In April 1932, the Art Institute of Chicago, under the auspices of the Antiquarian Society, showed some thirty-nine Impressionist and modern paintings, plus works on paper by American, British and French artists, belonging to the collection of Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn. The Antiquarians (the oldest support group for the museum, dating from 1877) were invited in to see her collection before the selections were brought to the museum. And her “home” was only a few blocks away on south Michigan Avenue in the Blackstone Hotel. She died just seven weeks after the opening, and in 1933 her bequest of paintings by Cezanne, Degas, and especially Monet and Renoir, became cornerstones of the Impressionist collections.
What makes Annie Swan Coburn so interesting to me is that she remains a relative outlier. In his introduction to the 1932 Coburn catalog, Art Institute Director Daniel Catton Rich seems to have not been able to find the words that would connect her to the museum, instead referring only to the enviable collection she was forming in Chicago with purchases made in New York: “More than once in a New York gallery the salesman has pointed out some particularly important work by Cézanne or Degas and remarked, ‘Mrs. Coburn has just bought that,’ and occasionally a fine van Gogh or a Manet has found its way into an exhibition labeled, ‘Lent from the Coburn Collection’.” But she is no less important for the way the collection has evolved.
Although eight of the nine-page introduction to the catalogue addresses specific works and their art historical significance, nowhere does he mention the eccentric and highly personal way she displayed her collection, plopping paintings on footstools and against windows or framing prints and drawings symmetrically as seen in the following photographs.
As the photographs show, the challenge was finding surfaces in which to place or hang so many two-dimensional objects. The photographs were probably professional and likely staged (note the piano throw moved to accommodate the painting). Some of these, which we are still trying to identify, served dual purposes, such as Degas’ Uncle and Niece which served as a fire screen (fig. 7, no. 9).
Yet Annie Swan Coburn’s story remains a curiosity. Described as quiet and withdrawn, she was also vain enough to lob off four years of her life. In the census of 1930, she put her birth year at 1860 rather than 1856 (listing herself as 70, not 74). The only child of Olivia and Albert Swan, who died when she was 4, she married a Harvard-educated and hugely successful lawyer and businessman twenty years her senior (Lewis Larned Coburn), who died in 1910, leaving her the home and furnishings at 1819 S. Michigan Avenue where she lived with her mother until the latter’s death (at 93) in 1920. Then she moved into the smaller quarters of the Blackstone Hotel, and went on an art buying spree which lasted until her death in 1932.
Her passion for art was first for the Americans, then for the French Impressionists beginning in 1921, when she bought her first painting by Monet, The Church at Varangeville, from Durand-Ruel’s gallery in New York, to her final purchases (Manet’s Woman Reading and Degas’ Millinery Shop, both now in the Art Institute’s collection) in 1932. As far as we know, she made no trips abroad after her husband’s death and her collecting was largely through the New York branch of Durand-Ruel and the dealer, Howard Young, both of whose galleries were in the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue. In one short decade, she had purchased over 35 Impressionist paintings. We know that she was modest about her collection and easy going, or at least that’s how Paul Sachs, former Director of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, remembers her, recalling a trip to her Chicago “apartment” where his enthusiastic response to her Degas paintings and pastels seems to have resulted in her bequest of ten French Impressionist works to his museum (along with Persian potteries and Tibetan rugs and a few American paintings), credited under her name rather than her husband’s—a decision that is all the more surprising given that it was Lewis who was the Harvard alum.
The opening for the 1932 exhibition was by all accounts a lavish event. Was Annie surprised at the sudden attention given by the Art Institute Director and the Antiquarian Society? In the photograph (first in this article) of her walking with two of the society’s members, does she look fondly or apprehensively away from the camera towards the first Impressionist painting she purchased? I wonder whether she’s gratified or fatigued by the fuss. Thankfully, the museum made the right overture, and the timing was impeccable. Annie was willing not only to lend her collection, but give it, and the paintings she bequeathed include many of our destination pieces.
My thanks to Kathryn Kremnitzer, Research Associate and collaborator for Monet and Chicago exhibition, for her invaluable help in identifying and mapping the artworks in Annie Swan Coburn’s collection.
Gloria Groom is chair of European Painting and Sculpture and the David and Mary Winton Green Curator at the Art Institute of Chicago.