Making Human Connections Through Art at Chicago History Museum

Families can discover unique firsthand accounts of the Great Chicago Fire at the museum’s City on Fire: Chicago 1871 exhibition and take home deeper understanding.

Although there are no photographs of the Great Chicago Fire known to exist, many artists recorded their memories of it so vividly that today, more than 150 years later, we can understand this important event through their work.

On display at the Chicago History Museum’s City on Fire: Chicago 1871 exhibit are paintings, sketches, lithographs and prints that depict firsthand accounts of this historic event. Just as today’s images captured from news events help make human connections while promoting understanding and learning, so did those early accounts.

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 were changed by the Great Chicago Fire. They provide a powerful, meaningful takeaway for families who visit the exhibit that will stick around for kids long after they leave the museum.

“It wasn’t just buildings and statistics that you hear about in the fire,” she says. “Real people were impacted.”

Moisan shares a few pieces not to miss during your next family visit to Chicago History Museum.

Memories of the Chicago Fire in 1871 by Julia Lemos

Moisan specifically calls out a painting, Memories of the Chicago Fire in 1871 by Julia Lemos, who survived the fire. The painting shows Lemos’ experience fleeing the fire and her handwritten manuscript – which also can be found in the exhibit – provides context to the painting.

“If you look closely at the details, you can see the wooden boards of an old fence that her father made to protect her kids when they had gotten far enough away and got the chance to rest for a bit,” says Moisan. “You can also see a church steeple catch on fire in the background, and the sky clouding up and going dark.”

Moisan notes that while this painting provides small details, it also shows the fire much larger than people, giving viewers a sense of how fast it was growing and spreading.

“Her emotions of what she went through are really evident by the way she depicted the event from her memories,” Moisan says. “There are so many touchstones to her memories and experiences in that one painting.”

Trying to Save a Wagonload of Goods by Alfred R. Waud

Drawing by Alfred Rudolph Waud of a person with a horse-drawn wagon attempting to flee the city during the Chicago Fire of 1871. Title: “”Trying to save a wagonload of goods.”” Pencil, chalk, and paint drawing.

Civil War illustrator Alfred R. Waud was in St. Louis when the fire began and caught a train to Chicago as soon as he could. Waud drew some of the best in-the-moment sketches of the Great Chicago Fire and its aftermath.

Trying to Save a Wagonload of Goods depicts a team of horses struggling past burning houses as their tails and manes whip in the air.

“Waud’s sketches really depict the emotion of the moment and action of what he was seeing happening around him in the middle of the fire,” Moisan says.

Other important artworks of note in the exhibit include: 

Chicago in Flames Lithograph by Currier and Ives

This lithograph print presents a panoramic nighttime view of Chicago buildings ablaze with towering flames while crowds were trying to escape by running through the overcrowded downtown bridges before they burnt down.

Handmade sign

Drawing by Alfred Rudolph Waud of the Chicago Fire of 1871

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 fire ended. This gesture became an iconic symbol of the resilience and determination of Chicagoans to rebuild following the fire.

Before and after photographs of the Palmer House Hotel by P.B. 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 account of history, they also aided the artists in coping with this event. Joshua Davis-Ruperto, executive director of the Illinois Arts Council Agency, says that creating art allows artists to process trauma.

“Creating art is proven to aid in the reduction of depression and anxiety,” he says. “Feelings of isolation and loneliness that swept through the nation can be combated through the shared experiences the arts offer.”

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 at home, parents can use the exhibit to inspire their own kids, who might have encountered such feelings due to the pandemic, to create their own art sharing their stories and healing.

For more information on the Great Chicago Fire, visit chicagohistory.org.

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