Planning to visit the MET but unsure what famous artwork you should see? Don’t worry, we are MET experts so we have you covered. Here are the most famous paintings that you absolutely positively should not miss when visiting the MET in New York City
Top 17 Paintings At The MET
Art is about emotion. It is an artist unleashing their innermost thoughts and feelings onto canvas for all to witness, but few to see and understand. If you look at a painting and don’t feel anything, that is because you are lacking its story and the very reason we recommend guided tours.
If you hear the story and don’t get chills, then it is not great artwork for its purpose is to inspire emotion. You don’t have to have a long art background to appreciate art. What will benefit you the most is a guide with a long art background who is skilled in the art of storytelling. This article is doesn’t replace a tour, but gives you a solid background to make a tour better. Check out our MET tours and New York City tours led by the city’s most passionate guides!
17. Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)
Jackson Pollock | 1950 | Enamel on canvas | Gallery 919
The number 1 complaint I hear about modern art and especially artists like Jackson Pollock is- ” I don’t see anything besides some paint thrown on a canvas”. Usually the people who say this are new to modern art and are more used to a coin I termed as ” Literal Art”. Literal art is a painting of a defined image such as a person, animal, or landscape. When you look at those images, you can identify with them, since you have seen similar images throughout your life.
Artists at the turn of the 20th century were looking for new ways to express an idea. In addition, they were searching for new techniques to express this idea. Still with me?
Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) uses a technique called ” Pouring”. According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, ” In 1947 Pollock first used the process of pouring or dripping paint onto a flat canvas in stages, often alternating weeks of painting with weeks of contemplating before he finished a canvas. This process allowed him to record the force and scope of his physical gesture in trajectories of enamel or aluminum paint.
The MET official archives says this about the painting, ” This work’s title suggests not only the month in which he painted it (October), but also an alignment with nature’s constant flux”. I couldn’t agree more.
“I intend to paint large movable pictures which will function between the easel and the mural. . . . the tendency of modern feeling is towards the wall picture or mural.Jackson Pollock
Piet Mondrian| 1921 | Oil on canvas | Gallery 912
If you like clean, cut edges and geometrical shapes then Piet Mondrian is the painter for you!
Piet Mondrian grew up in Holland and experimented with many different styles from forms of impressionism to Abstract Art. However he remains most famous for his creation of. thestyle called Neo-Plasticism. According to the Official Archives of the Tate Musuem, ” From the Dutch ‘de nieuwe beelding’, neo-plasticism basically means new art (painting and sculpture are plastic arts). It is also applied to the work of the De Stijl circle of artists, at least up to Mondrian’s secession from the group in 1923″.
” Composition” is an early example of “Neo-Plasticism”. Monodrian uses thick, black lines to divide the painting into 11 different sized rectangles. The primary shades are of red and blue. He created the lighter hues by mixing white with them.
Personally, in this style, it is a ” what you see is what you get”. This means that literally, you see some lines outlining geometrical shapes. However, if you look deeper, the painter creates depth and brings forth certain feelings. I have left below my favorite quote from the painter himself who explains the idea even better than myself.
As a pure representation of the human mind, art will express itself in an aesthetically purified, that is to say, abstract form. The new plastic idea cannot, therefore, take the form of a natural or concrete representation – this new plastic idea will ignore the particulars of appearance, that is to say, natural form and colour. On the contrary, it should find its expression in the abstraction of form and colour, that is to say, in the straight line and the clearly defined primary colour.Piet Mondrian
15. No. 13 (White, Red on Yellow)
Mark Rothko | 1958 | Oil and acrylic with powdered pigments on canvas | Gallery 919
I will admit that I prefer Renaissance art to modern art. However, as I have gotten older ( and wiser) I have learned to appreciate modern art more. One of the artists who has pulled me over to the dark side ( or light side depending on how you look at it) is Mark Rothko.
Unfortunately he suffered from severe depression and anxiety. He was a heavy drinker and smoker and at the age of 66 he committed suicide. Unlike many artists, he had enjoyed success during his lifetime as an artist.
“No. 13 (White, Red on Yellow)” as the name suggests uses three primary colors. By using these bright colors, he is creating a joyous mood as opposed to other paintings where he choose darker colors for a more brooding nature. The vertical display shows broad stripes of red and yellow which almost seem to be hovering and not touching the painting. This “halo” technique was possible by having the horizontal bands overlap background color.
