Whenever I go to Chicago, I try to make time to visit the Art Institute of Chicago with three of my favorite paintings: American Gothic by Grant Wood, Nighthawks by Edward Hopper and A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat. Each of these pictorial works have strong storytelling qualities and intriguing existential atmospheres. They pull you in; they compel you to ask questions about the lives of the people immortalized on canvas.
Some years ago my family and I visited Paris, and I felt obliged to take them to the Louvre, even though I prefer the Musée d’Orsay, with probably the world’s greatest collection of impressionist paintings—including one of my favorite Van Gogh paintings: Vincent’s Bedroom in Arles (he painted three versions). We eventually got to see that simple, beautiful, off-kilter bedroom and some of his starry nights (my favorite one of these is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York), but not before digging through the thick Louvre crowds to see Mona Lisa smile (sort of). I don’t really understand the scale of her attraction, although I expect it’s mostly because she’s so damn famous. Her celebrity is undeniable; I suspect most people just want the chance to tell their friends they saw Leonardo DaVinci’s painting.
I know this week’s question is hard to answer. I could easily mention a dozen or two other paintings that always move me, including German Expressionist paintings by Otto Dix and Max Beckmann (Neues Museum in Berlin) and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (New York’s MoMA). It’s not just their intense, unexpected colors and fascinating subjects that lure me, but also how they foreshadow their society’s evolving madness. I’m always motivated to see the saturated meditations of Mark Rothko, the dynamic disorder composed by Jackson Pollack or any number of surrealists that push me to rethink my perceptions and assumptions of how life is supposed to be. I could go on, but I prefer to hear from you.
So: What are your favorite paintings? What draws you to them and why? Do you revisit them again and again like I do, even though they’re very familiar? And are there other art forms you prefer over painting?
As always, please do be respectful of each other.
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*Images: American Gothic, NIghthawks, and A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (first row); Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden, Mona Lisa and The Starry Night (second row); author’s photo at Louvre as crowd gazes at Mona Lisa (third row).
When I write these Saturday prompts, I never quite know how engaged will be the response, particularly when the topic is unrelated to the political sphere. What a delight to read the beautiful responses to today’s prompt. I’m grateful for America, America’s thoughtful community.
I'm a tremendous admirer of the Fauvists. I love Matisse's "Woman With a Hat" and Modigliani's "Girl in a Sailor's Blouse."
My favorite picture is not a VanGogh or Vermeer, a Matisse or Wyeth. It is a black and white Currier and Ives picture called Home to Thanksgiving by G. H. Durrie (1820-1863) which shows a city man returning home for the holiday to the farm where he was raised.It shows his horse drawn buggy, his family's welcome, a haystack, barn , cattle, chickens, an oxen pulled load of logs all in a black and white, snowy landscape with leafless trees and a grey sky. It hangs in the DC Nat'l Gallery of Art, donated by Paul Mellon of the Pittsburgh Mellon Bank family, a philanthropist and when accounting began in 1957, was one of 8 richest Americans ($7B in today's money). I love it because it hung above my father's roll top desk forever, and when I look at my smaller copy, I remember him, the desk where he prepared lessons for school and men's Bible class, and sitting in my grandmothers old fashioned padded rocking chair. It also reminds me of my mother. He kept postage stamps in one of the cubby holes, doled them out to her but made her pay him. They were 3cent stamps !! She fooled him though, found a way to open the desk with two knives under the closed lid against the lock.
So , as I sit here looking at the print as I write, it is a beautiful picture to me in more ways than one.
Paris Street; Rainy Day by Caillebotte
In Chicago? Go to the Field and see about 50 sculptures from the largest bronze commission in art history - the artist ? Malvina Hoffman 1885-1966 one of the most famous sculptors of the 20th century. She was compared to Michelangelo by the NY Times and earned a front page Times Obit. Erased from history because of gender, and the Field archived this commission into their basement because “they are a natural history museum” helping to destroy her legacy. She was the highest paid artist ever in 1930. The few bronzes on display (hard to find) are gorgeous. Rodin legacy, she was a household name at her death. Enjoy!
