Real-Life Locations That Inspired Famous Paintings
Churches in England. Middle Eastern temples. Beaches in France.
These have all served as inspiration for some of the world's greatest painters, who’ve turned natural landscapes and monuments into masterworks of creative interpretation. And luckily for art lovers and curious travelers alike, many of these real-life locations, landscapes and structures still exist and can be visited today.
Imagine sipping red wine at the cafe in Southern France that inspired Van Gogh's "Terrace of a Cafe at Night," or strolling down the quaint street in Stockbridge, Massachusetts that's featured in Norman Rockwell's famous "Home for Christmas" painting.
It's all possible. In this guide, find out which locations from famous paintings you can see in real life.
“The Scream” - Edvard Munch, 1893
Norweigan painter Edvard Munch is the artist behind one of the most iconic pieces of modern art in the world: "The Scream."
In a diary entry from January 1892, Munch described the source of his inspiration: "One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord — the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream."
The painting is today in the collection of Oslo, Norway’s National Museum.
Visiting Valhallveien Road
Luckily for fans of "The Scream," it’s easy to explore the place where Munch was inspired to paint his masterwork: an overlook on the side of Valhallveien Road on a hill above Oslo. You can walk or bike the road, stopping along the way to mimic the painting’s screaming figure for a cheeky photograph.
“Home for Christmas (Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas)” - Norman Rockwell, 1967
Norman Rockwell had a penchant for painting idealized versions of American life, a style that pleased the public but caused many in the art world to question his artistic merit. But Rockwell, no stranger to his critics, noted that his work was more subversive than many realized: "Maybe as I grew up and found the world wasn't the perfect place I had thought it to be, I unconsciously decided that if it wasn't an ideal world, it should be, and so painted only the ideal aspects of it."
This precept governed Rockwell's entire career and eventually led to the creation of one of his most famous paintings, "Home for Christmas (Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas)."
Visiting Stockbridge Main Street in Stockbridge, Massachusetts
Throughout the year, Stockbridge's Main Street offers a selection of boutiques, art galleries and shops selling antiques, jewelry, food and wine. But the best time to visit is undoubtedly during the Christmas holiday, when the town of Stockbridge re-creates Rockwell's famous painting during a multi-day magical event complete with caroling, concerts and that quintessential once-a-year feeling of being home for the holidays.
"American Gothic" - Grant Wood, 1930
American painter Grant Wood was driving through the heartland of Iowa when he spotted a Gothic Revival cottage that would inspire his most famous painting, "American Gothic."
Using real Iowa locals as his muse, Wood created a piece that has sparked much debate, primarily around its possible satirical undertones regarding small-town American life. (Wood himself was vague on this point, saying, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement.") The painting has also, of course, been regularly parodied in advertisements, political cartoons and magazines.
You can find it today at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Visiting the "American Gothic" Home
In the small town of Eldon, Iowa, the house used in Wood's painting is today a tourist attraction where you can snap a dour-looking photo in front of the home's exterior or explore its interior on a guided tour. A visitor's center educates on Wood's life and the history of the house.
"A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" - Georges Seurat, 1844
Georges Seurat's greatest work, instantly recognizable the world over, depicts stylish Parisians enjoying a sunny day along the banks of the River Seine.
The scene appears to be straightforward, but is more playful than it initially lets on: Notice, for example, how the woman on the right is holding a monkey on a leash. The painting was also groundbreaking, as it helped pioneer the pointillist technique of using small dashes of color to create an image.
It is currently found at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Visiting Île de la Jatte
The painting showcases the Île de la Jatte (aka Island of la Grande Jatte), an idyllic island along the River Seine where you can enjoy a leisurely stroll. The island includes reproductions of several notable pieces of art situated in the very spots where they were painted, including "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte."
“Terrace of a Cafe at Night” - Vincent van Gogh, 1888
Although he completed over 2,000 works of art, including oil paintings, drawings, sketches and watercolors, Vincent van Gogh only sold one painting while he was alive. It wasn't until after his death, sadly by suicide, in 1890 that Van Gogh was rightfully recognized as one of the greatest painters of the 20th century.