According to the MET Official Archives the halo effect, ” It is also enhanced by the translucency of the paint, which was so diluted that it actually saturated and stained the fibers of the canvas”.
“I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on,” he declared. “And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions….If you…are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point.Mark Rothko
14. Gertrude Stein
Pablo Picasso | 1906-1906 | Oil on Canvas | Gallery 830
Sometimes looking at artwork gives you a look into the past. For example, before I saw this painting, I had no idea who Gertrude Stein was. After reading up on her, I was fascinated by her history and life. She grew up between the United States and France and even when to John Hopkins Medical school. That sounds normal enough nowadays but this took place back at the end of the 19th century!
She hosted a salon in Paris which drew in some of the most important literary and artistic figures of the time. According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, ” Her literary and artistic judgments were revered, and her chance remarks could make or destroy reputations”.
According to the MET official archives, ” For Picasso, Stein’s early patronage and friendship were critical to his success”. He painted her during his so-called ” Rose Period”. By studying this painting you can see how Picasso is slowly moving on to Cubism by reducing her body to simple masses. His study of Iberian sculpture is also prevalent here by portraying her face like a mask with heavy-lidded eyes.
Einstein was the creative philosophic mind of the century, and I have been the creative literary mind of the centuryGertrude Stein- American Writer
13. Woman with a Parrot
Gustave Courbet | 1866 | Oil on Canvas | Gallery 811
If Gustave Courbet had been alive in the 1980’s he probably would have been part of the Detroit Pistons ” Bad Boy” squad. How can you not like a guy who proclaims himself to be the, “proudest and most arrogant man in France”! I love this painting but definitely loved it more once I read that about the artist. Courbet was definitely out to shock and awe the French art world and he succeeded.
It all started in 1850 when Courbet displayed a group of large-scale paintings depicting regular day life. To us today, this doesn’t seem very extraordinary, but back in the day, these large-scale paintings were only used for historical genres. He further angered critics when he used his 3 sisters ( who were peasants” as models for a painting where he referred to them as demoiselles (young ladies). The critics basically told him that the girls were ugly and he needed to respect the differences in class boundaries and not call them by that noble title. He didn’t listen.
Courbet was such a bad-ass that he refused the award of the Legion of Honor, declaring himself independent of any form of government. Later in life, due to his political activities, the government arrested him and sentenced him to six months in jail. He eventually went into voluntary exile in Switzerland and died there in 1877. What a life and definitely not the typical one for an artist!
” Woman with a Parrot” received negative reviews such as “lack of taste” as well as his model’s “ungainly” pose and “disheveled hair.” However, the younger art generation embraced him. This is was due to their mutual disdain for academic standards. Manet started a similar painting the same year and supposedly Degas carried a small photograph of this art piece in his wallet!
12. Venus and the Lute player
Titian | 1565-70 | Oil on Canvas | Gallery 608
Titian is by far one of the most famous Italian Renaissance painters of all time. Known for his sensual and voluptuous paintings of women, he was the reigning artist king of Venice during his lifetime.
Titian continued the transition in artwork of his time from the Virgin Mary to Venus. Whereas all paintings in the early Renaissance would have pictured the saintly mother of god, later Renaissance works started to idolize Venus as the reigning Matriarch of beauty.
“Venus and the Lute Player” shows Venus, the goddess of love, surrounded by a lute player and her son cupid. In Renaissance times, the lute was the go-to instrument when writing or singing songs of love. You can imagine the famous traveling troubadours playing their pained songs of love to any damsel who would listen to them!
Titian captures the moment here where Venus takes a break from the lute player who is affectionately staring at the goddess of Love. At that moment cupid crowns Venus with a wreath of flowers. In the background, you can see satyrs and nymphs dancing to the song of a shepherd. If you have seen other paintings of Titian, some of his most famous are those of a sensual, naked woman in a slightly reclining pose looking off in the distance. According to the MET Official Archives, “Once believed to allude to contemporary debates concerning “seeing” versus “hearing” as the primary means for perceiving beauty, these pictures seem mainly to celebrate sensual pleasures”.
