Robert Allerton and Frederic Clay Bartlett, both born in 1873, lived on Chicago’s Prairie Avenue. Robert was mostly homeschooled with tutors, but the boys played with the neighborhood children, most of whom were also children of industrialists. The two would remain life-long friends until Frederic’s death in 1953.
This friendship matured when the twenty year old boys embarked upon the romantic quest to pursue Art and aesthetic ideals after being inspired by the German pavilion at the 1893 Chicago Columbia World Exposition. Frederic would remain abroad until 1900. Robert returned earlier with his aspiration to become an artist dashed and burned along with all of his canvases.
Frederic Bartlett’s memoir Sortofa Kindofa Journal: Of my own penned in 1932 recounted Frederic’s decision to follow the path of becoming an artist. This small volume, published by the family in 1965, and written mostly in first person with an inclusive “we,” frequently leaves the reader to question the antecedent of this inclusive “we.” The informed reader concludes this “we” in the early chapters to include Frederic and friend, Robert Allerton.
After Frederic’s return to Chicago in 1900, he entered into a successful and productive stretch of his artistic career. Frederic and wife, Dora, built a very grand home they called Dorfred House in Frederic’s Prairie Avenue neighborhood. Frederic decorated Dorfred House with murals and highly stylized, painted, trompe l’oiel architectural details. Bartlett also received a number of commissions to produce murals for wall and ceiling decorations in public and private spaces. Some of these murals remain today. Most notably are the murals painted for the 2nd Presbyterian Church. Frederic received positive reviews and a fair amount of press for these murals.
Frederic Bartlett’s greatest contribution to the AIC was the donation of the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection. Frederic married Helen Birch, in 1919, two years after the death of his first wife, Dora. Frederic and Helen began a personal art collection that became the cornerstone of the Chicago Impressionist Wing a few years later in 1926 after Helen’s untimely early death. The large Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte is the flagship piece of the Impressionist collection.
Robert Allerton and Frederic Bartlett left in February 1926 on an art buying quest to Europe to add pieces to the Helen Birch Bartlett collection. Henri Rousseau’s Cascade, painted in 1910, was purchased in March, 1926. It is now exhibited in the European Modern Art collection, 1900-1950 in the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.
According to John Gregg, Robert suggested to Frederic to paint a Rousseau-like mural in the Music Room as a way to help Frederic in his grief after Helen’s death. The Allerton archives document the Bartlett mural in photograph.
The Rousseau inspired, jungle themed Music Room was described in print.
Chicago Tribune, May 29, 1927:
The latest contribution to the beauty of the mansion is the set of mural decorations, the work of Frederic Clay Bartlett, in the great salon, spacious room 30 feet from floor to ceiling and so well-proportioned that one does not realize the unusual height. A fifteen foot wainscoting of paneled wood, painted a soft mandarin pink, leads the eye up to these remarkable frescoes. They are striking, almost startling, in their bold coloring and design. .. Analyzed, the frescoes reveal the glossy, rich foliage of the tropics, in which meander, or pose, a meditative white elephant, a stealthy lioness, an inquiring rhinoceros, a guileless giraffe, a casual zebra, a squirming crocodile, and very heraldic pair of lions, sitting each atop one of the two tall windows that look out on a foliage… and distant woods. The whole effect is rich, rare and most effective.
Decatur Herald, Tuesday, October 1, 1929:
… two sights stand out. One was a high ceilinged room with glorious jungle scenes painted around the upper walls… The painted room is comparatively new, we were told. It shows a fair-haired child standing in the midst of the wildest jungle scenes, with snarling lions and tigers, an almost unbelievably white elephant, an enormous tall giraffe eating bananas from the top of a tree, and so on. Alongside the child is a crocodile with wide open mouth, into which the youngster is nonchalantly dropping a ripe pear.
John Gregg recounted the need to de-personalize the house after a time. When the Music Room was made into the present Library, John recalled in a 1971 interview that the Bartlett canvases were removed, rolled and stored behind the new bookcases. In this interview John Gregg suggested to the resident House manager at the time to unroll a canvas and evaluate its condition. They briefly contemplated the proper way for conservation purposes to unroll the canvas. These rolled Bartlett canvas murals do not seem to have been conserved. While the Bartlett murals would be of some value today, their value as Allerton artifacts might present their greatest value. Some ability to display any salvaged part of the Bartlett murals, either at the House or at the University’s Krannert Art Museum, would complete this Allerton-Bartlett story and provide historical art documentation.
The transcripted interview confirms the existence of these Bartlett murals, or pieces of the Bartlett murals in 1971. Where are the canvases now? What happened to them?
What documentation exists that brings evidence to the chain of custody for the Bartlett canvases? More documentation of the Bartlett murals in University records and meeting notes might clarify this matter.
If these canvases still exist and if portions are of exhibit quality, they should be displayed in some way at Allerton. An anonymous return of the rolled canvases for archival conservation by the Art Institute of Chicago or Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois might eventually bring these Allerton treasures back home. If the canvases grew legs and walked off as was suggested by the Allerton docent on a December, 2013, House tour, the same two legs can carry them back.