How to See the Best Artworks in America
The United States boasts some of the best museums in the world. From New York's impressive Metropolitan Museum of Art — the largest museum in the country — to the renowned Art Institute of Chicago, the nation has earned bragging rights for its art collection.
The caliber of the museums means that the nation is home to some of the most important art pieces of the western world, like van Gogh’s iconic “Starry Night” and Georgia O'Keeffe's unmistakable nature paintings. Most of the works in this list are located in Chicago, New York and Washington D.C., so you know exactly where to go when planning your artwork bucket list.
Here are 25 pieces of art we suggest you see in your lifetime as well as additional museums for you to delve deeper into a particular artist's work.
Starry Night – Vincent van Gogh, Museum of Modern Art
You’ll be hard-pressed to find an adult in the western world who has never seen the swirls of this perfectly executed painting. Perhaps van Gogh’s most famous painting — or at least one of his top five most recognized works — it is a beautiful example of post-impressionism. The painting was inspired by the artist’s view from his window at a mental health institution in France’s Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
He never saw a single dime from it, as he willingly gave it to his brother Theo. The 1889 piece, which has been at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) since 1941, is now considered priceless.
Where Else to See van Gogh’s Work
If you’re a van Gogh fan, don’t miss the museum dedicated to his life’s work. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam features some of his most famous paintings, including “The Yellow House” and “Bedroom in Arles.”
The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and Musee d’Orsay in Paris also feature some of his work.
American Gothic – Grant Wood, Art Institute of Chicago
This painting is one of the most reproduced, parodied and recognizable works of American art. Wood created the painting to celebrate the simplicity of life in middle America and the resilience of its people.
He sought to have this 1930 piece be a symbol of hope for those suffering from the troubles of the Great Depression.
Where Else to See Wood’s Work
Because Wood was an artist from Iowa, famous for depicting middle America, it’s no surprise that the largest collection of his work can be found at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Self-portrait with Monkey – Frida Kahlo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery
An international symbol of modern art and feminism, Frida Kahlo is one of the best known artists of the 20th century. To see her famous self-portrait, which is perhaps the most universally recognized image of the artist, you must go to Buffalo, New York.
In the painting, Kahlo draws herself wearing traditional Mexican clothing next to Fuland Chang, her pet spider monkey.
Where Else to See Kahlo’s Work
Without a doubt, the best place to see Kahlo’s work up close and personal is in her childhood home.
The Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City is located in La Casa Azul (or the Blue House), where Kahlo lived most of her life.
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – George Seurat, Art Institute of Chicago
This is perhaps the most impactful painting for the Pointillism painting movement, in which small, distinct dots of color are used in patterns to form an image. This beautiful festival of colors comes together to depict people enjoying a bright, sunny day at the park. When Seurat finished the painting in 1884, people had yet to warm up to the idea of modern art, and many thought it was a tasteless joke.
Today, Seurat is considered a master of this movement, and even those who care little about it wonder how it is possible to create this image through the meticulous use of small points.
Where Else to See Seurat’s Work
Seurat’s work is on display in museums throughout the world.
In the U.S., you can find his “The Laborers” painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., while a depiction of the Eiffel Tower is on display in San Francisco’s California Palace of the Legion of Honor.
Washington Crossing the Delaware – Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
If you went to school in the United States, you probably saw this painting somewhere in your American History book — perhaps even on the cover.
On display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the 1851 painting is meant to be a patriotic commemoration of the surprise attack that George Washington, who was a general at the time, made on enemy forces during the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Trenton.
Where Else to See Gottlieb Leutze’s Work
The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., owns several of Gottlieb Leutze’s works, including “The Courtship of Anne Boleyn.”
Cow’s Skulls Red, White and Blue – Georgia O'Keeffe, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Georgia O’Keeffe spent her career trying to define the spirit of America, and her abstract paintings of flowers and cow skulls are now a staple of American art. This piece is a perfect example of the visual force that defines her style.
O’Keeffe juxtaposes the decay of nature with the vividness with which she depicts the skull and alludes to the spirit of the country by decorating the background with the colors of the flag.
Where Else to See O’Keeffe’s Work
Opened in 1997, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is not only a collection of hundreds of O’Keeffe’s works, but also her art materials and supplies as well as photographs of the famous painter.
Portrait of Ginevra de' Benci – Leonardo da Vinci, National Gallery of Art
The true definition of a Renaissance man, there are few areas where da Vinci did not thrive. This beautiful portrait may not be the Mona Lisa herself, but it is the only da Vinci painting on display in all of the Americas.
As such, visiting the artwork at Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art is your best chance to see the Renaissance master’s work with your own eyes without crossing the Atlantic.
Where Else to See da Vinci’s Work
If you're after da Vinci’s artwork, then it’s Italy you should visit. Specifically, Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, home to lots of Renaissance art, is home to many paintings created by a young da Vinci before 1482, when he left Florence to go to Milan.
Of course, The Louvre in Paris is where you’ll find da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.”
