Some acquired their treasures through home-grown talent, others through colonial looting, but the world’s top art museum’s have one thing in common; they rely on a few iconic works of art to bring the hordes of art lovers through the doors. In this tour we take a look at some of more recognizable treasures in the collections in the world’s great art institutions, and some of the lesser-known gems.
The globally renowned British Museum is a veritable treasure-trove of human achievement, and both tourists and Londoners flock to this entrance-free powerhouse of archeological, artistic, and ethnographic history. Founded in 1753 to house all of the new artifacts assembled through the new discipline of archeology, the museum’s collection grew throughout the years of colonial expansion and war. The British Museum’s Japanese collection, tucked away in a winding staircase and missed by many visitors, is particularly remarkable. This color woodblock print by the master painter and printer Hokusai is a particular highlight when considering how much of nineteenth century European art was inspired by this stark, clear style. Two other dramatic and unique landscape works illustrate the depth of the museum’s varied collection. Both Claude Lorrain’s rare and remarkable sketch and Samuel Palmer luminous and visionary etching are a testament to a seemingly bottomless collection of treasures.
The Tate Britain in London has built up a remarkable collection of British painting over more than 110 years of existence. Formerly known as the National Gallery of British Art, the Tate brand came into force in 1932, and was famously joined in the year 2000 by its sister museum, the Tate Modern. The Tate Britain houses one of Joseph Wright’s most magnificent paintings, Experiment With The Air Pump. Wright lived outside the London metropolis and depicted the rapidly changing towns and cities in the North of England as the Industrial Revolution turned the world upside down. His paintings are captivating and illusionistic masterpieces, full of wonder, fear, and modernity. Look hard enough and you’ll also find the first great Outsider artist, Richard Dadd, whose intricate and early abstract paintings were created within the walls of an insane asylum. But the Tate Britain’s most visited wing is its expansive collection of Joseph Mallord William Turner paintings, demonstrating an artistic approach to movement that was far ahead of its time.
The Uffizi Gallery in Florence is one of the world’s oldest art museums, and although it did not officially open to the public until 1765 people have been visiting it by requested since it was built in 1560. Its collection was considered one of the essential stops on the Grand Tour, where rich young men would furnish their classical education with an extended jaunt around Europe, and was originally designed by the father of art history, Giorgio Vasari, whose biography of the lives of the Renaissance painters has been an essential source of knowledge for almost five centuries. As you might imagine the Uffizi is not short of treasures. Titian’s The Venus of Urbino stands as a stark reminder of how easily previous generations were shocked, whereas Leonardo da Vinci’s very early work Annunciation is a triumph of the geometric approach to perspective that would power the Renaissance. Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus reveals the other driving force behind the Florentine Renaissance; the ability to balance Christian and pagan themes in a manner that touches on something deeper, something more human.
The stunning collection housed at the Hermitage in St Petersburg is the largest treasure trove of paintings in the world. Compiled and collected by successive Russian Tsars, the Hermitage also featured property seized from wealthy collectors after the Russian Revolution. The grounds of the museum feature some truly iconic buildings, such as the Winter Palace. Some of the most prized possessions in the Hermitage collection include Camille Pissarro’s 1897 Boulevard Montmartre, Afternoon Sun. This elegy to the end of the nineteenth century combines the quiet revolution of Impressionism with the fast-paced changes wrought by industrial modernity. Rembrandt Van Rijn’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, on the other hand, is a timeless plea for forgiveness that takes the classical Biblical tale of a tender family reunion to explore the fragility of human endeavor. Finally, for a touch of imaginative glitz and glamour, Jean-Léon Gérôme pre-Cinematic sense for flair and Orientalist drama is perfectly summed up in Harem Pool, a painting that couldn’t be further removed from the wintery chill of St Petersburg.