I’m a fan of Andrew Wyeth, although your choices are among some of my favorites also.
The Chicago Art Institute is one of my favorite museums. It was the first major museum I visited. On that visit at 19 . There was a special of Picasso , his famous mask had just been installed . The art was literally jaw dropping . Picasso continues to be ani g my favorites . Monet is also one of my favorites , his paintings of course, but gardens are out of this world beautiful as well. Turner is a favorite too, especially his later works ! Too many others to name . I hope you get to see the Mona Lisa in off season sometime. Much more impressive , the eyes they watch you ❤️
Anything Van Gogh. One of the reasons I love Amsterdam. I grew up with the Cleveland Museum of Art so I had exposure to art from the entire world but there’s something about Vincent!
Georgia O'Keefe donated more paintings to the Art Institute, which she attended as a student, than any other institution in the world and was one of the most influential artist of the 20th Centerury. Her prominence in the museum is evident when you visit but not mentioned here. I love her flowers (which were scoffed at by critics when they were first shown) Cow's Skull, Black Cross and Sky Above Clouds are among my favorites that are on exhibition there. She had a huge impact on modern art. I was a student at the school back in the 70's before it was expanded and Impressionism was part of our everyday lives. Manet, Van Gough, Cassatt, Degas, Renoir... We were spoiled rotten.
Your posts are always so thought provoking. This one made me go back to when I was 10 years old taking free Saturday morning art lessons at the Cincinnati Art Museum. My friend’s dad would drop us off there and pick us up later. I was able to walk around and see some of the oldest art, remembering now a primitive sculpture of a fertility goddess and the old smell of the building. Also, I loved the room with dresses through the ages. ...I am a working artist now and I hope that Jeannette is too because she was so very skilled by our senior year in high school. We had an amazing high school art teacher! In college, I was exposed to many movements, many styles. I love artists that use a variety of line quality like Jim Dine (heart series), Georgia O’Keeffe, and especially Toulouse Lautrec. Last year, I finally saw a real Toulouse Lautrec up close at d’Orsay. Incredible! It was on sewn together pieces of burlap canvas. I wanted to know more of the back story! And I’m remembering the first time I saw a real Van Gogh at the Met. Unexpectedly, I began to cry, seeing up close the VERY thick application of paint. The color was amazing! It moved me to tears and I cannot explain why. Maybe because photos in my art history book could never really capture its dimension. Visual art often reaches our hearts first rather than our minds. And I actually love that I cannot intellectualize that feeling. ...people laugh when I say I don’t like to go to museums. Mostly, it’s because I wish Art wasn’t so tucked away, but would always be public and easily accessible to everyone. ...Thank you for the question. It’s giving me another level of gratitude for my education and parents who didn’t understand any of it but didn’t stand in the way!
I love the sensual nature of Georgia O’Keeff’s works.
I am not someone who tends to visit art museums. Don’t know that much about paintings. However… That doesn’t mean I don’t have a couple of favorites. I’ve always loved the Edward Hopper that you showed. As you said, I cannot help wondering about those people, especially the lone man and his loneliness. I also love Thomas Gainsborough‘s The Blue Boy and did get to see that at The Huntington in California. There’s something about his piercing eyes, his expression which is sort of Mona Lisa-ish in it’s ambiguity, and the lighting that draws me in. I just stare at it whenever I see a photo of that painting. I also love anything by Roy Lichtenstein. While the first two paintings I mentioned have a somberness to them, Lichtenstein just makes me smile. And I could not finish this paragraph without sharing that many years ago, when I had moved into a new home, a traditional colonial, I was looking for wallpaper for the powder room. The powder room had a very nice marble counter around the sink, and the whole feel of the room was quite traditional. I ended up with a lovely floral print, which I always loved. However, there was a wallpaper I did not choose that I sometimes regret not choosing. It was composed of squares, about 4” X 4”, and in each square was a copy of the Mona Lisa. When I looked at the wallpaper for a little while, drawn in by her smile, I began to see that some of the squares had her with crossed eyes, some had her with a thin mustache, and I don’t remember what the other renderings were. I did not have the nerve to buy it, but it still makes me laugh when I think about what it would have been like to wallpaper the powder room with it and wait to hear reactions from any guests who noticed the hilarious renderings.
