Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition and Agrarianism (Part 1 of 2)

Artistic Tradition and Innovation

Ideas began circulating in cities across the United States in the late 1880s about prospects to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America and to showcase the country’s economic progress in 1893. New York, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Chicago, and other cities vied for the honor which was awarded by Congress to Chicago, the Midwest trading crossroads long associated with agriculture. A colossal granite statue of Ceres twelve feet tall bearing a wheat sheaf and cornucopia, flanked by a similar sixteen-ton figure representing Industry, stood atop the entry the recently constructed Chicago Board of Trade Building in tribute to the sources of nineteenth century regional prosperity. (Thought to have been lost when the building was demolished in 1929, both sculptures were found in a woodland preserve west of the city in 1978 and returned to their original site in 2005).

Left:  Agriculture—Ceres  (1885); Chicago Board of Trade Building

Left: Agriculture—Ceres (1885); Chicago Board of Trade Building

Right: Louis St. Gaudens,  Ceres  (c. 1914), Union Station, Washington, D. C.

Right: Louis St. Gaudens, Ceres (c. 1914), Union Station, Washington, D. C.

The substantially unimproved Jackson Park area of some 600 acres southeast of the city center along Lake Michigan was selected as the site for the grand fair. Following two years of ambitious planning and building, the World’s Columbian Exposition hosted an opening day crowd on May 1, 1893 estimated to be between 300,000 and a half-million. Among other attractions, visitors would be treated for the first time to Quaker Oats, Shredded Wheat, Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix, and other consumer products that premiered at the event. President Cleveland presided at the ceremony which was attended by Alexander Graham Bell, Susan B. Anthony, William Jennings Bryan, and other notable national leaders and foreign dignitaries.

Some 400 buildings were erected in the “White City” of shimmering if ephemeral staff-stucco and limestone which were arranged around an impeccably landscaped lagoon with statues and fountains that resembled a bustling Mediterranean seaport. Director of Decoration and American artist-sculptor Francis Davis Millet (1848-1912) suggested use of white for the exposition’s most prominent building exteriors, and also contributed murals to the Fine Arts Building and other structures. Many of Millet’s works were influenced by his extensive European travels and based on classical themes. His mural Thesmophoria depicted the ancient Greek festival that honored Demeter by celebrating the abundance of grain and fertility of the earth.

Francis Davis Millet,  Thesophoria  (1894-1897), Wikimedia Commons

Francis Davis Millet, Thesophoria (1894-1897), Wikimedia Commons

Featuring a grand Corinthian arcade nearly one-third mile along Lake Michigan, the grandiose Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building was the largest structure to have ever been built to that time, and provided forty-four acres of exhibit space. Among the exposition’s most impressive Neoclassical buildings were the three grand pavilions of the Palace of Fine Arts along the east shoreline which exhibited some 2500 works of art from sixteen nations on 200,000 square feet of wall space. The international organizing committee’s decision that countries could only send works by living artists raised serious concern from U. S. representatives who made specific mention of strong public interest in the rustic art of Jean-François Millet and Jules Breton, John Constable and John Linnell, and other European painters. Allowance was made, therefore, for American galleries and private collectors to loan over 100 additional masterpieces.

The Art Palace also served as the meeting place for the American Historical Association’s annual conference in July where historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932) delivered his seminal lecture, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” declaring that while the nation’s frontier experience had essentially come to a close, "The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward” explained the country’s development and, to a great extent, its identity. The same might be said of popular artistic and literary themes of the period. The Exposition’s ambitious World Congress Auxiliary convened scholars from around the globe at new The Art Institute of Chicago building to exchange ideas on a wide array of topics affecting societies at the close of the century.

Midwest author Hamlin Garland presented a paper on “Local Color in Fiction” at a modern literature panel and reinforced an emerging critical appreciation for stories like his about rural America. Adjacent to the Fine Arts Palace, an expansive outdoor performance area featured such stellar guest maestros as Antonín Dvořák, who had composed his famed New World Symphony in honor of the Columbian anniversary, and Russian folk chorale conductor Eugenie Lineff. Peculiar circumstances had led the renowned Czech composer and his family to summertime residence in tiny Spillville, Iowa, where he noted “endless acres of field and meadow” that inspired further symphonic works that year.


Technology Meets Aesthetics

On the opposite, southwestern side of the lagoon from the Columbian Exposition’s Fine Arts Pavilion rose the magnificent Agricultural Building and adjacent Machinery Hall (Implement Annex). These imposing structures housed what an August, 1893 issue of Farm Implement News lauded as “the latest and most improved machinery finished and decorated like objects of art and placed like jewels in the most attractive settings.” Displays festooned with colorful flags, bunting, and posters featured John Deere & Company’s celebrated “Columbian Peace Plow”—with moldboard and share cast from old weaponry to render swords literally beaten into plowshares, the “Largest Wagon in the World” from the Moline (Illinois) Wagon Company, and most elaborate of all, the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company’s centerpiece exhibit. It featured reapers and objects chronicling the company’s famed founder’s rise from Virginia farmer-inventor to head of the world’s largest manufacturer of harvesting equipment.