Hungarian National Gallery is housed in the sumptuous Baroque Buda Castle in Budapest, Hungary, and catalogues the remarkable talents of Hungarian artists, many of which spent their working lives abroad, in Paris. Fulop Elek Laszlo’s fascinating glimpse into a late-nineteenth century German beer hall is a particular highlight, completed in his own unique, shimmering portrait style. Like many of his compatriots, Laszlo was a seasoned traveller, working his way around the world fulfilling commissions. An artist with equally itchy feet was Laszlo’s contemporary Pal Merse Szinyei, whose own personal style was forged through his travels across Europe, combining the plein-air art of Impressionism with Realism and Symbolism. His 1896 The Poppy Field is a highlight of the Hungarian National Gallery’s collection, appearing as both an overloaded cousin of Monet’s poppies and a toned-down version of Gustav Klimt’s. Regardless of their geographic spread, the Hungarian National Gallery manages to unite many globetrotting talents under one roof.
The Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Museum of Art History, in Vienna opened just a few years before Vienna became the heart of Art Nouveau, fin-de-siècle Europe. Full of the kind of decadent design, golf-leaf ornaments, and palatial features you might expect from a grand Viennese institution, the Kunsthistorisches Museum also boasts one of Europe’s most astounding collections of fine art. Pieter the Elder Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow is a particular highlight. This masterpiece of the Northern Renaissance is at turns both ominous and idealistic. It was painted at a time of religious upheaval, yet shows a world of peace and tranquility, but the dark figures of the returning hunters also hints at something more disastrous coming to the small village, whose skaters literally glide on thin ice. Jan Vermeer Van Delft’s The Artist's Studio is arguably the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s most prized possession, a highpoint of the Dutch Golden Age of painting. While Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Summer injects a much-needed dose of humor into art history. This stunning assemblage of fruit into a profile-portrait is a testament to the imagination and experimentation of the late Renaissance era.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is one of the largest museums in the world and a finely-curated labyrinthine of cultural achievements. Founded in 1870, the ‘Met’ has nurtured the development, sophistication, and growth of the fine arts in the United States for almost 150 years, and its ongoing expansions and acquisitions ensure that it remains one of the world’s most relevant cultural institutions. Their art collection is dazzling. Many patriotic Americans visiting the museum will often head straight for Nicolas-Bernard Lepicier’s monumental canvas Washington Crossing the Delaware. This immense history painting, measuring 3.8 m x 6.5 m is as grand in size as the subject it depicts, namely the clandestine crossing of the Delaware River by George Washington and his troops to rout the British forces. Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field is a true American classic, in form rather than theme. This eloquent study of the rural idyll is a poignant evocation of the horrors endured during the American Civil War. But for art-lovers with a taste for rarity, the ‘Met’ houses El Greco’s View of Toledo, a vortex-like landscape that is famous for being one of the first paintings completed with a landscape or cityscape as its primary subject.
Anyone who has visited the Musée d'Orsay in Paris is guaranteed to leave with the impression of having been in the presence of something truly special. The Musée d'Orsay houses French artworks, ornaments, décor and historical objects from 1848 until the outbreak of the First World War. A time of monumental change in the history of art, it was the innovations coming out of Paris that led to many of the changes wrought by Modernism in the early twentieth century. Housed in a former railway station, the Musée d'Orsay contains such masterpieces as Edgar Degas’ most accomplished study of movement and rest; Dance Class at the Opera, rue Le Peletier and Gustave Caillebotte’s The Floor Scrapers, a stunning reminder of the workmen who rebuilt and remodeled Paris during its vast renovations in the nineteenth century. But most spectacular of all is surely Jean-Francois Millet’s 1857 painting The Gleaners, truly a painting that turned the art world upside down. By focusing on peasant life, Millet enraged the upper-class art establishment who had just managed to restore their positions after the 1848 revolution.