This is such a great thread. As a painter, seeing that so many people are moved by paintings is heartening. My list would be too long, but there some that really stand out.
Almost anything by Agnes Martin, especially her gold grid piece.
Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings.
Goya’s Saturn Eating His Children and a painting of a small dog.
Manet’s Dead Toreador (or Dead Soldier.... I’ve seen both titles).
Gerhart Richter’s Baader Meinhof series plus a painting of a roll of toilet paper.
Some “unfinished” Turners that were shown at the Met Breuer about a decade ago.
Caravaggio’s Conversion of St. Paul
A whole trove of Chinese landscapes and Japanese Zen paintings.
Winslow Homer’s The Hunt. This is the painting that, when I saw it in the mid ‘80s, I had the epiphany that I was going to be an artist.
I am excited to go back to Chicago this summer for a wedding but will make time to see Seurat's " A Sunday afternoon..."
Went to the Van Gogh immersive last year & was awed
Love the pure American starkness of Hooper's "Nighthawks"
For me, seeing Picasso's "Guernica" was amazing
Looking forward to next year's Monet immersive-Happy to have been to Giverny
All the paintings in the Art Institute that you cite are wonderful; I grew up in suburban Chicago and this was the art museum I grew up on. Another gem at the AIC is a fairly small painting by Delacroix. It is one of the series of Arab horsemen fighting a lion or tiger; tremendous use of color and line and the composition is a vertically stacked corkscrew of the man/horse/big cat. Dazzling.
Favorite paintings are by Chardin, the 18th c. French master of still lifes and small genre paintings. Like Vermeer's paintings, they exist in a limpid and quiet space where only a handful of colors create luminous miracles of atmosphere, balance, and repose. Denis Diderot wrote movingly of Chardin's paintings describing "the silent life of inanimate objects" and how the greatness of those modest compositions take on a kind of grandeur. The best still life painter of all time.
I totally agree with you about musee d’orsay, one of the finest museums I’ve ever been to.
If you like impressionists and post impressionists, i highly recommend the Cortauld museum in london.
I grew up going to the met and moma in nyc and there are several paintings in each that I revisit and spend a lot of time looking at in both museums:
By Matisse, monet, modigliani, cezanne, gauguin.
There are several pieces by each that i would co7nt among my favorites.
But the work that i find most impressive and endlessly fascinating is
Monet’s water lilies at musee de l’orangerie in paris.
Lately I've been enjoying Kazamir Mahlevic, and Piet Mondrian. So much so, I started making copies of them. Not sure why I like them, nor do I really care to know.
I have seen some of the paintings you mention and my favorite is the Renoir “Dance at Bougival” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Go there to see it and take in a baseball game at Fenway Park.
In addition to the ones mentioned, I love Renoir's "Boating Party" which is at the Phillips Gallery in D.C.. Also, I went to the Louve many years ago, and had a chance to spend a long time looking and loving the Mona Lisa before it was before all the protective glass. Just great...Also, loved "Winged Victory" Statue down the hall.
My favorite artist right now is Denis Sarazin. The colors and light are breathtaking, I’m also a big fan of Egon Schiel. But I must say my all time favorite is N C Wyeth. When I was about 15 I saw a showing of his paintings and illustrations. I didn’t know color could be like that. A fabulous day I’ll always remember.
Virtually anything by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Goya, and Velasquez; many of which I've been fortunate to see in person.
When I visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art I always pay a visit to The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner. I also love his painting The Banjo Lesson but I've never seen it in person. A number of years ago there was a Wyeth exhibit in Phila. A painting entitled Pentecost by Wyeth was breath-taking.
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch. Did you know the Art Institute of Chicago fired a bunch of elderly volunteers because they were white? Such a tolerant and loving display of anti-racism!
