Art Institute lions, symbols of Chicago, get some needed TLC

The lions embody Chicago just as much as the city’s famous skyline or its great pizza.

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Workers with the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio work to deinstall the Art Institute of Chicago’s lions, bronze sculptures made in 1893 by Edward Kemeys, from the front steps of the museum’s Michigan Avenue entrance.

Workers with the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio de-install the Art Institute of Chicago’s lions, bronze sculptures made in 1893 by Edward Kemeys, from the front steps of the museum’s Michigan Avenue entrance.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The Art Institute of Chicago’s main entrance will go unguarded now, but only for a little while.

That’s because the two bronze lions that have flanked the museum’s front steps since 1894 were lifted from their perches Tuesday and sent to the western suburb of Forest Park for a bit of freshening up.

The lions embody Chicago just as much as the city’s famous skyline or its great pizza — tavern-cut, thin crust, please, though. So it’s nice to see the venerable old bronzes get some care.

Lions are city’s heart and soul

Weighing 4,200 pounds each, the lions were created for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition by sculptor Edward Kemeys and the set is arguably his most famous work.

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Florence Lathrop, wife of philanthropist Henry Field — he was Marshall Field’s younger brother and business partner —commissioned the lions.

After the fair, Lathrop requested the sculptures be moved to the Art Institute as a memorial to Henry Field, who died in 1890 at age 49.

Since then, the lions have become one of the city’s enduring examples of public art, serving as the backdrop for untold Art Institute field trip photos, selfies, and filmed-in-Chicago movie scenes.

During the pandemic, the lions wore giant Chicago flag face masks.

The lions are also occasionally used to cheer on the city’s sports teams. The duo donned giant Chicago Bears helmets during the team’s Super Bowl winning season in the 1980s.

And the lions wore White Sox batting helmets during the baseball team’s 2005 World Series run.

Back on the prowl in about a month

The lions will spend the next month being steam-cleaned and coated with a wax preservative, then should be returned to their posts before the end of July, according to the Art Institute.

As a side note, we hope the refreshed lions prompt the Chicago Park District to plan the same for the pair of Kemeys-designed bronze bison sculptures that stand at the entrance of the formal garden in Humboldt Park.

Meanwhile, we’ll await the lions’ return, and look forward to tourists admiring them — and school kids climbing them — for years to come.

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