ULC’s collection presents a diverse range of art movements and styles, from neoclassicism, realism, and impressionism to modernism, abstraction, Chicago Imagism, and other contemporary trends. The Club’s art holdings include works by Hiram Powers, George Inness, Mary MacMonnies Low, Edward Potthast, Elizabeth Nourse, Thomas Hill, George Bellows, Manierre Dawson, Ivan Albright, Walter Ufer, Leon Golub, Roger Brown, Ed Paschke, Richard Hunt, Ruth Duckworth, Jim Nutt, and Kerry James Marshall, among many other important artists.

Collecting art for over a century, the Union League Club continues to assemble one of Chicago’s best private art collections. Ongoing Club activities to promote the appreciation of art include recognizing the contributions of distinguished Chicago artists with honorary memberships, organizing exhibitions with other Chicago arts institutions, and producing monthly exhibitions of contemporary art.