After taking a vacation in Rome for a few months, Claude Monet's "Pommiers en fleurs" ("Apple Trees in Blossom") was welcomed back to its longtime home at the Union League Club in late July. A relatively small group of people, perhaps some 125 of them, applauded when the painting was placed — safe and sound and stunning — back on the wall at the venerable downtown club.
We are not members of the Union League Club. But we have been there enough times — as guests of members and to attend some public events — to have a great appreciation for the club's style and its amazing art collection.
There are more than 750 pieces, mostly American, accumulated with care and taste for more than a century, and lovingly displayed. (The public can take tours at 10 a.m. on the first Friday of every month).
There are some pieces that I make a point to see every time I am invited to the club, and I always see the Monet, tucked inconspicuously in an alcove on the second floor.
The most prized work in the collection, it was painted by Monet in 1872, when the artist was 32 years old and the club was still seven years away from being founded.
The painting came to Chicago in 1895 for an exhibition at the Art Institute. Its value was assessed at $1,500 and it was promptly snapped up by club member Judge John Barton Payne.
He, along with Charles Hutchinson, Martin Ryerson and William M.R. French, built the foundation of the club's art collection. (Please do some digging and read about these men for all are fascinating and important Chicago characters).
Payne sold the Monet to the club for $500, and if you think that should have been greeted with cheers, here's the reaction of then-President John H. Hamline: "Who would pay $500 for that blob of paint?"
In 1957, when the club's board authorized a study to exchange the Monet for other works of art, it was valued at $20,000. In 1985, the painting was appraised for $900,000. Today it is deemed "priceless."
As a result, there was considerable debate about whether the painting should be allowed to fly to Rome to be part of a four-month exhibition. Fears were allayed and the trip planned.
But first, the painting had to be taken from its frame (that's when Osgood shot the photo) and several layers of varnish removed and some retouching done by painting conservator Elizabeth Wigfield. A new frame and glass were installed by frame conservator Kirk Vuillemot.
"It was daunting working on this masterpiece but also so thrilling," says Wigfield.
Curator Elizabeth Whiting accompanied the painting to Rome. "It was such a remarkable opportunity to share this great painting," she says.
These two women are young and likely have many interesting art-related adventures ahead of them, but there is no denying their sincerity when they say, almost in unison, that their experience with Monet has been "the highlight of our careers."
Wigfield and Whiting will be talking about the painting and the club's art collection at 8 a.m. Nov. 7 on "The Sunday Papers with Rick Kogan" on WGN-720AM.