Judy Chicago, "The Dinner Party," at the Brooklyn Museum. Beautiful, didactic, an aggressive Feminist statement at exactly the right time, and it's collaborative in ways that have influenced subsequent generations of artists.
Dear Steven B. I love your posts generally, but especially when you ask a question that sends me rummaging about in my by now capacious 75-year old memory. I thought about this for quite a while - what are my favorite paintings, and why? And what emerged was that (a) I have too many favorites to pick just a few (like my children), and (b) proximity seems to have had a lot to do with it.
I'm originally from Santa Fe, so I grew up in what was then basically an art colony (though regrettably now a "brand) so my first experiences with art were formed by a passion for Indian rugs and pottery. I have a lot of both. My Two Grey Hills rug and a particular Acoma pot are the things I grab if the house burns. For some reason these beautiful objects captivated me from childhood and even today feel like artifacts of my own early life - my roots.
The Taos Society of Artists were the first to capture my attention in a museum. I would stand, utterly captivated, by the work of Gustave Baumann, who seemed to see the landscape the way I did. Or more likely, it was he who taught me to see. Either way, the magic of an artist teaching me to SEE began with him, and I think became the essence of why I fall in love with any piece of art.
Many years later, in the 70's, I was living in NYC, working at CBS TV Network, which was in the same block on West 53rd Street as MOMA. I had a membership and used to smuggle in a sandwich and eat my lunch sitting alongside Picasso's Goat in the sculpture garden. That goat and I became fast friends.
In the 80's I worked for a Dutch entertainment company and traveled frequently to Holland, then and on to France for film and tv festivals. The proximity of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam led to an obsession with his Irises. I once spent more than a week trekking around Provence trying to see it all through his eyes. In Saint-Rèmy-de-Provence I took hundreds of photographs of purple irises, to the point where passers-by surely thought I was possessed. Same in Arles. When I think back on it now, I was sort of stalking Vincent. It was wonderful!
Living in Seattle in the mid 2000's I chanced upon an exhibition of the paintings of Jacob Lawrence and his wife, Gwendolyn Knight. Their combined work took my breath away and diverted my gaze from the largely white, Euro-centric paintings I'd been exposed to in the museums of NYC, Paris, and Amsterdam. It was revelatory and brought me deep into a visual expression of the vibrancy of Black life in America that was a new way of seeing for me. And again, the work mattered and still matters to me because it taught me how to see in new ways.
Lastly, the only print I have on my office wall here in Portland takes me back home again. It's Georgia O'Keeffe's iconic 1930 Black Mesa Landscape Out Back of Marie's II. I'm heading back to Santa Fe in the Fall for a much-needed return to my roots. It's where I go when I'm out of gas, fed up, exhausted, running on empty. When I need to be quiet for a while. I'll visit my old friends there. Gustave Baumann will be waiting, so will Ernest Blumenshein, Walter Ufer ... and, of course, Georgia. Georgia's on my mind.
p.s. I love the depth of the passion shown by others who responded to your Note. They're all right. You love what you live and sometimes don't know why. Analysis won't get at the depth of it. When we stand in awe before a Van Gogh, or a Lautrec, or Matisse, or O'Keeffe, or, Hopper, or Cassat ... or a thousand more artists ... we experience an increasingly rare virtue: Reverence. Great art can get right past all of our prejudices and preconceptions and speak in an instant to that quiet thing within us, waiting for a moment of transcendence.
Like many others who have commented here, I also grew up in Chicago and deeply love the Art Institute. It has had a huge effect on my life, being the first art museum I ever visited. It makes me happy to hear from all the others here who make a habit of visiting specific paintings in their favorite museums.
Of all the great work at the Art Institute, my absolute favorite is The Golden Wall by Hans Hoffman. Last time I was in Chicago, I was so sad to see it wasn’t on display.
I love the joy and exuberance of the bright orange abstract shapes and the remarkable, vibrant blue rectangle that’s the painting’s center of attention. It may be the most gorgeous, vibrant use of complementary colors I’ve ever seen.
I also love almost anything by John Singer Sargent.