Tucked away in Northern Germany, in the vibrant port town of Hamburg, is a truly magnificent museum that testifies to the city’s long history as an important hub of international – and inter-cultural – trade. Built in the 1860s, the Hamburger Kunsthalle is an absolute gem and boats some of the finest works of the grimly individualistic era of German Romanticism. But it’s one painting by a truly underrated artist that could well be the finest piece in the collection. Albert Weisgerber’s tragi-comedic Expressionist painting Absalom captures the farcical and theatrical drama of Europe on the eve of World War I. Wilhelm Leibl’s Three Women in Church is another highlight, combining the urban sensibility of Edgar Degas’ with the stoicism and humanism of the French Realist painters. Finally, the works of Philipp Otto Runge particularly dominates attention at the Hamburger Kunsthalle. His 1806 Peter Walks on Water is a triumph of early Romanticist draftsmanship, and is the result of Runge’s parallel occupation as one of art history’s most influential theorists on color.
Housed in a breathtaking 1920s Functionalist building, the National Gallery in Prague seems almost out of place surrounded by the soot-blackened medieval stone of the surrounding city. Inside can be found a remarkable array of fine art treasures from across the globe. With all of the high-profile painters on show at any number of the National Gallery’s sites, the most prized objects in the collection are arguably the more unusual oddities. Cornelis Gijsbrechts’s 1662 Still-Life with Self-Portrait is one of those rare paintings that seem to have been made at a far more louche, experimental era. Gysbrechts specialized in ‘trompe-l'œil’ – or trick of the eye – paintings, that foregrounded their illusionistic skill to impress the viewer. Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec was another one of art history’s great oddities. His distinct balance of street-portraiture and popular poster art took the psychological intensity of Post-Impressionism into the public eye. Finally, art history’s great oddity, El Greco’s Christ is certainly one of the most prized possessions of the National Gallery in Prague. Just try and find another Jesus painting quite like it.
Arguably the world’s most recognizable museum of art, the Musée du Louvre in Paris is a treasure trove of magnificent paintings, sculptures, and historical artifacts that chart the development of human cultural ingenuity over the millennia. Its memorable glass pyramid is a must for any cultural tourist, as is the ubiquitous Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. If you want a bit of quiet to contemplate some magnificent paintings then there are a host of less well-known but no less spectacular choices on show. Claude-Joseph Vernet’s Night A Port in the Moonlight is a triumph of dramatic balance and a series of striking contrasts between light and dark that create an indescribable impression on the viewer. But if you’re after a veritable masterpiece, Rembrandt Van Rijn’s Philosopher in Meditation is really the thinking-person’s choice. Even though age has darkened this meditative vision, the sense of illumination and contemplation imparted by the painter makes this one rather hard to turn away from. Jean Hippolyte Flandrin’s Young Man Sitting by the Seashore, on the other hand, is a stark reminder as to why Neoclassicism was so popular in its day. The Louvre was built on modern masterworks like this one.
Londoners are really spoilt for choice when it comes to art. Just a short bus ride away from the British Museum and the Tate Gallery is London’s National Gallery. This imposing Neoclassical façade sits astride the iconic Trafalgar Square and boasts some of the most important paintings in the history of art. In a special, light controlled room can be found a stunning sketch by Leonardo Da Vinci. Known as the Burlington House Cartoon, this Leonardo masterpiece is not a cartoon as we know them today, but a preparatory sketch for a later painting. When Leonardo showed ‘cartoons’ like this in Florence they drew immense crowds. One look at the life-like expression of St Anne and it is easy to see why. John Constable’s The Hay Wain is another highlight. This humble landscape caused a storm when it was first exhibited and kick-started a landscape revival that would culminate in the Impressionists’ appearance some fifty years later. But in his inimically humane style, Rembrandt Van Rijn steals the spotlight once more with his Hendrickje Bathing in a River. It might just be a woman up to her knees in pond water, but the sense of grace and humility contained within this image is remarkable.