World’s Columbian Exposition Fine Arts Palace,    The World’s Columbian Exposition Illustrated    (Chicago: James B. Campbell, 1893)

World’s Columbian Exposition Fine Arts Palace, The World’s Columbian Exposition Illustrated (Chicago: James B. Campbell, 1893)

Approximately twenty-seven million visitors attended during the six-month quadricentennial celebration. Palace of Fine Arts and Agricultural Building exhibits brought into rare proximate focus growing contrasts in perspectives on American cultural life and progress. McCormick’s gospel of reaper plenty furthered ambitions of the company’s evangelistic salesmen who throughout the decade of the ‘90s expanded to a vast network of offices throughout North America and formed a worldwide force of affiliates in Europe and Russia, South Asia, and Latin America that sought to convert the sickle and scything masses to the new mechanized order. Journalist Herbert Casson (1869-1951) wrote admiringly of the changes wrought by recent improvements in agricultural mechanization by McCormick and others, and suggested new emphasis on commercial incentives for manufacturers and growers alike: “Farming for a business, not for a living—this is the motif of the New Farmer. He is a commercialist—a man of the twentieth century. He works as hard as the Old Farmer did, but in a higher way. He uses the four M’s—Mind, Money, Machinery, and Muscle; but as little of the latter as possible.”

Stunning assemblies of paintings, etchings, and sculpture greeted visitors to the Arts Palace where throngs waited patiently in long lines for admission to two main entry courts and a central rotunda that contained works by artists from the United States and Canada, Germany, Russia, and Spain. Prominent American representations on agrarian themes included Harvesting on the Meadow by Alice Barber Stephens, Guy Rose’s stoic End of Day, Tonalists Edwin Evans’ Grain Fields, and Bruce Crane’s The Harvest Field. (The latter was on loan to the exposition from Andrew Carnegie.) The American Tonalist style of the 1880 and ‘90s generally featured landscapes characterized by neutral atmospheric gray, blue, and brown hues. Such “tones” were evident in agrarian scenes by the Barbizon masters who had been using dark colors to emphasize shadow and mood.

Bruce Crane (1857-1937) and Edwin Evans (1860-1946) both studied in France where Evans, a native of Lehi, Utah, had been a founding member of the Latter-Day Saints French Art Mission with Lorus Pratt, John Hafen, and John Fairbanks. In the spirit of John Hafen’s observation that talent is “a duty we owe our Creator,” the group studied at the Académie Julian in Paris, a popular studio school for foreigners, to develop their mural painting skills for church structures. They took regular trips to the French countryside where Evans painted Grain Fields in 1890, which was awarded honorable mention three years later in Chicago.

German artists Rudolf Lehmann (1819-1905) and Ernst Henseler (1852-1940) were among the few artists with two paintings selected for display at the Chicago fair. A native of East Brandenburg (in present Lubuskie, Poland), Henseler was known for realistic depictions of country life based on summer visits to his Prussian homeland and by 1893 had taught for a dozen years at Berlin’s prestigious Museum of Decorative Arts. One of the most significant German works exhibited was The Roller Mill (1875) by Adolph von Menzel (1815-1905). Although Menzel’s painting shows a factory interior rather than a rural landscape, his freer style and deep colors capture the figures’ intense motion, and the painting is a landmark in the emergence of a European Realism that would profoundly influence a new generation of artists including Ilya Repin and Edgar Degas.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir,  The Harvesters  (1873),   Wikimedia Commons

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Harvesters (1873), Wikimedia Commons

A sense of fulfillment in labor is also expressed other agrarian paintings from Europe on display at the World’s Columbian Exposition like George Mason’s serene Harvest Moon, Pierre-Emmanuel Damoye’s Breton Wheat Field, and Jules Jacques Veyrassat’s cheery Last Load of Wheat. Landscapes by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, and Claude Monet gave many Americans their first exposure to Impressionism. The three French artists had been principal organizers of the inaugural Impressionist exhibition just ten years earlier in Paris where Renoir had presented Harvesters (1873). The painting is remarkable not for the hedonistic colors and softly blurred forms commonly associated with Impressionism, but for the peculiar arrangement of the subject matter. Rather than placed near the middle of the canvas, three field workers are to the right of a central pathway that divides the grainfield from a vegetable patch. Two black-clad women stroll down the trail seemingly indifferent to their surroundings. Old emotions once inspired by such agrarian themes are now directed to new appreciation of light and shape. Yet Renoir, who more commonly painted cityscapes and voluptuous females, also famously decried used of the metric system for its replacement of human measures like the foot and league with arbitrary standards. Yet the promise of industry so prominently displayed at the Columbian Exposition also stirred suspicions elsewhere abroad in John Ruskin and William Morris. This would contribute an important stream to the development of Modernism. 

To view part 2 of this blog series, click here.