Alongside "Starry Night," "Irises" and "Sunflowers," Van Gogh's "Terrace of a Cafe at Night" remains one of his most beloved oil paintings, featuring his trademark star-filled sky.
Visiting La Cafe La Nuit
Today Van Gogh diehards can stop for a drink at Le Café La Nuit, the precise location that inspired "Terrace of a Cafe at Night." Located in Arles, a city in Southern France, the restaurant boasts a full menu. But given the location's connection to Van Gogh, it's often, not surprisingly, very crowded.
"Impression Sunrise" - Claude Monet, 1872
Claude Monet has many extraordinary works, but perhaps none wow more than this depiction of an idyllic French harbor on a hazy morning.
After the artist showcased his work at an exhibition in Paris, a critic used the term "Impressionist" to describe the work, based on its title. It's believed this is where the Impressionist movement got its name.
Want to see the painting up close? Head to Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, home to 100 of Monet's pieces.
Visiting the Port of La Havre
Monet's inspiration was the Port of La Havre, today the second-largest commercial port in France. It is also a common port of entry for cruise ships coming to Paris, so there's a good chance you'll see it if you book a cruise the passes through the City of Lights.
“McSorely’s Bar” - John Sloan, 1912
McSorley's Old Ale House, which first opened its doors in Manhattan in 1854, is a local institution known for its sawdust-covered floors and time-tested ales. It’s also notably the inspiration behind one of John Sloan's most well-known oil paintings, published in 1912, appropriately called "McSorley's Bar."
A painter and patron of McSorley's, Sloan was inspired by the working-class crowds of men that bellied up to the bar regularly, and worked tirelessly to provide an accurate portrayal of the vibrant world that existed within the watering hole’s walls. (Interestingly, that's why there are no women in Sloan's piece; McSorely's was a men's-only establishment until the 1970s.)
The artwork, on display at the Detroit Institute of Art, remains one of the best examples of Sloan’s mission to find beauty in the mundane.
Visiting McSorely's Old Ale House
Located in Manhattan’s East Village, McSorely’s is open seven days a week; however, unlike many of New York’s watering holes, it closes at 1 a.m. instead of 4 a.m. And while women are, thankfully, welcome at all times, children are not permitted after 6 p.m.
“Leeds Market” - Harold Gilman, 1913
As a realist, British painter Harold Gilman aimed to portray what working-class life in the early 20th century was really like. During a trip to Leeds, a city in Yorkshire, England, Gilman roughly sketched the interior of the Leeds Market. When it opened in 1857, Leeds was the largest indoor produce and meat market in all of Europe and the perfect location for Gilman to witness everyday urban life.
In 1913, from his sketch, Gilman produced an oil painting, aptly named "Leeds Market." The classic painting is today in the collection of the Tate in Great Britain.
Visiting Leeds Market
More than a century has passed since Gilman's painting, but the Leeds Market — despite being bombed in World War II and suffering a devastating fire in 1975 — still stands as one of Britain's favorite markets.
Today, the Leeds Market (also called the Kirkgate Market) continues to sell fresh produce and meat, but has also expanded its offerings to include street foods, baked goods, jewelry and home items. Despite its modernization, the market possesses the same vibrant, urban energy that attracted and inspired Harold Gilman more than 100 years ago.
“The Gateway to the Great Temple at Baalbec” - David Roberts, 1841
David Roberts became one of Great Britain’s preeminent landscape artists after honing his skills as a house and theatrical scene painter in Edinburgh and Glasgow. He produced his most significant work, "The Gateway to the Great Temple at Baalbec," in 1841 after traveling to the Middle East and witnessing the grand complex of ancient Roman ruins located in Baalbek, Lebanon.
The striking painting is today in the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
Visiting the Temples at Baalbek
Recognized by UNESCO in 1984, the ancient city of Baalbek and its magnificent ruins are located an hour’s drive east of Beirut. In his journal, Roberts described Baalbek’s temple gateway as "the most elaborate and exquisite work with details surpassing those of all the others that exist in the world," and those words continue to ring true today. In addition to visiting the gateway itself, you can marvel at the Roman temples of Bacchus, Jupiter and Venus.