The Persistence of Memory – Salvador Dalí, Museum of Modern Art
Dalí’s melting clocks have been capturing the imagination of MoMA visitors since 1934, a mere three years after the painting was finished. Done in the artist’s unique style and using the cliffs of Catalonia as a backdrop, the work is uncomfortable yet mesmerizing, and has inspired many an art critic to attempt to interpret and understand it.
If you are a fan of modern art and/or surrealism, this is a piece that you absolutely must see with your own eyes.
Where Else to See Dali’s Work
There are several museums dedicated to Dali’s mystical artwork. Teatro Museo Dali takes you to the artist’s hometown of Figueres, Spain, and houses the largest and most diverse collection of the artist’s works.
But if you’re looking to stay stateside, the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, is a close second, as it houses the largest collection of Dali’s works outside Europe.
Autumn Rhythm No. 30 – Jackson Pollock, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Whatever your personal opinions about Pollock may be, his style was unlike anything that had been done before.
This piece, made with his signature dripping technique, is one of the artist’s largest works at 17.25 feet by 9.75 feet. To complete it, he placed the canvas on the floor and moved around it from all angles.
Where Else to See Pollock’s Work
Pollock grew up in Southern California, so it’s no surprise that the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles houses several artworks by the famous modern artist.
The Death of Socrates – Jacques-Louis David, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
A staple of philosophy textbooks and endlessly reproduced, parodied and copied, this painting depicts Socrates’ choice of death over renouncing his beliefs. In it, he can be seen holding his finger up self-righteously, moments before drinking the cup of hemlock that would bring him death.
The painting was made in 1787, in congruence with the Enlightenment’s high regard of Ancient Greek ideals.
Where Else to See David’s Work
A French painter, David is obviously quite popular in France, with several of his works on display at The Louvre.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – Pablo Picasso, Museum of Modern Art
When Picasso first exhibited this piece in 1916 — nine years after completing it — the world was outraged. The painting was deemed immoral and vulgar because of its unabashed depiction of sex workers who look straight at the viewer with no semblance of shame.
Today, no one denies the genius of this large painting, which is one of Picasso’s most important works, as it defines the Cubist style that would place him in the history books.
Where Else to See Picasso’s Work
The Museu Picasso in Barcelona was created by the artist’s friend and personal secretary and is dedicated to his work, now housing hundreds of his pieces.
Nighthawks – Edward Hopper, Art Institute of Chicago
Finished in 1942, Hopper’s painting speaks to the isolation and loneliness of modern life, particularly in the city.
Contrasting the usual depictions of New York as all lights, glitz and glamor, Hopper made a name for himself for his honest look at the less-appealing side of the city.
The Dancing Class – Edgar Degas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Degas’ dancing class paintings are unmistakable, partly because of the beauty of his technique and partly because there are so many of them. This piece, however, is unique, as it was the first of the series.
Unlike later paintings, which were actually sketched in live classes or at the backstage of the Paris Opera, this early 1870s painting was done in his studio, where ballerinas posed, so he could make the composition.
Where Else to See Degas’ Work
The famous French painter has several works on display in Paris’ Musee d’Orsay, but in the U.S., art enthusiasts can head to Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to see several of his works.
The Child’s Bath – Mary Cassat, Art Institute of Chicago
Most women impressionists are sadly unrecognized and forgotten. But Marie Cassat managed to survive the gender bias of her time and make an international name for herself in the male-dominated art world.
Often preoccupied with subjects in the midst of everyday life, she captures in this painting the fleetingness of a common domestic moment.
Where Else to See Cassat’s Work
More of Cassat’s work can be seen at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.
The museum owns one of the final impressions of her famous print "The Bath," which she produced in 17 editions.
The Water Lily Pond – Auguste Monet, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
As the father of impressionism and one of the most famous figures of the beginning of modern art, Monet made hundreds of iconic pieces. But nothing is as quintessentially Monet as his water lilies.
If you can’t afford a ticket to Paris to sit surrounded by lilies in the Musée de l'Orangerie, head to the Met to see this beautiful painting, which has been housed in the museum since 1929.
Where Else to See Monet’s Work
While the Met has one of the best collections of Monet’s work outside of Paris, you can also visit the Art Institute of Chicago or the National Gallery of Art to see more of his work stateside.
Campbell’s Soup Cans – Andy Warhol, Museum of Modern Art
The master of pop culture art, Warhol changed American art with this simple piece, which imitates the mass production of consumer goods that defined the 1950s.
First exhibited in 1962, this is perhaps his most famous oeuvre — which is impressive given that he was one of the biggest names in American contemporary art.
Where Else to See Warhol’s Work
Pittsburgh may not be an obvious place for the pop art icon to be from, but the Andy Warhol Museum in his hometown is the largest museum in North America dedicated to a single artist.
And it just so happens to be home to the largest collection of Warhol’s art and archives.
Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints – Raphael, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Another Renaissance master, Raphael’s works are known around the world. This intricate work is the only altarpiece by the artist that is on display within the United States.
It was done between 1504 and 1505, but has been beautifully preserved.
Where Else to See Raphael’s Work
The Italian painter is perhaps best known for his artwork that adorns four rooms in the Vatican Museums in Vatican City.
George Washington – Gilbert Stuart, Boston Museum of Fine Arts
If you’ve ever lived or traveled in the U.S., you’ve seen a version of this unfinished painting. A portrait of the first president of the nation, it was used as a model for the $1 bill print.
Unfinished works are not usually considered an artist’s best, but given the significance of this piece in daily American life, we can say it has earned its fame.
Where Else to See Stuart’s Work
Stuart painted portraits of more than 1,000 people over his lifetime, including ones of America’s first six presidents.
While his artwork is on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, you can also find it at the Met and National Gallery of Art.
Drowning Girl – Roy Liechtenstein, Museum of Modern Art
Completed in 1963, this painting is now deeply ingrained into the American psyche and holds an important place in pop culture. Liechtenstein didn’t actually make the image nor the caption. Rather, he copied it from a 1962 DC comic called “Run for Love!”
He cropped the image, so we don’t see the girl’s boyfriend clinging to a sinking boat. He also altered the caption, taking out the fact that the girl had a cramp and changing the boyfriend’s name. The resulting image is a commentary on popular culture — taken out of context, with its melodrama exposed — as much as on human nature.
Where Else to See Lichtenstein’s Work
This famous pop artist has works on display all over the world, but Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art houses several in its permanent collection.
Sugar Shack – Ernie Barnes, North Carolina Museum of History
In the latter half of the 20th century, the country finally began to recognize black artists for their contributions. This painting became ingrained in American culture when Marvin Gaye asked to use it as a cover for one of his albums.
The piece, on display in Raliegh’s North Carolina Museum of History, is praised for its ability to capture the spirit of the ’60s Jazz scene.
Where Else to See Barnes’ Work
Barnes was also a professional football player and was hired to be the official artist of the New York Jets.
As such, he has artworks on display in the American Sport Art Museum and Archives in Daphne, Alabama, as well as in the Seattle Art Museum and the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
Christina’s World – Andrew Newell Wyeth, Museum of Modern Art
Finished the same year that World War II (WWII) ended, this painting is referenced in pop culture staples such as the “2001: A Space Odyssey” novel and “Forrest Gump.” The woman in the painting was inspired by the artist’s neighbor, who was unable to walk but refused to use a wheelchair.
Despite having strong physical subjects, the painting is introspective and evokes a dreamlike feeling.
Where Else to See Wyeth’s Work
Wyeth has artworks in several permanent collections throughout the country, including the Cincinnati Art Museum; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri; and Arkansas Art Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, to name a few.
The Siesta – Paul Gauguin, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
One of Gauguin’s most-renowned pieces from his time in Tahiti, this is one of the paintings that inspired van Gogh. The modernist piece is meant to capture the women’s comfort in themselves and each other on a regular afternoon.
In this 1890s work, we can see Gauguin’s experimentation with color and light.
Where Else to See Gauguin’s Work
Several of Gauguin’s artworks are on display throughout the world, but perhaps the ones that have the most comprehensive collections of his work are the National Gallery of Art, Art Institute of Chicago and Musee d’Orsay.
Detroit Industry Murals – Diego Rivera, Detroit Institute of the Arts
These murals are arguably Rivera’s most important murals outside of Mexico. Commissioned in the beginning of the 1930s, they were extremely controversial due to their strong Marxist undertones.
In fact, they were allowed to be displayed only next to a disclaimer that repudiated their ideology. The murals are now a National Historic Landmark.
Where Else to See Rivera’s Work
The largest collection of Rivera’s paintings is at the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico City.
Located in the Xochimilco neighborhood, visitors can check out the historic boats floating by between checking out the about 150 pieces of art housed inside the museum.
Woman with a Water Jug – Johannes Vermeer, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
This 17th-century piece was the first of the Dutch master’s work to be brought to America.
The painting is a great example of the artist’s experiment with light in his composition and depicts an intimate moment of everyday life as a woman prepares to wash her face.
Where Else to See Vermeer’s Work
Vermeer’s work is on display in several museums throughout Europe, but in the U.S., the Frick Collection in New York or the National Gallery of Art are good options.
Freedom From Want – Norman Rockwell, Norman Rockwell Museum
Rockwell’s paintings came to define the image of the American dream during the 1940s and 1950s. Inspired by one of FDR’s State of the Union addresses, the painting was meant to show that, even through the hardships of WWII, American values were strong.
It has also come to be known as “The Thanksgiving Picture,” and you can check it out at Stockbridge, Massachusetts’ Norman Rockwell Museum.
Where Else to See Rockwell’s Work
While the Norman Rockwell Museum houses the largest collection of the artist’s artwork, the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport, Rhode Island, also has a significant amount of his works.