Having learned that female beauty, adorned or natural, would always find customers, Titian pursued the theme joyously.Will Durant- Historian
11. Young Mother Sewing
Mary Cassatt | 1900 | Oil on Canvas | Gallery 768
Mary Cassatt was one of the trailblazing female painters of the late 19th century. At that time, it was still frowned upon for women to have a profession as a painter. For example, she remarked at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia women students were patronized and were not allowed to work with live models. Fed up, she moved to Paris, but even in avant-garde Paris she wasn’t allowed to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
Therefore she started working privately with masters Jean-Leon Gerome and after Charles Chaplin. She befriended many of the Impressionist artists such as Degas, Pissaro and Monet.
As a father, there is something extremely delicate when you see a young mother and child together. Towards the end of the 19th century, Cassatt dedicated her energies towards painting women taking care of children and also children alone. For this painting, Cassatt brought in two unrelated models to act as mother and daughter. Sometimes the mundane creates a feeling of closeness to an experience we all have felt at some point. The simple moment these two figures are sharing is something millions of daughters and mothers have felt throughout time. I feel that Cassatt captures that perfectly here.
Look at that little child that has just thrown herself against her mother’s knee, regardless of the result and oblivious to the fact that she could disturb ‘her mamma.’ And she is quite right, she does not disturb her mother. Mamma simply draws back a bit and continues to sew.Louisine Havemeyer- Purchaser of the Painting in 1901
10. Study of a Young Woman
Johannes Vermeer | 1665-1667 | Oil on Canvas | Gallery 964
Compared to Dutch powerhouse painters like Rembrandt and Franz Hals, who were already famous in their lifetime, Johannes Vermeer was much less known. His artwork began to become recognized only at the end of the 19th century. Outside of art circles, he remained an obscure figure until the movie Girl with a Pearl Earring with Scarlett Johannson came out in 2003.
During his lifetime Vermeer only painted 43 known paintings and the majority of them were sold in the town of Delft where he lived. Unfortunately, he died at the young age of 43 leaving behind a wife and a whopping 11 children! Due to the financial crisis in Holland in the early 1670’s, his last few years were quite miserable.
“Study of a Young Woman” was not intended to be a portrait, even if a live model was used. These types of paintings were called ” tronies”, a term no longer used which meant heads, faces oor expressions. They were executed as a form of collectors items which displayed intriguing character types or exotic costumes. For example, the blue silk around the model’s shoulders was placed intentionally for the eyes of the buyer. This displayed the artists powers of invention and execution.
I find that the eyes of the girl in the picture are piercing right into your soul. However, the innocent almost sheepish look on her face explains that she has no ill will towards you and is not doing it intentionally.
9. Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement
Fra Filippo Lippi | 1440 | Tempera on Wood | Gallery 602
The life of Fra Filippo Lippi is as fascinating as reading a book, if not even more so! Orphaned at a young age, his aunt gave him over to a monastery. According to Giorgio Vasari, pirates kidnapped him and help him for 18 months as a slave until he painted a portrait of his owner.
Later in life, he had quite the scandal since he ended up having a relationship with a young nun, Lauri Buti. Apparently, he was caught and tortured and was only released after Cosimo de Medici stepped in to save him! On a side note, the union of the painter and his nun lover resulted in them getting married and having a son, Filippino Lippi who was a magnificent painter in the later 15th century.
According to the MET Official Archives, “Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement is the earliest surviving double portrait in Italy, the first to show the sitters in a domestic setting, and the first with a view onto a landscape”.
On the woman’s sleeve you can see the letters ” Lealta” (loyalty). There is a man who is staring at her ( almost uncomfortably close) at the window, so maybe this is her bethrothed? His hands are touching a coat of arms, which I am sure back in the day would have been recognizable to many who viewed this painting. Many art historians feel that this couple may be Lorenzo di Ranieri Scolari and Angiola di Bernardo Sapiti, who were married about 1439.
Lippi’s task was complicated by the Italian preference for the profile view as opposed to the three-quarter view preferred north of the Alps.MET Official Archives
8. The Musicians
Caravaggio ( Michelangelo Merisi) | 1597 | Oil on Canvas |
Caravaggio would have been the kind of dude you want to hang out with at a bar. But probably would not want to introduce to your family. Caravaggio’s life was anything but usual. For example, he walked around Rome with a sword, was supposedly part of a local gang, and even killed a man in a duel.