I did a trip to Amsterdam and Paris with my eldest kiddo and their fine art classmates this spring so I saw a ton of great art. Loved the Picasso Museum and the Van Gogh Museum. Starry Night on the Rhone was special. And I saw Starry Night at the MOMA a decade ago. Just perfect
I don't go to museums much, and don't live near any great ones. The pictures I've seen have been mostly in print or online. I like the French impressionists for their break from formality. I like the Dutch painters for their scenes of everyday life, like the Potato Eaters. But most of all I like the paintings my father did after he retired. He painted scenes from the American southwest, and some very detailed paintings of cacti. I get to see them every day on my walls.
"The New American Gothic" by Criselda Vasquez, of her parents. A blog shows more of her beautiful art and describes her feelings about her parents as they appear in the painting:
I too LOVE 'Nighthawks' so I hope you'll forgive an old fella taking liberties by imagining the 'noises off', the story just before or after the picture was frozen into our consciousness ... and I have probably breached all kinds of Substack protocols by sharing the tale here:
Don't miss "Charity" by Francesco de Mura, one of the most beautiful 18th century Neapolitan paintings!
Favorites?? So many, too many to name. there are 4 Art Museums in Paris that truly are a must see -Musée du Louvre:, Musée d'Orsay, Musée Rodin, Musée de l'Orangerie: Spent days seeing all I could see. Paintings that make me feel a 'oneness' or maybe a close observer (words fail me) - when I feel a sense of calm, gentle quietness, and am drawn into it. Soft smiling back at Mona Lisa, or wanting to trail my fingers in the water by the water Lillies., or stroll with the people in the park holding a gauzy parasol.
I am in awe of the painters that made me feel these emotions with their work
I wouldn't necessarily say it's a favorite, but Klimt's The Scream seems to me to capture our times pretty well...which I guess means we've seen similar times before.
Having grown up in Chicago, I fully agree with a visit to the Art Institute. And Seurat's Sunday Afternoon is breathtaking when encountered as you walk into its gallery.
My parents took me to the Louvre as a youngster but I cannot remember any specific paintings, though if Michaelangelo's David is there, or The Pieta...beyond words especially for a kid. Time to return.
The End of Dinner by Jules-Alexandre Grun (1913) fascinates me. Who are the people in the painting? What are they talking about? The young woman, delicately putting on her gloves, the woman using her fan to drive home a point of conversation. The overall elegance of the setting. I could lose myself in that painting.
I also love the Frederick Church’s landscapes. He captures light so beautifully. His paintings almost glow from within.
Yep same here with D'Orsay. It's my pick if I have to choose only one musee in Paris.
Rainy Day, Boston, by Childe Hassam. I see the picture and I feel the rain almost instantly.
We just visited Art Institute today, saw all three of your favorites and I have to agree with your choices. “Nighthawks” is my favorite of the three.
I like Thomas Hart Benton's folk representations of an American era, The Hail Storm in particular. Another favorite is The Kiss by Klimt. I'll mention another artist, likely not well known. She lives in the Mother Lode foothill town of Sonora, Ca. Gwynn Popovac utilizes several mediums but her painting, Crossing the Bridge is very special.
Not a huge art fan but favorites are Monet, Matisse, and Renoir.
This is a very east question for me. Anything by Monet goes into my favorites list. Top of the list is, of course, Water Lilies. When I go to MoMA, for whatever special exhibit, or to spend a day with the Impressionists, as soon as I enter the building, the first thing I do is rush up to the Water Lilies room, and then sit on 1 of the benches and relax and take in the splendor, the colors, the style, the en plein air effects, the peace of the Water Lilies which encircle the room. I sit there for a long time taking it all in. Then I take some videos - I probably have a video circling the room for every visit to MoMA over the last many years. I also take some selfies of my standing in front of of the Water Lilies. What a beautiful, serene, incredibly artistic background. Before leaving the room I also spend some time with the Agapanthus, beautiful flowers, and a beautiful painting of them. I then take in as many Monet paintings as I find in the museum; and then I spend time with the Impressionists and Modern Art painters, e.g. Van Gogh, Matisse, Gaughan, Picasso, Chagall, Mondrian, Seurat. Because I have such a passion for this genre of art, I have decorated my home with prints of Monet paintings and prints of paintings of the other Impressionists and Modern Artists. And yes, when I go to The Met, my first destination is also the Impressionism section, where I will find Monet's Japanese Bridge and other Monet favorites, as well as favorites in the rest of the Impressionism world. Wherever I am looking at a Monet painting, or other painting from the Impressionism genre or the Modern Art genre, is my "happy place".