The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is Australia’s oldest public museums and a proud bastion of global cultural heritage. Earnestly protecting the remnants of Australian Aboriginal art and encouraging its restoration, the NGV is an art museum with a conscience. Being located at the opposite side of the globe to Europe hasn’t stopped this historical powerhouse from amassing the most remarkable collection of European painting in the antipodes. Any fan of urban energy and Impressionist beauty will be thrilled by Camille Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre, Morning, Cloudy Weather, an iconic slice of city life by anyone’s standards. The NGV also houses one of John William Waterhouse’s finest works, his 1891 Ulysses and the Sirens, which displays his trademark ability to fuse the imaginative flair of the Symbolist school with the clarity and sculptural energy of the Neoclassicists. Jan Van Eyck’s Madonna with the Child Reading was painted over 300 years before Europeans even knew about Australia and is an awe-inspiring glimpse into the past.
As we’ve said before, London’s got it all. At one time or another, many of history’s most important figures trod the grey pavements of this unparalleled city. Many of the likenesses of Britain’s best and brightest can be found at the National Portrait Gallery, a charming little institution nestled behind the much larger National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. John Maler Collier’s Portrait of Charles Darwin was finished just as the great evolutionist thinker died, and portrays a startling sense of intellectual curiosity and intensity. Daniel Maclise’s portrait of the great novelist and champion of the urban poor, Charles Dickens, is a little more light-hearted, with this portrait of the artist as a young man coming off rather foppish. But certainly the most prized possession in the collection at the National Portrait Gallery is Thomas Phillips’ Byron in Arnaout Dress. When Byron quit England to adventure in Greece and Albania he developed a close affinity with Albania folklore, and appears here wearing a traditional costume he acquired from a tribe known as the Arnaout. He was art history’s first Orientalist and, were it not for his untimely death, might have been crowned King of Greece.
Madrid’s Museo del Prado is one of Europe’s must-see art museums. With a collection ranging from intense medieval curiosities to the sublime and grotesque visions of Francisco de Goya and Hieronymus Bosch. Founded in 1819 it has become one of the most frequented art museums in the world, and it’s not hard to see why. For one, it houses Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas, an endlessly intriguing study of royal power, the status of the artist in society, and the very act of creating art. Some people manage to spend a number of hours gazing into the unsettling world of Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, a painting that forms the centerpiece of a work that also includes a terrifying glimpse into hell.
It is remarkable that the four centuries since Bosch painted this fascinating masterwork have not dulled the impact of the artist’s imagination. Despite technical innovations in cinema and video games, The Garden of Earthly Delights is still the archetypal work of dramatic ingenuity. But returning once more to Spain’s very own master painter, Diego Velazquez, his early Baroque scene, Bacchus, demonstrates a clear influence from Caravaggio and Rubens, whilst allowing the unique personalities of all the reveling protagonists to reveal their own distinct individuality.
The Centre Pompidou in Paris, also known as the Musée National d'Art Moderne, takes over where the Musée d'Orsay left off. Musée National d'Art Moderne was the first major museum dedicated to modern art, and helped to foster new ideas, new artistic techniques, and new ways of looking at the world. With a stunning collection ranging from Picasso to Wassily Kandinsky, and with its memorable ‘inside-out’ building, the Pompidou is arguably the most cutting edge museum in the world. But to avoid the classics for a moment, the museum’s lesser-known works are where the glory really shines. Suzanne Valadon deserves to be a household name. She was the iconic dancer in Renoir’s Dance at Bougival and was the first woman admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Her son, Maurice Utrillo, became a renowned painter in his own right, and this portrait of her beloved offspring is a triumph of modern portraiture. In the mid-1920s, when the idea for a modern art museum in Paris first emerged, new ideas were flying around the French capital. Joan Miró and Leon Bakst were two émigrés whose trailblazing style made Paris what it was in those glory days.
