Art Institute of Chicago & The Thorne Miniature Rooms Gallery

The Art Institute of Chicago is a world-renowned art museum and a “must see” in the Chicago visitor’s guide, so naturally when we visited Chicago we had to check it out.  Like any renowned art museum this one in Chicago is extensive and huge. One can easily spend a few days exploring this giant museum.


The permanent collection

Just their permanent collections range in the thousands of paintings and artifacts from all over the world. This multi-level building that houses fifteen permanent exhibits at the Art Institute is impressive. The shear scale of what is available for viewing for art lovers is amazing. Among the permanent exhibits at the museum include

  • American art
  • Ancient and Byzantine
  • Architecture and Design
  • Arms, Armor, Medieval, and Renaissance
  • Art of the Americas
  • Asian – with art from China and Japan
  • Contemporary
  • European Decorative Arts
  • European Painting and Sculpture
  • Modern
  • Photography
  • Prints and Drawings
  • Textiles
  • Thorne Miniature Rooms

As you can imagine there were way too many exhibitions for us to cover in just a few hours – and this didn’t even include the temporary and visiting exhibitions on display such as the paper weight exhibition.  

So we narrowed our tour to a few galleries, impressionist and European paintings, Art of the Americas, Asian, African artifacts, and our big surprise – the Thorne Miniature Rooms Gallery!

By far it’s the miniature rooms gallery that made this museum unique and like no other art museum in the world.


Here is a look at what we explored at the outstanding Art Institute of Chicago.

Art Institute of Chicago. A grand multi-storey building.


Our first stop, the Asian Gallery. Japanese woodblock prints.

Being a flower and nature lover I absolutely loved, loved the collection of woodblock prints in this gallery 🌷🌹🌸🌺.  Most of these beautiful wood block prints showed the sophisticated and elegant love of nature in the Japanese culture.🌳🍃🍁🍂


Contemporary Japanese art and Japanese screens.


Indian Art of the Americas Gallery

This gallery displayed American artifacts many of which we had never seen the likes of before. These pieces were very unique in that they included Mayan, Aztec and Native American cultural pieces such as ceramics, sculptures, textiles, and metalwork.


European Painting and Sculpture Gallery

According to the Chicago Art Institute they have over 3500 works housed at the museum.

“Considered one of the finest in the world, the collection of European painting contains more than 3,500 works dating from the 12th through the 20th century.

Holdings include a rare group of 15th-century Spanish, Italian and Northern European paintings, highlights of European sculpture, and an important selection of 17th- and 18th-century paintings.

Major Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works are among its most significant holdings” (Art Institute of Chicago).


African Gallery

This was a very cool gallery! The artifacts we saw here were pretty amazing. The detail, the materials used, the huge size of some of these wearable masks, clothing, and pieces were crazy!  

According to the Art Institute their “African collection includes over 400 works that highlight the diversity of tradition-based arts on the continent, with emphasis on the sculptural traditions of West and Central Africa.

Included are masks and figural sculpture, beadwork, furniture, regalia, and textiles from countries including Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Ethiopia, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, and South Africa.”


Mask. Baga or Nalu Guinea or Guinea-Bissau


Mask. Kuba Western Kasai region, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Head piece

These beautiful beaded pieces were women’s aprons, so pretty and detailed!


Wedding Ensembles from South Africa.


Notice the spoon as part of the outfit?  The beaded teaspoon necklaces are meant to make the marriage sweet 🍭🍬😍


Manuscripts from the 1500 depicting Christianity in Ethiopia were fascinating.


The Thorne Miniature Rooms Gallery!!

As I mentioned earlier, what makes this museum so different from any other art museum is this miniature rooms gallery!

 If you have been to famous museums in places like New York, San Francisco, Paris, Philadelphia, Washington D. C., London, and Vienna just to name a few, there is a pattern – they all have an extensive collection of European impressionist and post impressionist paintings and sculptures and artifacts from many parts of the world. But which one of these museums has a miniature rooms gallery?  I bet you just one.

This gallery is what makes the Art Institute of Chicago unique, and I can thank Anjali once again for finding this ‘off the beaten path” gallery.


Okay, let me trick your eye here a bit. Take a look at these next two pictures.

They look like regular rooms you may see in a beautiful magazine right? Books on a coffee table, vases with flowers, beautiful chandeliers, elegant curtains, tile work, detailed rugs, very detailed paintings, plants on the patio; all so detailed and real and beautiful.

California room. Look at the plants in background.
English rotunda. Notice the natural light coming in through the windows?

Guess what? These are miniature rooms!!  The miniature rooms are no more than 15 inches by 20 inches!


The Thorne Miniature Rooms Gallery

Anjali loved the Thorne Miniature Rooms Gallery so much that she bought a book at the museum focused on the history of Miniature Rooms by Bruce Hattonboyer.  

All this very cool information on this amazing gallery and the woman behind it comes to you as narrated to me by Anjali from reading his book.


