Hermon Atkins MacNeil, The Sun Vow
, cast 1901 (cat. no. 57
), installed on the Art Institute’s McKinlock Terrace, 1929–47. Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago Archives.
Hermon Atkins MacNeil’s sculpture The Sun Vow, cast in bronze in 1901 and initally installed in front of Ragdale, the Arts and Crafts-style north-shore home of Chicago architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, sat upon the McKinlock Terrace of The Art Institute of Chicago from 1929 to 1947. There, it attested to the story told in Window on the West: Chicago and the Art of the New Frontier, 1890–1940. Silhouetted against the Chicago skyline, in front of landmarks such as the Willoughby Tower, the Gage Building, and the Montgomery Ward Building on Michigan Avenue, it gave silent testimony to the eclipse of the early village of Chicago and the rise of the great metropolis of the West. Those original Chicagoans had long since been pushed west of the Mississippi River, but the legacy of the Indians remained in the art memorializing that earlier time.
This exhibition and book tell the story of Chicago’s connection to the Great West, through Native Americans, artists, collectors, writers, and dreamers. It describes the connections and affinities that Chicago’s artists—many of them students and teachers at the School of the Art Institute—felt for the Native American population and the western landscape. While many Chicago collectors looked to Paris for modernist art, many others turned to the West for new, inspired, and uniquely American subject matter. In doing so, they enriched the collection of the Art Institute immeasurably.
Judith A. Barter, Field-McCormick Curator of American Arts, has explored these avenues and found a permanent collection rich in western imagery. She and her staff delved into the storerooms of the Art Institute and several other Chicago institutions to find objects long neglected in terms of history, aesthetics, and conservation. As a result, many paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts objects that had not been seen for many years came to light. This reinterpretation of a facet of the collection brought about exciting new research and prompted the conservation of many objects. We are most grateful to our exhibition sponsors, The Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust, which made possible the conservation, publication, and exhibition of these objects; and the Oscar G. and Elsa S. Mayer Family Foundation, which supported the educational programming associated with the exhibition.
MacNeil’s Sun Vow is just one example of the important intersection of curatorial research and conservation. After standing outside in the elements for so many years, the sculpture was brought inside, cleaned, repaired, and repatinated. Within this exhibition, it represents both Chicago and the West, artistic interpretation and reinvention, the importance of patronage, and the continual symbolic value of the Native American—just as it did against the background of the quintessential industrial city. And, like the Chicago skyline, the interpretation of history is always changing, ever widening, to encompass people, images, and objects too long ignored. Window on the West: Chicago and the Art of the New Frontier, 1890–1940 tells the story of the art that helped the city shape its identity as the nation’s industrial and transportation hub, the meeting point of East and West—the metropolis of the Great West.
James N. Wood
DIRECTOR AND PRESIDENT