With all the emerging galleries and new media hubs, visitors to Berlin occasionally overlook the host of remarkable art museums that dot the city centre. The Nationalgalerie in Berlin encompasses important artworks from the nineteenth century to the present. During the Cold War the gallery was on the East German side, and since reunification this formidable institution has gone through countless renovations. The collection it houses, and the manner in which is curates its exhibitions, has earned it a place as one of the world’s top art museums. Caspar David Friedrich’s Woman at a Window is one of the Nationalgalerie’s most prized possessions. Although not it’s most valuable, the way it eloquently sums up the mood of early-nineteenth century German Romanticism is quite spectacular. Johann Erdmann Hummel’s Chess Players, on the other hand, is something else entirely, representing the other side of nineteenth century Germany; the militarism, the refinement, and the sense of thoughtful contemplation. Edgar Degas’ Two Women in Conversation is just pure visual pleasure. The snatched glimpse the artist has captured makes any visitor to the Nationalgalerie in Berlin reel round and look again.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art in the US state of Pennsylvania was founded in 1877, inspired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to pursue a museum collection based on a mix of ornamental décor, fine art, historical objects, and scientific instruments. It has evolved over the last 140 years into a world-leading cultural archive, and an art collection that just keeps growing. John Singer Sargent’s 1879 painting In The Luxembourg Gardens is a wonderful vision of peace, serenity, and fading sunlight. Painted in the gardens of the Louvre in Paris, Sargent’s painting seems to resonate with the warmth of a summer sunset. Mary Cassatt’s The Flirtation: A Balcony In Seville is a joyous glimpse of daily life in the Andalusian heartland of southern Spain. The Impressionist painter and close friend of Degas captured this stunning image of innocence and charisma in 1872, giving expression to a part of Spain that would captivate the Modernist painters and writers of the 1920s and 30s. The Philadelphia Museum of Art also contains one of Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec’s finest paintings, his Training of the New Girls by Valentin at the Moulin. The teacher shown here was the artist’s good friend ‘Valentin the Boneless’, named as such for his curiously agile legs.
For many the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is a rival to the Louvre, especially for those who prefer the refined, restrained paintings of the Northern Renaissance, the majestic everyday life studies of the Dutch Golden Age, and the searing psychological trauma of Van Gogh. For many, the most captivating painting in the entire collection is Rembrandt Van Rijn’s Self Portrait at an Early Age, painted in 1628 when the artist was only 22. Even at this age he had developed his trademark love of shadows that draw even closer attention to whatever they conceal. Jan Vermeer, usually known for his deeply affecting portraits of domestic life, painted View of Houses in Delft, known as 'The Little Street' in 1657-8. With its remarkable realism, it looked like it was painted only yesterday and allows the viewer to travel back in time to a world not so different from our own. The time in which Rembrandt and Vermeer lived was one where the Netherlands played a key role in international trade, intellectual achievement, and the arts. Officials of the Drapers' Guild is a testament to a time when the groundwork for modern capitalism was laid down and the tastes of those who did so were slightly more refined.
The Art Institute of Chicago in the US state of Illinois is a bottomless pit of art treasures, with over 300,000 objects in its collection. Many international exhibitions just wouldn’t be the same without the support of Chicago’s finest museum, which occasionally lends its finest treasures to other institutions to share knowledge and spread cultural awareness. Chicago was built on industry and, although you wouldn’t think to look at it, nothing sums up this era better than Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street- Rainy Weather. The artist depicts the brand-new boulevards of Paris, and along with the fashions, pedestrians, and angular design, encapsulated the spirit of the go-getting late-nineteenth century. The Art Institute of Chicago also houses Grant Wood’s iconic American Gothic, a painting of roughly hewn Middle America that has charmed generations for over 80 years. Finally, Vincent Van Gogh’s The Bedroom must surely be the jewel in the collection, a work of almost unparalleled emotional charge that tragically foreshadowed the suicide of the painter just a year later.