Bertha Honoré Palmer
Bertha Honoré Palmer was an important philanthropist and Chicago socialite. At age twenty-one, Miss Honoré married Mr. Potter Palmer, a millionaire retail tycoon. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Palmers went back East to secure credit for the rebuilding of the Chicago of the future. Mr. Palmer’s real estate interest headed north from the Loop to the area that would become known as the Gold Coast, which is where they built their lavish home. Mrs. Palmer’s reputation for good taste magnetized the social scene in Chicago, and the rich and famous flocked to live in the neighborhood around her sumptuous mansion (now destroyed). She was known as an elegant and erudite woman, earning the informal title “Princess of the Prairie.”
When it came to the arts, Mrs. Palmer was no mere patron; she was a leader and a visionary. While in the 1870s and ‘80s, most collectors were focused on French painting from the Barbizon School, the Mrs. Palmer was not content to follow suit. She consulted with the curator Sara Hallowell of Philadelphia to become familiar with the very latest trends in Parisian avant-garde art. In France, Mrs. Palmer’s intelligence and charm made her an irresistible client. She began working with Paul Durand-Ruel, a Parisian dealer who represented French impressionist work, which was still controversial at the time, although it is widely embraced nowadays. Over course, Mrs. Palmer collected paintings by Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, the Englishman Alfred Sisley, the American expatriate Mary Cassatt, and many others. Palmer was so knowledgeable about art and art history that she was invited to lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Bertha Palmer’s embrace of modern art left an indelible mark on the arts in Chicago, a mark which is still felt today. When she died in 1918, she made a generous bequest to the Art Institute of Chicago, supplemented by her heirs, forming the core of the museum’s unrivaled, world-class collection of French Impressionist works now on permanent view on the second floor. E.L.