Washington, National Portrait Gallery Deputy Director and Chief Curator Emerita
In 1886, shortly after Potter and Bertha had completed their forty-two-room mansion on Chicago’s North side, they began a ninety-foot addition, which was to serve as both a ball room and an art gallery. The goal of this wealthy couple was to assemble an art collection that would equal or surpass those being formed locally and nationally. The Palmers were not new to collecting art, but Bertha Palmer, must have realized that the works that she and her husband possessed were inadequate in quantity and quality for the space soon to be available to them. Accustomed to only the best, she sought the advice of Philadelphia–born Sara Tyson Hallowell, who had made her reputation in Chicago in the early 1880s, as curator of the critically well-received art exhibitions at the Inter-State Industrial Expositions. Palmer admired Hallowell’s eye for art and she trusted her. They were women of the same class, separated only by wealth. Beginning in 1887, Hallowell advised the Palmers as they developed their collection of mostly modern American and European art. Two years later, when the trio was together in Paris, she encouraged the Palmers to purchase a pastel by Degas and a painting by Renoir. But not until 1891 did Impressionism became a focus of their collecting activity. That year they added, among other works, twenty paintings by Monet. Throughout 1892 and early 1893, the Palmers, with the unflagging help of Hallowell, acquired additional paintings by Monet, as well as multiple canvasses by Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley, as the sought to finalize their collection by the time visitors arrived in Chicago for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition With the great fair behind them and a ballroom full of art, the Palmers, who were the first to collect Impressionism in the Midwest, bought sparingly during the rest of the decade. The purchase of Monet’s Guibel Rock, Port-Domois in 1903 marked the conclusion of a formidable commitment to the art of the Impressionists.