Mrs. Narcissa Thorne the Brainchild of the Miniature Rooms

The miniature rooms gallery is named after Mrs. Narcissa Thorne who was the creative genius behind this exhibition. Mrs. Thorne was the daughter of a prominent businessman in Chicago and married her childhood sweetheart Mr. James Ward Thorne the Vice President and Director of Montgomery Ward and Company and heir to the Montgomery Ward department store fortune. Her father-in-law was the cofounder of the company.  

Mrs. Thorne always had a fascination with miniatures, and her comfortable position in society allowed her to continue her childhood passion for collecting them. 

After WWI, when people in general lost interest in miniatures causing prices of these pieces to drop, Mrs. Thorne bought as many as she could, which lead her to accumulate so many miniature pieces that she had to rent a studio just to house them.

In the early years, Mrs. Thorne’s miniature rooms were based on what miniature pieces she already had in her collection. For example, a Tudor style room was created to display her Tudor miniature pieces.

However, later on she had miniature pieces built to match the historical style of the rooms she wanted to display. The majority of the miniatures she bought were from a Paris boutique, which she kept secret to prevent tourists from visiting the store.

Miniature Rooms at the Museums

Mrs. Thorne had a keen interest in volunteering at museums. As the 1920s approached museums began to display rooms showing styles from different historical periods.

Since she had always volunteered at museums, Mrs. Thorne saw how their full scale period rooms took up too much space, so she came up with the idea to make miniature versions of these rooms. This allowed the museums to show more rooms in less space with the same detail and perspective.


European Miniature Rooms

For her first set of rooms Mrs. Thorne used her own collection of miniature pieces.  Her 30 miniature rooms were put on display at the Chicago Historical Society in 1932, after which they went on tour.  

The success of this exhibition prompted her to start an even bigger project where she spent 5 years following a historical chronological theme to show how the designs of European rooms changed over time. 

The majority of the rooms she created were English and French rooms of well to do families. She also created Chinese, Japanese, and German rooms to show how their styles influenced the European sense of decor.

French miniature dining room
English miniature drawing room
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Japanese miniature room
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Chinese miniature room

A Royal Miniature Room

After Mrs. Thorne showed the British Royal family her second set of rooms, she was commissioned in 1936 to build a miniature of the library at the Windsor Castle.  

She presented this to the royal family as a coronation gift for Edward VIII. However, when he abdicated, it was sent to be displayed at the Victoria Albert Museum.

American Miniature Rooms

The third set of miniature rooms Mrs. Thorne created depicted American rooms which were designed and executed between 1937 and 1940.  The majority of the rooms are East Coast interiors as she chose periods and styles that she was most familiar with.  The Cape Cod miniature room is said to be one of the museum curator’s favorite rooms.


A Magnificent Miniature Legacy

Although her miniature rooms were extremely time-consuming and expensive to produce, Mrs. Thorne never sought or received payment for any of them. 

Most of Mrs. Thorne’s initial exhibitions were private and held to raise funds for local charities. Once a permanent gallery was established in 1954 for the Thorne miniature rooms at the Art Institute in Chicago, Mrs. Thorne set up a fund to cover the costs of caring for her works.

Mrs. Thorne created over 100 miniature rooms during her lifetime of which 68 are housed at the Thorne Gallery at the Art Institute in Chicago, 20 are at a museum in Phoenix, and nine at the Knoxville Museum of Art.

Mrs. Thorne continued to make miniature rooms for her sons and her friends even after finishing the many miniature rooms she created for the museums. The last two rooms she created were for the Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

Mrs. Thorne died in 1966 at the age of 84.

Here is a look at some of the miniature rooms on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Cape Cod Room

Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago

Let me end this post on a funny story. While touring the Art Institute Rani had texted Sri with an image of the famous American painting American Gothic by Grant Wood with this message.

“Sri, I know you want to see American Gothic at the museum, its being restored and not on display.”

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Sri just saw the text message with the image and didn’t pay attention to the words in the message, she also saw a huge poster of American Gothic as she walked into the museum and didn’t bother to read what the poster said either!

Sri was just so excited at the thought of seeing this famous American painting that she ignored reading any prose. What this meant is that she dragged me with her to spend 30 minutes looking through this giant expansive museum looking for the American Gothic painting 😑 (we couldn’t find any museum personnel on our walk to ask where it was). 

After 30 minutes Sri finally gave up and said

“Let’s just go Mom, I can’t find the painting. How did Rani see it?” 

I asked her to check Rani’s text message again, since we had come all this way an extra few minutes looking for it wasn’t a big deal. When Sri finally paid attention and actually read Rani’s message and the posters at the museum, she noticed that the painting was temporarily not on display as it was being restored 😒.


As a consolation prize Rani got Sri a postcard of the painting with this messag..

“Next time read what I text you! 😀”


Art Institute of Chicago

8 thoughts on “Art Institute of Chicago & The Thorne Miniature Rooms Gallery”

  1. Wow! Beautiful museum!
    Kalpana you have taken us to the beautiful museums. Now I feel like I visited it personally! Did not have to spend a penny!😀
    Thanks for sharing all your beautiful family trips.

    1. Thanks, I am glad you enjoyed the tour through my eyes 😊. There was so much more at this museum to see. I know sometimes kids do the funniest things – the sisters had a good laugh about that art miscommunication 😀.

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