The Art Institute’s Thorne Rooms Receive Some Holiday Cheer
By Noah Liedtke
The Art Institute of Chicago’s Thorne Rooms are a collection of miniature, hyper-realistic rooms modeled from real-life interiors across Europe, Asia, and the United States. The 68 rooms were thought of by Ms. James Ward Thorne, a Chicago artist who hired craftsmen to construct them according to her design in the 1930s. Most of the rooms capture moments between the 13th and 19th century, with a few from the early 1900s. All of them have countless details, transporting the viewer to the time and place where the type of room would have been typical. Viewers uncover more and more with every angle they look at it. An annual holiday tradition at the museum is decorating some of these rooms with holiday decorations and posting small informational snippets about what traditions are being depicted through the decorations. The decorations went up on Nov. 16, and remained up until Jan. 7.
12 rooms were decorated, and all were demarcated with a red bow on the wall near each of the rooms. One of the most notable rooms was the “English Drawing Room of the Victorian Period, 1840-70.” Inside the green and white paneled room, there was a fireplace, red sofa, multiple ornate chairs and paintings, and most importantly, a Christmas tree. To my surprise, this was the only room with a Christmas tree inside. The informational plaque next to the room said that most traditions we associate with Christmas today originated in England’s Victorian Era, because Queen Victoria was married to German Prince Albert, and adopted the tradition of Christmas trees. It became huge with the people of England and it helped incorporate the entire family in Christmas festivities because people let their kids help decorate the tree. “California Living Room, 1850-73” was a larger room with cream adobe walls, dark wood floors, and green open doors that lead into a front yard path laid with bricks. On one of the wood tables, there was a nativity scene, also known as a nacimiento. The plaque stated that this decoration helped celebrate Las Posadas in Mexican California, which occurs from Dec. 16 to Dec. 24, celebrating the biblical story of Mary and Joseph. The decorations of Los Posadas were also seen in “New Mexico Dining Room, C. 1940.” The room contained a fireplace, a carved wooden table, chairs, and bright woven rugs. Traditional foods, such as tamales and pine nut cakes, were set on the table, and colorful garlands decorated the walls.
Another notably decorated room was “California Hallway, C. 1940.” It was one of the only rooms that looked like something I had seen in real life, reminiscent of old Hollywood. The modern-looking room had white walls with high ceilings, tall windows with olive green curtains, red sofas, and wood coffee tables. There were also busts and square picture frames decorating the room. A menorah sat atop the coffee table, and blue and white gift boxes were on the floor. The plaque near the room gave some background information on Hanukkah, saying that the celebration was based on the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem following the Jewish victory over the Syrian Greeks in the 1st century B.C. It also talked about modern-day Hanukkah traditions, including dreidel.
Some of the rooms contained decorations that we see all the time today, but the plaques also explained traditions that are no longer celebrated. There was a wreath hanging on the door of “Virgina Enterance Hall, 1751-55,” a wood paneled room with a patterned rug and black chandelier. The plaque did not talk about the decoration itself, but a celebration that took place in Virginia at the time: Twelfth Night, or Epiphany. The festivities usually culminated in a ball, and gifts such as Christmas Boxes were given by the wealthy to their children and servants.
Although the exhibit recently closed, the Thorne Rooms were a unique art instillation. If you would like to see similar artworks yourself, the Art Institute is located at 111 S. Michigan Ave. The museum is open from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except for Thursday, when it is open until 8:00 p.m. Admission to the museum is free for Chicago residents who are under 18 with a valid ID, and a general admission ticket costs $20 for Chicago residents 18 and older.