As a result of the killing, he was forced to flee Rome and traveled south painting along the way from Naples, to Sicily to Malta and back. As the legend goes, he was waiting for a pardon from Pope Urban VIII when one of his enemies finally caught up with him and killed him in Porto Ercole.
It would be difficult not to write an entire book about this painting or about Caravaggio’s artwork in general. Up to now, there were set templates of how to paint saints and holy people (being painted with ideal beauty and purity). Caravaggio smashed these concepts into the ground by painting saints and holy people as ordinary people with ordinary defects. This revolutionary idea forever changed the art world.
The Musicians is an earlier work by the master and resembles the paintings of youths you can see in the Borghese Gallery in Rome. A contemporary of Caravaggio, Giovanni Baglione, wrote that the artist, painted, ” a concert, with some youths portrayed from nature very well”. Most likely this is the painting in question. Interestingly Caravaggio makes a cameo here as the 2nd boy to the right!
7. Self Portrait with Straw Hat
Vincent Van Gogh | 1887 | Oil on Canvas | Gallery 825
Van Gogh painted over twenty self-portraits of himself! Don’t be so fast to judge him as the biggest narcissist on the planet however. Many artists used themselves as models to practice on, considering that models were quite expensive.
A classic example of Van Gogh’s gifts of color and expression, this painting is deceptively simple in its design. Hundreds of tiny paint strokes give the painting a moving, lively quality, and the simple contrasting color schemes allow the figure (Van Gogh himself!) to pop off the canvas. The light palette and straw hat suggest the kind of summer days and rural subjects that were Van Gogh’s obsessions during his short life.
What many people don’t know is that there is a different painting on the flip-side of the canvas. Van Gogh painted the Potato Peeler in 1885 and shows a peasant peeling potatoes. In 1887 he turned the canvas over and painted himself in a straw hat.
I purposely bought a good enough mirror to work from myself, for want of a modelVincent Van Gogh
6. Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies
Claude Monet | 1840-1842 | Oil on Canvas | Gallery 819
This one is one of my personal favorites for the peace it brings. It also showcases Monet at the top of his craft. Though a simple enough subject, the artist manages to capture the subtle differences of color between the pink lilies and the grassy foliage hanging over the water.
Monet was a passionate horticulturist and actually purchased property Giverny outside of Paris. The painting above depicts part of this property. Monet painted the wooden footbridge over the pond in a series of 12 paintings this rendition being his most celebrated.
A landscape does not get under your skin in one day. And then all of a sudden I had the revelation of how enchanting my pond was. I took up my palette. Since then I’ve hardly had any other subject.Claude Monet
5. The Dance Class
Edgar Degas | 1874 | Oil on Canvas | Gallery 815
Every time I look at this painting I get the ABBA song ” Dancing Queen” in my head! Dance was an obsession for the painter Degas and there is a similar painting about dancers in the Musée d’Orsay. In the movement and form of graceful ballerinas, he pushed forward the possibilities of Modernist art.
In the “Dance Class” you see a group of girls and their mothers who are standing around and watching the practice of one young girl. Watching the dancer is the famous ballet master Jules Perrot. While more than 100 years have gone by you could easily picture a scenario like this today in a ballet school. Young ballerinas practicing their routine, chatting with their friends, and watching the other girls dance. However, the rehearsal room depicted here would have been inside the old Paris Opera, which had recently burned down at the time of the painting.
Degas invites us to follow these scenarios as the natural lines of the painting guide our eyes to the back wall of the studio. The work is ultimately one of imagination.
4. The Gulf Stream
Winslow Homer | 1899 | Oil on Canvas | Gallery 767
“The Gulf Stream” predates the popular film ” Jaws” by almost 100 years, but the fear effect is similar. To be stranded at sea is bad enough, but adding hungry sharks to the mix is definitely worse. Personally, this ranks very high as one of my biggest fears!
In the later years of Winslow Homer’s life, he lived in almost total seclusion along the coast of Maine. While he was interested in the sea, in his later years he was almost obsessed with it and our vulnerability in regards to it.
