Art Institute Curators Worry Limited Visitors Will Stunt Portraits’ Social Development

ART INSTITUTE — After several months of gradual reopening, during which the Art Institute has implemented measures distancing patrons and limiting the amount of visitors, curators are beginning to worry that the diminished social interactions will stunt the development of portraits of all ages. 

“When we were fully closed, that was obviously the hardest time on them,” said curator Alice Silva, 43. “But because it was so different, it felt fun, like vacation. Now that we’re open again, some of the portraits are struggling to understand why five to ten people aren’t standing in front of them all the time, or why everything’s so much quieter. They blame themselves, of course.”

Some portraits are taking the decreased foot traffic harder than others. The couple in Grant Wood’s American Gothic, used to attracting crowds and posing for numerous photographs a day, now find their fans muted in their enthusiasm, and few and far between. “I miss when the real people came by to look at our sour little mouths,” said the man, waving his pitchfork sulkily as the woman nodded dourly. 

Other paintings are reacting to the changes in different ways. “The woman in Diego Rivera’s Weaving has just been, well, weaving,” said Silva, walking past various paintings as they cried out needily. “I wish she’d find another outlet, but as long as it’s working for her...oh, and these subjects haven’t stopped drinking since March,” she noted, gesturing towards the figures in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. “They say it’s coffee but I don’t believe that for a minute.”

Perhaps the hardest-hit group of paintings, however, are recent imports for the El Greco exhibit, which went up in March for just a week before the museum closed. “These guys are mostly from the Louvre or the Réunion des musées nationaux, so the French-to-English language barrier has been a bit of a challenge,” Silva noted. “Of course, the French all say they want to speak English, but then everyone gets confused.” 

After overcoming the initial culture shock of a new museum, the El Grecos have mostly kept to themselves. “The crucified Jesuses in particular have formed a clique I’m worried about,” Silva added in a hushed voice. “They’re developing a bit of a Messiah complex.” 

Ultimately, Silva concluded that there was nothing to do but wait and see. “The paintings are having the usual squabbles and tantrums we expect at their developmental level,” she said, as several of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge patrons smashed bottles in a frame behind her. “It’s nothing we can’t handle.”

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