A note of caution, though: Baalbek is located in close proximity to the Syrian border and is the administrative headquarters for Hezbollah, the violent Lebanese political and military unit. Before you visit, be sure to check the area's security status or arrange to visit the ruins with a reputable tour group.
“Prayer in the Mosque” - Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1871
Throughout his artistic career, famed French painter, sculptor and teacher Jean-Léon Gérôme traveled extensively to The Orient or, as we know it today, the Middle East. In 1868, while in Egypt, Gérôme visited the Mosque of Amr, a spectacular holy monument dating back to 642 AD.
Unfortunately, at the time, the mosque was abandoned, but through sketches, photographs and the help of his imagination, Gérôme was able to complete "Prayer in the Mosque," an oil painting depicting a cinematic scene of "rows of worshipers, ranging from the dignitary and his attendants to the loincloth-clad Muslim holy man," turned towards Mecca during daily prayers.
Gérôme published the painting in 1871 after returning from Egypt. Today, the original "Prayer in the Mosque" is available for viewing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Visiting the 'Amr Mosque
As the first mosque built in Egypt, the Mosque of Amr is one of Cairo's most popular tourist destinations. Private and group tours are available, and can last a single day or several. (Yes, there’s that much to see.)
“Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives” Edward Lear, 1858-1859
An avid traveler, painter and limerick poet, British-born Edward Lear began his professional career as an ornithological illustrator at the London Zoological Society, where he sharpened his sketching and drawing skills. Later in his career, he leveraged this experience to become a renowned landscape painter.
In 1837, at age 25, Lear left Britain and began traveling throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East. When he visited Jerusalem for the first time in 1858-59, he was inspired to sketch and later paint one of his best works, "Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives."
Currently, Lear's piece is available for viewing at The Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Visiting The Mount of Olives
The actual Mount of Olives sits a short 20-minute drive east of The Israel Museum that houses the painting of its likelihood. Once you walk — or preferably drive — up to the Mount of Olives' viewing promenade, you'll be able to take in the panoramic view of Jerusalem that so inspired Lear.
“Drug Store” - Edward Hopper, 1927
Fifteen years before American painter Edward Hopper painted the iconic "Nighthawks," he delivered an oil painting titled "Drug Store," currently on display at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.
The work features a solitary, brightly lit pharmacy window set against the backdrop of a dark and ominous street corner that's believed to have been inspired by a corner in New York City's Greenwich Village (more specifically, the corner of 154 West 10th Street and 184 Waverly Place).
Visiting 154 West 10th Street in Greenwich Village
If Silbers Pharmacy, the shop featured in Hopper's painting, ever existed, it's long gone now. However, in its place sits Three Lives and Company, a landmark Greenwich Village bookshop once described by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham as "one of the greatest bookstores on the face of the Earth." Additionally, there's plenty to do and see throughout New York's Greenwich Village, including some of the city's best restaurants and bars.
“Spring Morning in the Heart of the City” - Childe Hassam, 1890
When his family suffered a devastating financial blow in 1872, 13-year-old Childe Hassam left school to take on an accounting job with Little Brown & Company publishing in Boston. Inept with numbers but a natural at drawing, his father allowed him to quit accounting to pursue an art career. At the time he had no idea Hassam would go on to become one of the 19th century’s most pivotal figures in American impressionist painting.
Today, The Metropolitan Museum of Art is home to Hassam's famous "Spring Morning in the Heart of the City," an oil painting he completed in 1890 that features the entrance to the opulent Fifth Avenue Hotel facing Madison Square Park.
Visiting Madison Square Park
While the Fifth Avenue Hotel was demolished in 1908, Madison Square Park remains one of New York City's treasured urban sanctuaries. Open year-round, the park's calendar is stacked with free events and activities for families, as well as art, music and nature lovers.
