On June 14, 2022, many Chicagoans and tourists walking past The Art Institute of Chicago witnessed something many of them have never seen. Chicago’s iconic Art Institute lions, weighing two tons each, were being removed from their “thrones,” picked up by cranes and headed down Interstate 290 to Conservation of Sculpture & Objects Studio, Inc. in Forest Park, Illinois. Having a light greenish color for years, due to wear and tear, the lions took a brief “vacation” from guarding the museum to get a much needed “bath.”
Having been outside for 128 years, this was their first “bath” in 21 years, previously taken down in 2001. The lion’s grooming process will include a steam cleaning and a fresh layer of wax coating. The museum says they’re “cleaner and greener than ever”!
The popularity of the lions often seen them dressed up to mark important Chicago moments. They wore Chicago Bears helmets after the 1985 Super Bowl win, Chicago Sky uniforms after the team’s 2021 WNBA championship, Chicago Cubs helmet during their run to win the World Series in 2016. And they actually wore masks after COVID-19 shut the city down. Walking past The Art Institute and not seeing the lions out front was a very unfamiliar site for many Chicagoans and tourists alike. But we all knew it would be brief and that they would be back in late July. People still visited The Art Institute to get photos of the museum without the lions, whether it looked strange or not.
The Art Institute lion sculptures were created in 1893 by German sculptor Edward Kemeys. But before that, Kemeys ended up in Chicago in 1885 where plans were being made to construct a permanent home for The Art Institute on Michigan Avenue in the heart of the city. But it would first serve as a site for events related to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, which was the first world’s fair held in Chicago.
The design called for two lions to stand upon the flanks of the great external entrance stairway of The Art Institute. In 1892, Bryan Lathrop, a trustee for the museum wrote to the president of the board and told him, “I have a very strong conviction that there is no other animal sculptor in this country at all to be compared with Edward Kemeys.”