William M. R. French's 1889 Travel Notebook Spread 0

William M. R. French's 1889 Travel Notebook Spread 0 cover
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William M. R. French's 1889 Travel Notebook

New Hampshire native and Harvard educated engineer William M. R. French moved to Chicago after serving in the Union Army during the Civil War, teaming up with noted landscape architect H. W. S. Cleveland. They had a successful practice, even co-authoring a book, "A Few Hints on Landscape Gardening in the West" (1871). When the Illinois Industrial Interstate Exposition building was erected on the rubble of the Great Chicago Fire, French dissolved the partnership to become manager of the exposition building's art department. At the same time he taught at Chicago first art school, the Chicago Academy of Design (founded in 1866), for which he also functioned as chief administrator.

In 1879, the Academy of Design was replaced by the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, which renamed itself the Art Institute of Chicago three years later. French became the secretary of this new corporation and its first director in 1885, holding this position until his death in 1914. The young, well-run organization quickly outgrew its first few locations, and at the end of the 1880s, French and the trustees began planning for a major building campaign. In Spring 1889, he and President Charles L. Hutchinson undertook a two-month-long trip to Europe, visiting the most prestigious dealers, museums and private collections in England, France and Italy. There, they gleaned the finest examples of museum design and the latest innovations in exhibition display, lighting, signage, and other state-of-the-art presentation techniques.

French recorded his findings in a tiny, 118-page booklet that is filled with copious measurements, notes and sketches. Now in the Art Institute Archives, it provides a unique insight into both his travels and their influence on the genesis of the museum's new home on Michigan Avenue and Adams Street. Indeed, the director recorded many details that were incorporated into the design of the 1893 building and subsequent projects, from major elements such as the Grand Staircase and the monumental lions guarding the front steps to smaller features including guard rails, labels, light fixtures, mosaic floor patterns, and skylights. While in Europe, French and Hutchinson also visited with American artists working there, many of them alumni of the School of the Art Institute. One, Lawton Parker, reported at length on the final examination process for students at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris.

The trip also paved the way for some significant acquisitions, most notably a group of Old Master paintings from the Demidoff collection, one of the most celebrated of the nineteenth century. After returning to Chicago, French and Hutchinson reported on the availability of these Dutch and Flemish works to the museum's trustees, generating interest for a potential purchase. The following year Hutchinson and his friend and fellow philanthropist Martin A. Ryerson attended the auction in Paris, where they made the museum's first major acquisitions, which included Jan Steen's "Family Concert" (1666) and "Young Woman at an Open Half Door" (1645) from the workshop of Rembrandt van Rijn.