Back in the Day: Anita Willets-Burnham: Artist, writer and world traveler

This article originally appeared in the October 4, 2019 issue of the Winnetka Current as Back in the Day: Anita Willets-Burnham: Artist, writer and world traveler

By Holly Marihugh

The Winnetkan world-traveling artist, Anita Willets-Burnham, once said, “Doing what can’t be done is the glory of living.” To prove her point, she traveled all over the world twice with her husband and four children in tow, painting, studying art, and meeting local people wherever the family landed. Plus they journeyed third class in the 1920s, and when asked why, Willets-Burnham replied, “Because there wasn’t a fourth class.”

The payoff was not only a rich travel experience for the family, but sketches and paintings of daily life by Willets-Burnham while visiting close to 20 countries.

On October 10th from 6:30 – 8 p.m., visitors can view and buy paintings and sketches by Anita Willets-Burnham at the Winnetka Community House. The Winnetka Historical Society (WHS) and the North Shore Art League, of which Willets-Burnham was a founding member, are jointly sponsoring this opening show, and paintings remain on display for a month.

“Anita was an insightful observer of everyone, and her artwork is very high quality,” says Nan Greenough, WHS board member. “She has a fine eye for the architecture of the locales that she visited and was a close observer of people as well. In the group of 29 works, we’ll be showcasing sketches of a holiday celebration in a Shanghai city square, a rug-weaving scene from Peking [now Beijing], and a bathing sketch in a Korean village square. Anita interprets day-to-day activity in such a different way from what we usually see.”

In addition, there also will be paintings on view featuring Chicago and North Shore scenes. One painting spotlights a street artist with an umbrella selling his art near the Michigan Avenue bridge with the stately Wrigley Building in the background. Another opens a window into a Winnetka beach scene, with colorful umbrellas, life guards on duty, and beachgoers soaking in the sun’s rays.

In the early 1900s, Willets-Burnham enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago and the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts where she studied under William Merritt Chase.

“Anita was part of the movement called ‘Urban Realism’ that dominated the Chicago Art scene until the late 1930s,” Greenough says. “It was realistic art, and she pretty much recorded scenes as she saw them. But there’s also movement among the people in her compositions, which is lovely.”

A selection of Willets-Burnham’s paintings were exhibited at Art Institute shows on 19 occasions during the years 1902-1917. In 1931, she was featured in a one-woman show at the Art Institute. Also, she exhibited at the Century of Progress Fair in Chicago in 1933.

As the Great Depression deepened and the demand for art shrank, Willets-Burnham pick up a pen, and wrote the wildly popular book, Round the World on a Penny. Published in 1933, her story recounted the Burnham’s two world tours and was released in seven editions. Copies of the book, signed by Willets-Burnham, will be for sale at the art show as well.

Many of the paintings at the show depict scenes from the Burnham family’s two world tours: the first in 1921 and the second in 1928. Nothing was easy about country-hopping for the family, but traveling brought them joy and adventure. In a Historical Society blog post, writer Robyn DeKoven Grossberg describes the family’s round-the-world pilgrimages:

“Traveling third class, the Burnham crew cheerfully endured every inconvenience imaginable. From sitting up all night among the ruins of Pompeii to sleeping on benches in Algiers and in train depots in France, and, of course, meeting an odd assortment of characters.”

Back in the Day is a monthly column by The Winnetka Historical Society.

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