The Land Owner, August, 1873
STRICKEN CHICAGO—THE GREAT PICTURE PRESENTED TO THE CITY BY THE LONDON GRAPHIC.
With its characteristic enterprise, THE LAND OWNER early obtained from London a photograph of the great allegorical painting presented to Chicago by the artists, editors and proprietors of our London contemporary The Graphic, in advance of all others. This photograph, Mr. Wallis has carefully transferred to wood, and our engravers have produced an admirable plate, showing as carefully as can be shown in black and white this brilliant work of art, now expected here daily. That is a matter of history that the city of Chicago was destroyed by the fire in the autumn of 1871. An appeal to the benevolence of the civilized world was responded to with which promptitude and generosity that within a few months of the calamity the authorities of Chicago announced that they needed no more money, the requirements of the suffering having been fully supplied. Among the most zealous promoters of the relief fund had been the gentlemen connected, whether as proprietors or as literary and artistic contributors, with The Graphic, who finding that pecuniary aid was no longer wanted, determined to present their offering “in the shape of a memorial picture allegorically representative at once of the great fire and of the great charity which it called forth on both sides of the Atlantic.” The carrying out of the design, was entrusted to Mr. Armitage, R. A., who has produced a work of eminent merit, combining grace and originally of conception with truthfulness and brilliancy of execution. The composition is simple but effective. On the right of the spectator is Chicago canopied with lurid flames and eddying clouds of smoke; on the left is a pine forest backed with mountains rugged and massive—a landscape aptly emblematic of the scenery of the Western States. Midway in the foreground is a group of three allegorical female figures, flanked on the one side by the American eagle, on the other by the British lion, looking for more august than Trafalgar Square. The stricken city is symbolized by the partially nude form of a beautiful girl, who, solely wounded, lies upon the ground in a half recumbent posture, the upper part of the body reclining against the knee of a sedent figure typical of America. Over the sufferer, tenderly stanching her wounds, bends Britannia, wearing a superb robe of crimson and gold, and around he brows a garland of oak leaves.
The figure of “Chicago,” though not, perhaps, so soft and lustrous in the “fleshing” as it might be, is lovely in expression and magnificent in drawing. The objection that the stature is above ordinary height may be met with the rejoinder that the law of human stature does not necessarily apply to allegorical personages. Great skill is shown in the arrangement of the white drapery thrown over the lower limbs in thin and graceful folds, suggesting the exquisite symmetry of the form beneath. Columbia, it must be confessed, is a woman of the strong-minded type, who though she wreathes her arm good-naturedly around the shoulder of her Britannic sister, looks as though she meant to have every cent of that Alabama claims. More elegant in pose, and far gentler and more womanly in character, is Britannia, alike rich in beauty and benignity; but the shadow upon the upper part of the face wants delicacy. It is dense and so sharply cut as to look less like a shadow than a veil. It would also have been an improvement to this painting to have thrown the city into more remote perspective. Rich and varied as are the colors in this picture, which is of large size, measuring fifteen feet by nine, the tone is exceedingly harmonious, and the general execution both spirited and accurate. It is a fine work, and will doubtless have a grand effect when displayed in our new City Hall.
The Armitage Picture, presented to the City by The London Graphic.
Drawn by R. W. Wallis from an advanced Photograph, furnished exclusively to The Land Owner.
From Original Painting at the Rooms of the Chicago Historical Society by Edward Armitage
Also used as Frontispiece in History of Chicago, Volume Two by A. At. Andreas, 1884.
Note the absence of the burning city on the right.
The Original Painting
Chicago Tribune, August 10, 1873
THE ARMITAGE PICTURE.
The Armitage picture, presented to the of City of Chicago by the managers of the London Graphic, commemorative of the Fire and the lavish assistance sent from England to the sufferers, has arrived in the city, and is now on exhibitIon at the Art Gallery, corner of Michigan avenue and Van Buren street. As a graceful suggestion of English sympathy and good wishes, and as a souvenir of that time when Chicago was the world’s pensioner, this picture is invested with an historical interest, and the manner of its treatment and the large scope of its design show that the artist intended to make his work of a historical character, and has painted it to the future rather than for the more purposes of exhibition, or to gratify the curiosity of an art-gallery lounger or connoisseur. Whatever may be its character, therefore, the friendly spirit which suggested the gift, and the associations which cluster about it, demand that Its final location shall be one of justice to the picture, of convenience to the public, and of certainty as to its preservation. The sublime story is told on the canvas will never grow old while the picture remains to bear its witness of generous English hearts. It a place of honor and prominence, where the story may be read for all the to come.
