The Nickersons’ Art Collection

Lindsey Howald Patton —  May 21, 2012 — Leave a comment

A painting from the Nickerson collection—William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s L’Orientele á la grenade—sold for $2.3 million in Sotheby’s 19th Century European Art auction earlier this month. (For more details, see our News item about the painting.)

This was only one stellar example of the many, many art objects and paintings the Nickersons—the family who commissioned the building housing the Driehaus Museum today—owned. While they lived in Chicago, Samuel and Mathilda Nickerson had one of the greatest art collections in the Midwest, a collection that ranged from artifacts picked up from their travels to India, China, and the Middle East to great modern paintings like that Bouguereau, or, on the American front, works by Church and Cole.

The collection, given to the Art Institute of Chicago in February of 1900, was the largest gift AIC had received since its founding in 1879. The works were promptly put on display in Rooms 41 and 42 on the second floor of that beautiful building we all still visit today.

The Art Institute of Chicago floor plan (2nd floor)

The floor plan of the Art Institute of Chicago, published along with The Nickerson Collection in February 1900. The areas where the Nickerson Collection was displayed are highlighted in red.

A catalogue was published by the Art Institute along with the Nickersons’ gift. The collection is, frankly, impressive (particularly, in my opinion, the hundred-odd Japanese swords). To give a rough idea, some of the items listed in the 147-page catalogue are:

  • 62 oil paintings;
  • 19 watercolors;
  • 25 etchings and engravings;
  • 56 Japanese prints and kakemonos;
  • over 200 pieces of carved jade (boxes, vases, cane handles, etc.);
  • some Indian jewelry;
  • 124 Chinese snuff bottles of onyx, pearl, ivory, turquoise, etc.;
  • a Japanese Buddhist shrine containing bronze and solid silver relics;
  • 188 objects bearing traditional Japanese lacquer;
  • nearly 200 pieces of Chinese and Japanese porcelain and pottery;
  • 40 pieces Chinese cloisonné enamel (incense burners, bottle-vases, plates);
  • nearly 50 Japanese and Chinese bronzes;
  • nearly 100 Japanese swords;
  • 27 Japanese pipes and pouches;
  • over 100 Japanese carvings in ivory and wood.

Although many works, like the Bouguereau painting, were deacquisitioned by the museum, the Art Institute still has Nickerson pieces in its collection. For example, there is the Head of Guanyin, a Chinese marble sculpture dated to the late sixth century and located in Gallery 101 (click here to view), or an intricate Indian hand ornament and thumb ring of gold, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, turquoise, and seed pearls (not currently on display).

To read The Nickerson Collection catalogue in full, click here.

Lindsey Howald Patton

Lindsey Howald Patton

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