“The Beach at Fécamp” - Albert Marquet, 1906
When he wasn't palling around with his close friend and famed artist Henri Matisse, Albert Marquet, born in 1875 in Bordeaux, France was traveling across Italy, Germany, Scandinavia and North Africa painting picturesque waterfronts and vistas.
But Marquet's greatest inspiration was the ports and beaches of Normandy, a region of Northern France about a three-hour drive from Paris. In 1906, Marquet produced "The Beach at Fécamp," a vibrant waterfront oil painting featuring the towering white cliffs synonymous with Fécamp’s historic fishing port and beach. The masterwork is today in the collection of the Paris Museum of Modern Art.
Visiting the Beach at Fécamp
After exploring Fécamp’s plethora of restaurants, churches and museums, you can stroll its stone beach or promenade and marvel at the stunning white cliffs along its coastline. And you definitely don’t want to miss visiting The Benedictine Palace. A museum, art gallery and distillery, the Palace is where, in the late 19th century, the world-famous herbal liquor Benedictine was born.
“Hall of the Ambassadors” - Joaquín Sorolla, 1909
In 1908, when he was 45 years old, Joaquín Sorolla, one of the great 20th century painters from Spain, traveled to Seville to paint Spanish king Alfonso XIII.
According to art curator Tomás Llorens, Sorolla's visit marred his opinion of the city and the region of southern Spain known as Andalusia. "He hated the bullfights, and the flamenco made him dizzy. He wrote to his wife that he was going to go to bed early because he couldn't stand the Andalusians."
However, his outlook took a positive turn a year later while visiting the ancient Alhambra Palace in Andalusia’s Granada, a three-hour drive east of Seville. While there he painted nearly every patio, pond and column of the palace, including its majestic "Hall of the Ambassadors."
This painting, also known as "The Court of the Myrtles," today belongs to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Visiting the Alhambra Palace
Built between 1238 and 1358, the Alhambra began as a military zone, but eventually became a home for the rulers and royals of the Nasrid Dynasty. Today, the Alhambra's pristine courtyards and lush gardens are open to the public for a fee.
“Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Ground” - John Constable, 1825
For British-born landscape painter John Constable, nature was muse. And unlike other painters of his time, he never left England in pursuit of exotic landscapes in faraway lands, preferring instead to paint the scenery around his boyhood home in Suffolk, England. As a result, Constable is credited with shaping the world's image of the English countryside.
During his career, Constable made numerous trips to Salisbury, where he sketched the gothic Salisbury Cathedral from a range of viewpoints. One of those visits yielded his magnificent oil painting, "Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Ground," part of the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Visiting Salisbury Cathedral
About a two-hour drive southwest of London, the city of Salisbury is home to the Salisbury Cathedral. Built between 1220 and 1258, the church boasts the tallest spire in England, standing at 404 feet. Additionally, the cathedral is home to one of only four copies of the Magna Carta, the famous human rights document issued by King John in 1215. Explore the cathedral on your own, or via an organized tour.
“Piazza San Marco” - Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1720s
Giovanni Antonio Canal, or Canaletto as he was widely known, is regarded as one of the 18th century’s most celebrated topographical painters. His highly detailed, large-scale depictions of locations in Venice and England won him fame and recognition, and his legacy has endured into the modern age.
In the early 1700s, while living in his hometown of Venice, Canaletto created a stunning oil painting of the city's famous "Piazza San Marco." To the untrained eye, Canaletto's rendition appears to be a mirror reflection of the piazza today. However, upon closer inspection, there are a few minor differences; as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which currently has the painting in its collection, puts it: "The windows of the bell tower are fewer in number than in actuality, and the flagstaffs are too tall, but otherwise Canaletto took few liberties with the topography."
Visiting Piazza San Marco
Any visit to the canal city of Venice requires a stop at the Piazza San Marco. In addition to rows of restaurants and bars, the piazza boasts the Basilica di San Marco, where legend has it a brave Venetian crew smuggled St. Mark's corpse out of Egypt in 828 AD, carrying him in a barrel of lard to avoid detection. Once returned to Venice, the city built the golden dome of the Basilica to house St. Mark’s body.