Making Human Connections Through Art at the Chicago History Museum
Although no photographs of the Great Chicago Fire exist, many artists recorded their memories so vividly that today, more than 150 years later, we can understand this momentous event through their work.
On display at the Chicago History Museum City on Fire: Chicago 1871 exhibit are paintings, sketches, lithographs and prints that depict first-hand accounts of this historic event. Just as today’s images captured from current events help build human connections while promoting understanding and learning, these early stories did the same.
Heidi Moisan, school programs manager at the Chicago History Museum, says the static art throughout the exhibit brings the exhibit to life in a more visual way, reinforcing how people have been changed by the great Chicago fire. They provide families visiting the exhibit with powerful and meaningful takeaways that will stay with the kids long after they leave the museum.
“It’s not just buildings and stats you hear about in the fire,” she says. “Real people have been affected.”
Moisan shares some must-see pieces on your next family visit to the Chicago History Museum.
Memories of the Chicago Fire of 1871 by Julia Lemos
Moisan precisely calls a painting, Memories of the Chicago Fire of 1871 by Julia Lemos, who survived the fire. The painting shows Lemos’ experience fleeing the fire and his handwritten manuscript – which can also be found in the exhibition – provides context for the painting.
“If you look closely at the details, you can see the wooden planks of an old fence that his father made to protect his children when they got far enough away and had a chance to rest a bit,” says Moisan. . “You can also see a church steeple catching fire in the background, and the sky darkening and darkening.”
Moisan notes that while this painting provides small details, it also shows the fire much larger than the people, giving viewers an idea of how quickly it was growing and spreading.
“Her emotions from what she went through are really evident by the way she described the event from her memories,” Moisan says. “There are so many touchstones in his memories and experiences in this painting.”
Trying to save a freight car by Alfred R. Waud
Civil War illustrator Alfred R. Waud was in St. Louis when the fire broke out and took a train to Chicago as soon as he could. Waud drew some of the best sketches of the time of the Great Chicago Fire and its aftermath.
Trying to save a freight car depicts a team of horses struggling past burning houses as their tails and manes whip through the air.
“Waud’s sketches really depict the emotion of the moment and the action of what he saw happening around him in the middle of the fire,” says Moisan.
Other important works of art of note in the exhibition include:
Chicago in Flames Lithograph by Currier and Ives
This lithograph features a panoramic nighttime view of Chicago buildings ablaze with towering flames as crowds tried to escape by crossing crowded downtown bridges before they burned.
William Kerfoot was a prominent Chicago businessman at the time of the fire. He posted a handmade sign on a temporary wooden building the day after the blaze ended. The gesture has become an iconic symbol of Chicagoans’ resilience and determination to rebuild after the fire.
Before and after photographs of the Palmer House Hotel by PB Greene
Plus, don’t miss the before and after paintings of St. Paul’s Universalist Church by Daniel Folger Bigelow.
Healing for artists
While these artworks serve as an important retelling of history, they also helped artists deal with this event. Joshua Davis-Ruperto, executive director of the Illinois Arts Council Agency, says creating art enables artists to process trauma.
“Creating art has been proven to help reduce depression and anxiety,” he says. “The feelings of isolation and loneliness that have swept the nation can be combated through the shared experiences the arts provide.”
The City on Fire exhibit includes two new paintings by contemporary local artists, examples of how the past can be used to process feelings in the present, Moison says.
Once back home, parents can use the exhibit to inspire their own children, who may have had such feelings due to the pandemic, to create their own art by sharing their stories and healing.
For more information on the Great Chicago Fire, visit chicagohistory.org.