Albert Fleury’s Goose Island captures the intensely industrial character of the urban Chicago River at the turn of the twentieth century. Working vessels ply the waterway and crowd the shore lined with cargo hoists and massive warehouses. Fleury presents the scene in the cool light of morning, which combines with the smoke from chimneys and boat funnels to dissolve distant forms into ghostly silhouettes. Loose horizontal strokes render the flickering surface of the water under a luminous fair-weather sky.
Goose Island is a man-made land mass on the north branch of the industrial Chicago River, where in the 1850s a canal was dredged to detach a section of the riverbank at a westward curve in the waterway. The area was developed for both residential and industrial use, with shipyards, lumberyards, coal yards, and grain elevators concentrated at its southern end. The Chicago River was the meeting-place for the city’s twin engines of commerce: transportation and raw-materials processing. By the end of the nineteenth century, the waterway was widely condemned for its filth and stench, making Fleury’s appealing portrayals all the more noteworthy when presented in “Picturesque Chicago,” his 1900 solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. Goose Island was featured in that show, which then traveled to the Detroit Museum of Art (now the Detroit Institute of Arts); a smaller selection, also including Goose Island, appeared at the Saint Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts (now the Saint Louis Art Museum) in 1902. “Abstractly speaking, Goose Island has never been deemed a picturesque spot,” admitted one reviewer, “yet M. Fleury has painted it in both sunshine and rain, in the early morning light and when the orange sun sinks into its cradle of dark smoke. . . . Residents of Chicago that have heretofore remained blind to the picturesque attractions of the city should see and study M. Fleury’s pictures.”i
Wendy Greenhouse, PhD
i “Art,” Chicago Times-Herald, Oct. 14, 1900.