The Rothko chapel is one of the most inspiring and meditative spaces in the world. It changed the way I felt about art.
Thanks for sharing, Steven! Van Gogh's Starry Night is also one of my favorite paintings. Sargent's "Lily, Carnation, Carnation, Lily" at the Tate Britain is also a favorite of mine. My favorite genre is definitely the Impressionists although I also like the Pre-Raphaelites a lot as well.
El Rio de Luz -- The River of Light -- painted by the Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church in 1877. Well, he actually worked on it for years, but he finally finished it then. It's in the National Gallery, and I spent hours looking at it on countless Saturdays when I lived in Washington. It's a large-scale painting, and though, at first glance, there seem to be no human beings in it, if you look at it up close, you can see a tiny figure center right in the slightly upper area of the canvas who looks to be paddling a small boat. One of the things this painting shows is the relative position of the human being in comparison to the ecology of the natural world that sustains him/her. Every good thing about the Luminist Movement shines in this painting. There is a really good, largely color-true image of this painting on Wikimedia Commons at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:El_Rio_de_Luz_%28The_River_of_Light%29_by_Frederic_Edwin_Church,_1877,_oil_on_canvas_-_National_Gallery_of_Art,_Washington_-_DSC00074.JPG
As you have said, this is a hard one. Some paintings are wonderful and some I saw at a special time or in special book, or with a special friend. The art brings back memories that cannot be separated from the work itself. I saw Picassos with my mother, Turners, Klimts, Winslow Homer on vacation, the huge van Goh Sunflower knocked me out when I stood before them.
Of course the paintings by my kids on the refrigerator are favorites too.
Thanks for a lovely distraction.
I visit the Art Institute frequently, and I’ve recently taken my grandsons to see the paintings. My favorite painting there is Nighthawks by Edward Hopper. My grandsons were more impressed with the iconic lions at the entryway. I visited the Louvre when I was much younger. I didn’t understand the fascination with the Mona Lisa.
Picasso's "The Old Guitarist."
I am drawn to Vermeer's paintings. But, alas, I don't remember which or where! My favorite art museum is Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. And the "Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Exhibit" was out of this world!
Oh I saw that brilliant Otto Dix portrait of Sylvia bon Harden in Paris last year!! It’s amazing! It was part of an exhibit I went to see for the August Sander photographs. As an old art history major, I’m partial to The Marriage of Arnolfini by Van Eyck, the Grünewald Isenheim Alterpiece in Colmar, Minch’s self portrait with cigarette and his Vampire. I love expressionism old and new. I also always pop by to say hello to Whistler’s Mothrr when I’m at the musée d’Orsay
I was visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY many years ago. As I descended the stairs, reaching the bottom I looked up and saw Madame X by John Singer Sargent. It took my breath away and I stood mesmerized. I had to find the story of the painting which I pasted below. It makes the painting even more intriguing to me. Her stature and boldness appealed to me. It has since been my favorite painting and I visit it whenever I am in NY.
Madame Pierre Gautreau (the Louisiana-born Virginie Amélie Avegno; 1859–1915) was known in Paris for her artful appearance. Sargent hoped to enhance his reputation by painting and exhibiting her portrait. Working without a commission but with his sitter’s complicity, he emphasized her daring personal style, showing the right strap of her gown slipping from her shoulder. At the Salon of 1884, the portrait received more ridicule than praise. Sargent repainted the shoulder strap and kept the work for over thirty years. When, eventually, he sold it to the Metropolitan, he commented, “I suppose it is the best thing I have done,” but asked that the Museum disguise the sitter’s name.