He traveled many times during the winter to the Bahamas and there he found the inspiration for this painting. The gulf stream is the warm current that flows from the north of the Atlantic down to the Southern Atlantic.
In the painting, a man faces a fairly hopeless solution. The boat has suffered some calamity is without a mast and rudder. Next to his feet, you can see a few stalks of sugar cane which is the man’s only form of food. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to the man, is a ship in the distant horizon which Homer later added to the composition as a sign of hopeful rescue.
According to the MET Official Archives, ” Painted shortly after the death of his father, in 1898, the painting has been interpreted as an expression of the artist’s presumed sense of mortality and vulnerability”.
3. The Death of Socrates
Jacques Louis David | 1787 | Oil on Canvas | Gallery 614
This touching painting will mean almost nothing to the viewer without context and knowing the story. For example, the painting could be a depiction of a group of classical-styled men having an interesting conversation. And at one point a servant gives the most important man in the center a cocktail ( wine back in the day). However, what that man is giving him is the poison hemlock!
Socrates (470-390 BC) was one of the most disruptive philosophers in classical times. His most famous student was Plato who recorded the death scene of Socrates in his work Phaedo. Convicted of impiety, he was sentenced to death. He could have recanted but seemed to die willingly by drinking the poison. As Plato tells it, Socrates surrounded himself by his closest pupils and discussed the immortality of the soul as he drunk the deadly elixir.
David lost his father to a duel ( still a thing back in the day). His uncles cared for him and, it was obvious that he possessed great talent in the arts. In his early artistic years, he had many trials and tribulations and even tried to commit suicide by starvation ( the stoic way). Eventually, he won a scholarship to study in Rome and that’s when he began to blossom.
David became one of the most important Neoclassicist painters of the period. For the Death of Socrates, he consulted antiquarian scholars in order to give a genuine representation of the furniture and even clothing of that time. During the revolution and after he became famous as the official painter of Napoleon and his masterpiece Coronation of Napoleon.
The art of antiquity will not seduce me, for it lacks livelinessJacques Louis David
2. Washington Crossing the Delaware
Emanuel Leutze | 1851 | Oil on Canvas | Gallery 760
Arguably one of the most famous pictures of American patriotism ( At least for me). “Washington Crossing the Delaware” is emblematic of perseverance in the face of great odds. This large canvas painting has been copied and recopied, parodied, and celebrated countless times in its history.
Though painted almost one hundred years after the events it depicts, the painting presents Washington’s perilous journey across the frozen Delaware river with immediacy and passion. Depleted and short on morale, the men of Washington’s company crossed Delaware in a surprise attack on enemy troops quartered in Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas Day 1776.
A fire actually damaged the painting in Leutze’s studio in 1850. It was again damaged in a bombing raid in 1942 and thankfully is still with us today! In 1851, Marshall, Marshall O. Roberts bought the painting for $10,000. According to Official Data, that would be a whopping $342k today!
1. Julie Le Brun Looking in a Mirror
Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun | 1787 | Oil on Canvas | Gallery 616
Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun possessed a life made for a movie. ( In writing this article I actually looked for a film about her and found it on Amazon 🙂
Le Brun is one of the finest 18th-century French painters and arguably one of the most important of all woman artists. She taught herself how to paint and was extremely talented. She lived during the turbulent times of the French Revolution and still, she achieved great success.
Elizabeth Le Brun married at 21 to a leading art dealer in Paris and due to his profession, she was not accepted at first into the prestigious Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. However, she just so happened to know Queen Marie Antoinette who knew a few people and was admitted at the age of 28.
Once the French Revolution broke out, she was forced to flee France since she was pretty tight with the Queen. She lived in Italy for a while before eventually returning to France.
Julie Le Brun Looking in a Mirror is an amazing representation of Le Brun’s only child. Le Brun made the same innovative portrait two years earlier of her daughter. The double image plays on reality versus illusion and shows even more so how talented an artist Le Brun really was. I chose this painting as number one, not only due to its uniqueness in character, but also its impossible perspective. Le Brun’s talent is truly on full display as one of the master portrait artists of the 18th century.
These portraits capture a new appreciation in late eighteenth-century Europe of childhood as a unique, impressionable moment of life distinct from adulthood.MET Official Archives