Bridget Rice

The iconic lions that stand in front of the Art Institute on Michigan Avenue have been transported to Forest Park. They were removed from the museum on June 14 and brought to the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio at 900 Des Plaines Avenue. The studio’s director, Andrzej Dajnowksi, will oversee a thorough steam cleaning of the sculptures. They will then apply a protective wax coating that will make the lions shine.

Dajnowski was not at liberty to discuss the project but Shannon Palmer, the museum’s assistant public affairs director, provided some details. She said the lions last underwent a conservation process in 2001 and the current treatment will take more than a month.

Each bronze sculpture weighs over two tons. They have stood in front of the Beaux-Arts building since May 10, 1894. The sculptor, Edward Kemeys, was America’s foremost animal sculptor. He described the north lion as being “on the prowl” and said the south lion is “in an attitude of defiance.” In 2015, the lions were voiced by actors from Steppenwolf Theatre. Francis Guinan spoke for the south lion and Tracy Letts for the north lion. They portrayed, “gently feuding brothers.”

The lions have since been silenced but their presence is powerful. Kemeys was self-taught and started by studying zoo animals. Then he took trips to the American West to study animals in the wild. He hunted and dissected some of them to learn their skeletal structure and musculature. The Art Institute lions are modeled on African lions. 

Dajnowski was the logical choice to undertake the conservation effort. He has restored many of the city’s outdoor sculptures, including the mounted horsemen located just south of the lions on Michigan Avenue. He is currently working on the restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. He also restored the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument in Forest Park, along with the Death of Cleopatra statue by Edmonia Lewis. 

For the next month or so, there will be two empty plinths in front of the art museum. But, after Dajnowksi completes the conservation, the lions will again add their luster to Michigan Avenue.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.