Artist Profile – Lee Godie
1908–1994, lived and worked in Chicago
Homeless artist and self-proclaimed French Impressionist Lee Godie became a fixture on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1968, where she sold her canvasses to passersby, museum-goers, eager collectors, shoppers, and generations of curious art students for almost thirty years, employing an arcane and mercurial system of pricing and client selection. Very little is known about her life before the 1960s, but Godie cultivated a mythic and heroic persona of regality and glamour bravely assembled from the narrow material means available to her. She lives on as an enigmatic Chicago legend, honored with a career retrospective at the Chicago Cultural Center in 1992, with her work surviving in numerous important international collections.
Godie’s imagery, all representational, relies on her lyrical, sure-handed use of black ink outlines, stark on broad white backgrounds and filled with mottled colors. She is most known for her paintings of people. Her staring, wide-eyed portraits, always either in profile or head-on, tend toward stylized shoulders-up portrayals of imaginary fashion plates, both male and female, and sometimes in line-up. Godie’s keen eye for sartorial detail, especially hats, hair, and jewelry, individuate her otherwise stock characters. Her repeated assertion that she was, in fact, a French Impressionist may reflect more about her carefully crafted identity than about her actual aesthetic and paint handling, which do not address optical perception or light in any dedicated way. Given to wearing elaborate costumes and heavy stage makeup, Godie’s self-styled persona is memorialized in a series of fascinating photo booth self-portraits. In a vernacular analog to the staged, cinematic alias photography popularized by Cindy Sherman and others, these powerful and unsettling images depict Godie in full theatrical mode, made-up and posed, ready for her close-up. She sometimes drew or painted on the surface of the photographic print itself, further personalizing these intimate glimpses into a woman’s perceived self.