It’s a long way from Tulsa, Okla. to being knighted by the French government, but Oak Park resident Gloria Groom is officially a “chevalier” (no relation to Maurice). No bowing required. No title either. She doesn’t go by “Dame Gloria” or any of that British nonsense, but she does have a medal that’s “bigger than Dallas.”

Oak Park’s newest (presumably only) chevalier was pinned Nov. 16 during a dinner at the Art Institute, where Groom has worked since 1984 and where she goes by another mouthful of a title, the David and Mary Winton Green Curator of European Painting.

Her specialty is the French Impressionists, which is also the specialty of the Art Institute, and Groom has been the driving force behind many of the museum’s most popular special exhibits over the years, including Caillebot (1995), Renoir’s Portraits (1998), Manet and the Sea (2003), Seurat (2004), and this year’s Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre (2005). When we tracked her down, she was writing the catalogue for the next exhibit, which focuses on the dealer who discovered and promoted Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse (scheduled to open here in February 2007).

After studying at the University of Texas, she went to France where she earned an art history degree and museum curator training from the Ecole du Louvre. She has published a book on Edouard Vuillard, and serves on the board of Alliance Francais.

“French art,” she said, “that’s my life.”

Which is the main reason she was nominated for the Order of Arts and Letters (the name of the medal), given twice annually to recognize “eminent artists, writers, and scholars who have contributed significantly to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world.” Groom is in good company. Marilyn Horne, Robert Redford, and Meryl Streep are among the Americans who have received the award.

“Everything important in my life has happened because of France,” she said, including her husband, Joe Berton, whom she met at an Art Institute dinner (and by extension, of course, their two children). And that’s what she told the 50 or so in attendance at last Wednesday’s ceremony (delivering her speech in both French and English). Among the officials present were the French consul generale of Chicago, the cultural attache, and the director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, who nominated her.

The affair was very French, she said, “one medal and a lot of air-kisses.” The French, she noted, are masters of protocol. “It was amazing, all these people toasting you, the kind of thing you don’t expect until after you’re dead.”

As for pulling rank, she said it was all over in three hours. “When we got home it was, ‘Take off your medal, there’s dishes to do.'”

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