Mrs. Palmer's Paintings

We recently went to see an exhibit at the Chicago History Museum featuring a selection
of clothing and jewelry from the collection of Bertha Honore Palmer. The museum wouldn't allow any photography so click here to see a slide show of some of the items on display.

[Gallery, Potter Palmer Residence, Chicago Daily News Collection, Chicago Historical Society, DN-0004562;
Potter Palmer and Bertha Honore Palmer Gallery, Art Institute of Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Mrs. Palmer also collected paintings; especially French Impressionist paintings. In the

photo on the left you can see a portion of her art collection on display in the gallery of her mansion located in the city's Gold Coast neighborhood. In the right hand photo, several of her paintings now hang in the Art Institute of Chicago's Potter Palmer and Bertha Honore Palmer Gallery. In the photograph taken of her personal gallery you can't help but notice how she hasn't left a inch of space between the pictures. In the old days, it was considered the height of sophistication to fill your walls with as much artwork as possible, and unlike today, even museums once packed their wall surfaces from frame edge to frame edge.

[Claude Monet, On the Brink of the Seine, Bennecourt, 1868, detail; Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Seas
cape, 1879, detail;
Renoir, Near the Lake, 1879/80, detail; Monet, Stacks of Wheat, Sunset, Snow Effect, 1890/91, detail; Potter Palmer
Collection, Art Institute of Chicago /Images & Artwork: designslinger]

Mrs. Palmer became interested in the French Impressionists through her friendship with

artist, Mary Cassatt. Mrs. Palmer was the President of the Board Lady Managers of the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, and Cassatt painted a mural titled Modern Woman, for the Fair's Women's Building. Although Bertha was by all outward appearances as conformist as they come, she stood out from the conventions of her day when she embraced the controversial, new painting style emerging from Paris in the 1870s. The basis of the Art Institute's extensive Impressionist collection is attributed to Mrs. Palmer and her bequest to the museum. She liked to tell people that she was the person responsible for introducing the avant garde Impressionists to the United States.

[Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando (Francisca and Angelina Wartenberg), 1879, entire painting
and detail /Images & Artwork: designslinger]

Apparently her favorite piece was Renoir's, Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando. She liked the
painting so much that the artwork traveled with her from Chicago to her ocean liner stateroom, to her homes in Paris and London and back to Chicago again.

[Bertha and Potter Palmer Residence, 1350 (aka 100) Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, 1907, Library of Congress Online
Catalog, LC-D4-12409; 1350 N. Lake Shore Drive Apartments, June, 2009 /Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Bertha Honore came from money and married money. Her father Henry Hamilton Honore
was a leading member of the city's business and social elite. She married businessman and real-estate mogul Potter Palmer in 1871, and built one of the largest houses in the city on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive. She ruled as the Queen of Chicago society from her castle on the lake, and when Mr. Palmer died, Bertha moved in the highest social circles in London and Paris. So much so that the local press speculated that Mrs. Palmer may think more of the nabobs in Europe than her hometown. She said
that she would never forsake her Midwestern roots, Chicago was home, and would always be home. The house survived Bertha by 32 years, and finally met with its demise in 1950. The red brick, monolithic apartment blocks that replaced The Castle, still bear the Palmer's 1350 Lake Shore Drive address.

[Palmer Family Memorial, Graceland Cemetery, Chicago /Images & Artwork: designslinger]

When she died in 1918, Bertha was laid to rest in a memorial befitting a woman of her
stature. The colonnade of tall columns surrounds two, large, ornately carved sarcophagi containing the earthly remains of Mr. and Mrs. Palmer. Descendant family members are buried beneath the flat panels of marble flooring, leaving Bertha and her husband perched high above the rest.

[Bertha Honore Palmer, portrait; Memorial inscription on sarcophagus, Graceland Cemetery /Images & Artwork:

Palmer was a woman of her times and she was also a pioneer. She wore expensive
dresses from Paris' House of Worth, jewelry from Tiffany and Cartier, and lived in an over-sized mansion meant to be the physical representation of her vast wealth, power and influence. At the same time she was a feminist, or as much of a feminist as the times, and Bertha, would allow. She worked hard to insure that women were represented at the World's Fair in 1893, and she did the same for the Paris Exhibition of 1900.

When she collected artwork that was considered out of the mainstream of acceptable
society, and not appropriate for a person of her social standing, she went ahead and bought as much of it as she could. And in the end, Bertha showed how much of a connection she felt to the city of her birth, when she gave the Art Institute a group of paintings which became the catalyst for one of the largest and most renowned, Impressionist collections in the world.

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  • 3/19/2010 4:43 AM wrote:
    Wow, I never knew that about Mrs. Palmer's Paintings. That's pretty interesting...
    1. 3/19/2010 5:08 AM designslinger wrote:
      She was quite a person.

  • 7/30/2010 8:07 AM Sarah J wrote:
    Her paintings are very good, this is a great article and insight into her life. Thank you
    1. 7/31/2010 6:00 AM designslinger wrote:
      She saw something in these works that most people at the time regarded as junk. Glad you liked the post BTW and thanks for visiting!
      1. 8/2/2010 3:46 AM Sarah J wrote:
        It's interesting that this happens with a lot of paintings and various artists work. Some of the most famous artwork that fetches thousands at galleries and auctions can often be regarded (granted, by the inexperienced) as "junk".
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