Traffic was brought to a screeching halt yesterday on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago; pedestrians stopped in their tracks on the broad sidewalk opposite the Art Institute of Chicago to watch the bizarre sight unfolding in front of the entrance to the museum: The two massive bronze lion statues, which have flanked the front steps of the Art Institute for the past 128 years, were being hoisted off of their plinths by cranes and onto flatbed trucks with conservators in hard hats overseeing the process.
“I didn’t know they were going to be moved. I didn’t know they could be moved,” Egla Hassan, a visitor who arrived on the scene just after the second lion (weighing in over 2 tons) touched down on the flatbed, told the Chicago Tribune.
But, fear not, the lions are not gone for good—they’re just taking a temporary trip to suburban Forest Park for their “first deep cleaning in decades,” Art Institute objects conservator Rachel Sabino told the Tribune. (The lions were also spotted cruising down Interstate 290 on their sweet ride). After a high-pressure steam and a hot wax treatment, the lions are expected to return to their perch on Michigan Avenue in mid-July looking “more lustrous,” according to Sabino.
Initially crafted for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition by self-taught artist and America’s first professional animalier Edward Kemeys, the two lions first touched down at the Art Institute in May of the following year. Kemeys, who had previously created bears and other big cats in bronze and plaster, said that the lions were “the most difficult I have ever attempted.” The lions were sculpted in active poses: the north lion (on the left end of the stairs) is “on the prowl,” as Kemeys described; the south lion stands (on the right end) “in an attitude of defiance.”
Not only were the lions the most challenging pieces attempted by Kemeys, they also have become the most well-known among his works in bronze. It’s apparent that, over the years, the lions have become a beloved Chicago attraction and have become the center of many traditions. Every holiday season, the duo don Christmas wreaths– there’s even an annual ceremony, complete with special performances and hot chocolate.
It’s also tradition for the lions to show team spirit; whenever there’s a victory for a Chicago sport team, one can expect that the big cats will dress up in the team’s spirit gear. Over the years, they’ve sported Chicago Bears helmets after the franchise won the Super Bowl in 1985, Chicago Sky jerseys to celebrate the team winning the WNBA Championship in 2021; and Chicago Cubs caps following the World Series win in 2016.
The Art Institute lions even have their own Twitter account with around 6,000 followers.
“Heading on our Summer break. Peace out,” the lions tweeted yesterday.