The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition

Critics at the World's Fair, "American art has made something of itself"

Childe Hassam, Horticulture Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, oil on canvas 18-1/2 x 26-1/4 inches / 47.0 x 66.7 cm (Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.67). Speakers: Dr. Katherine Bourguignon, Terra Foundation of American Art and Dr. Beth Harris

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Hassam, Horticulture

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Key points

  • The World’s Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago in 1893 to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the Americas. Such World’s Fairs were an opportunity for countries to showcase their prosperity, culture, and innovations, and it brought international attention to the nation.
  • The expansive fairgrounds were a spectacle, earning the nickname of “The White City.” The buildings, however, were temporary structures intended to look like marble. The architecture drew inspiration from European cities.
  • Frederick Jackson Turner presented his “Frontier Thesis” at the 1893 Fair, arguing that American identity had been created through its settlement of the frontier. While he saw westward expansion as what had formed America’s national character, he claimed that it had ended.
  • While the Impressionists often worked directly from their subject, Childe Hassam was in Chicago before the fair opened, painting images like this for souvenir brochures. He worked from architectural drawings and unfinished construction sites to imagine a welcoming, inviting space for tourists to visit.

Go deeper

This painting at the Terra Foundation for American Art

Interactive map of the World’s Fair grounds

Read about the World’s Fair at PBS

Resource for newspaper articles about the Fair, at the Library of Congress

Look at a souvenir book of photographs from the World’s Fair of 1893

A souvenir book of the buildings of the World’s Fair of 1893

Read more about Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis”

Read a biography of Childe Hassam at the National Gallery of Art

More to think about

The video describes the architecture of the World’s Fair of 1893 as almost like a cross between Rome and Venice. What do you think the architects might have been trying to express by drawing from European styles for these buildings?

In this painting, Childe Hassam depicts the horticultural building, which claimed to include every specimen of plant life. Why do you think a World’s Fair would include exhibits like this?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.