It is always an ungraceful act to look “a gift-horse in the month,” but in this instance a decision upon the artistic merits of the picture cannot affect the graceful of the presentation, or the good feeling by the artist proprietors of the Graphic. To most. people, and especially to connoisseurs, the picture, in an artistic sense, will prove a disappointment. In its design, the artist has shown appreciation of a lofty ideal; in the execution of that design, however, has not been so fortunate. The story is well told. The partially nude figure reclining in the foreground, supported by two other figures, respectively, Columbia aud Brilannia, is the prostrate Chicago. She rests her head upon Columbia, and the left arm is thrown over Columbia’s knee, in a very painful position, bringing the shoulder out in a short, angular manner. Colulubia holds in her hand a cup which Chicago haas just drained, and Britannia bends over her, as if watching to see her revive. At the left of Columbia, the Eagle sits bolt up-right, and looking away as if not at all interested in the scene, and, on the right of Britannia, the Lion is couched, looking into the distance with a very stern and strong glare. At the extreme right of the picture, the, city is burning, its smoke obscuring about one-half of the sky, and at the extreme left is a pine forest. A hastily sketched foreground, relieved here and there with clumps of pinks and cacti, completes the picture. The original conception of the artist was somewhat different, as is shown by the photograph which was sent here for inspection some months ago. As first painted, the figure of Chicago was entirely nude. The slight drapery which now covers her was added at the suggestion of some of the fine-art connoisseurs of the Common Council, whose modesty was shocked, and the result is that the drapery is now much more suggestive than anything about the original figure. It is evident that the painter has had some difficulty in arranging it, having first painted the figure without reference to it, and the purpose for which the drapery has been added strikes the eye at once. In the first sketch, also, the figure of Columbia was proffering the cup to Chicago, and the Eagle was watching the operation as if quite interested in it. The expressions and draperies of Britannia and Columbia wers also materially different. The foreground was entirely unrelieved, and the left of the picture was filled with shipping, representing English commerce, instead of the pine forest which really the present work. Considered as a whole, the first sketch was better than the second, not that the story was told any more graphically, but the treatment was more careful. As often happens, the first thought was the best one.
The interest of the picture centres in the three figures, aud first of all in Chicago. The criticism of this figure might be summed up in the remark that Chicago is a better-looking woman than the artist has painted. There is good color on the flesh, but the figure is masculine in its effect. The beautiful sweep of one of the arms is lost by the painfully hard manner in which it hangs, forcing the shoulder almost up to the ear. The lines of the body are not the beautifully-rounded curves we expect to see in an ideal female figure. The muscles are flat and the hips and limbs compact and strong, rather than rounded and pliant. Only one of the feet is visible, and this partly, but it is so broadly out of drawing as to be painful. Estimating the length of the foot from its width, It would be half the length of the limb itself. The figure of Columbia is better drawn, but if the United States had had no more concern for the fate of Chicago than its representative in this picture, hard would have been the fate of poor Chicago. The face is a cold, hard, expressionless one—the face of a Medea. Columbia apparently bas no more interest in the prostrate, collapsed figure before her than the stupid fowl at her side. The draperies do not help the figure much. They are of three low colors, which do not harmonize well, and their effect is killed by the flaming brick color of Britannia’s robe near by. The use of the American flag as a sort of neck-tie for Columbia is a present sop thrown to American patriotism, or it may be a quiet bit of satire; but it reminds one altogether too forcibly of the country girl who rides in political chariots, arrayed in the red, white, and blue, to save the country at Predidential elections. The figure of Britannia has a and is in a graceful attitude, but has none of that whih should Country. The right upper arm, in its drapery indeed, is as broad as her chest. The figure however, would be an effective one were it not for the flaming color of the robe to which we have alluded, which is made all the more pronounced by the English coat-of-arms very prominently painted on the breast, reminding the spectator forcibly of the same rampant lion and unicorn which figure so extensively upon spools of thread and jars of pickles. Neither this device nor the American-flagged neck-tie of Columbia was needed. They are national advertisements, which may gratify cheap patriotism, but their use is in no sense artistic, and they detract from the dignity of the figures. The Lion and the Eagle define the individuality of the figures with sufficient clearness. A flowing over-robe of a curious fabric, resembling the masquerade costume of the of Night, sweeps over the ground with some very angular breaks in it, which might be made by an old-fashioned silk, of that class which stands alone, but could not any circumstances happen to dress goods such as Mrs. Britannia is now wearing. The Lion is the best piece of painting in the picture. He is well-drawn, the attitude is life-like, and face face full of sternness and courage. He is, in fact, a much better-looking animal than his colleague, the Eagle, who looks as if he had been taken from a taxidermist’s window to sit for this special occasion. Ono might naturally expect even an eagle, especially the typical eagle who does so much shrieking for Freedom and other things, to have some interest in the scene going on round him; but he sits there an stiff and rigid as Poe’s raven croaking its “Nevermore.” If we have this fault to find with the Engle, what shall be said of Columbia, staring right on with an immovable expression as fixed an that of the Sphynx? But little more remains to be said, as the other accessories are very simple. The fire itself occupies but a small space on the canvas, and is indicated by a few bold touches. The general tone of the picture, especially in the foreground and sky, is low and cold, and against this neutrality the pronounced tints of the draperies make a contrast which is very marked, so marked that the harmony of the picture is marred by those great spots of color.
We have looked at the picture from an artistic point of view. Its merits or demerits in this respect do not concern the givers or the spirit which prompted them to give it. Its value does not lie in its color, or its drawing, or its treatment, but rather in the sympathy which inspired its production, and it will always be treasured for the sake of this sympathy, and it will always help to strengthen the bonds of good-feeling, especially between Chicago and London. In this respect alons its value is priceless, and the city should leave nothing undone which will guarantee its preservation.
Chicago Tribune, November 15, 1954
After the painting was gifted to the city, it was housed in the collection of the Chicago Historical Society until it was destroyed by fire in November, 1954.