The Top Ten Worlds Finest Art Museums & Galleries
Art museums are one of the few undisputedly good ideas humanity has ever had. The collection of our greatest works and their presentation to the public both preserves and perpetuates the creative spirit and its paragons.
For most of us who have a deep appreciation for art or have chosen an artistic path in life, we can trace these feelings and aspirations back to a visit to a museum when we were young—awed by the hallowed grandeur of the space, and the sense of closeness to generations of legendary masters.
Museums are the spiritual nexi of any community and can be found everywhere, from the biggest city to the smallest town. A few, however, stand above the rest as beacons of art and culture. The ten museums in this list are considered the best in the world—sites of tourism and pilgrimage for people across the globe, and are sure to provide unforgettable experiences for artists and art lovers of all kinds.
The Louvre, Paris
It will probably come as no surprise that the Louvre ranks first on this list. From its murky origins as a medieval fortress to its role as palace to French king Charles V and, later, esteemed artists’ residence, the opulent chateau now houses the finest collection of ancient, classical, and Renaissance art in the world. Visitors to the Louvre, who regularly number over 9 million per year, have the chance to see such iconic works as the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Venus de Milo, and, of course, the most famous painting of all time, the Mona Lisa. With endless corridors of priceless artworks and baubles and even an entire underground mall, the Louvre is one of the few museums in the world where one can literally get lost in the art.
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
The second museum on the list actually stands within sight of the Louvre, just across the Seine. Built into a turn-of-the-century railway station, complete with massive clocks and vaulting glass ceiling, half the experience of visiting this museum is the architecture itself. The d’Orsay houses mostly French artworks, and given the fame and influence of France in the art world over the past centuries, it is no wonder it is one of the most popular museums in the world. Legendary works by Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Henri Rousseau, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, and many others are all housed within this fabulous structure.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Usually shortened to “the Met,” this museum is the largest in the western hemisphere. A repository for all kinds of art and artifacts, the museum’s sprawling collection is divided into seventeen sections, spanning everything from Egyptian mummies to postmodern sculpture. Among its more famous painterly works can be found Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream, El Greco’s View of Toledo, van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, and Thomas Cole’s The Oxbow. While most of the museum’s collection is housed at their main building on Fifth Avenue, the Met also operates The Cloisters in upper Manhattan, which contains a large collection of medieval art and architecture.
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Originally built in 1785 to house the national history cabinet of the Spanish monarchy, the Prado was later transformed into a public museum of Spanish art and sculpture. Though the Prado eventually branched out to acquire other important European works, artists like Goya still reign supreme. The bulk of this artist’s oeuvre resides here, from his unsettling court portraits to his lugubrious and enigmatic “black paintings.” Other works to be found here include Velázquez’s Las Meninas, Breugel’s The Triumph of Death, and Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, formerly housed in the Spanish royal palace, El Escorial.
Tate Modern, London
Like the d’Orsay, part of the allure of visiting the Tate Modern comes from the architecture itself. Built into the enormous Bankside Power Station, the museum is a tour de force in brutalism and echo-chamber ambience. Dedicated to more modern works than the previous museums on this list, the Tate Modern houses experimental interwar works of Klee and Braque and more postmodern/contemporary pieces by artists like Matisse and Twombly. The Tate Modern is also heavily sculpture-oriented, with a variety of eye-catching and interactive exhibits which interrogate the boundary between artist and observer.
State Hermitage, Saint Petersburg
Originally the residence of the Russian tsar for nearly 200 years, the Hermitage sits in gilded repose on the banks of the Neva. With its five palatial structures, it is the largest museum in the world by floorspace. Within the Hermitage, you will find a menagerie similar to that of the Met, with everything from ancient Egyptian and near eastern artifacts to 20th century painting. Here, visitors can encounter lesser-known but no less stunning works by van Gogh, Rembrandt, Monet, da Vinci, and Kandinsky.
Vatican Museums, Vatican City
The Vatican Museums are a series of galleries housing the art collection of the Catholic Church. Operated for half a millenium by one of the most powerful institutions on Earth, it is no surprise that the Vatican’s collection of Renaissance and classical works rivals even that of the Louvre. Among the most famous pieces are Rafael’s The School of Athens, Da Vinci’s Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, and Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ. Also included in the complex is the Sistine Chapel itself, where visitors are free to gaze upon Michaelangelo’s magnum opus including his Creation of Adam and The Last Judgment.
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
The National Gallery was established by Congress in 1937 and is located in the National Mall. Divided into two parts—a neoclassical edifice by John Alexander Pope and a modernist construction by I.M. Pei—the Gallery’s mission is to chronicle the history of Western art from the Middle Ages to the present. Among the museum’s international collection can be found Raphael’s Saint George and the Dragon, Monet’s Woman with a Parasol, Rousseau’s The Equatorial Jungle, van Gogh’s Self-Portrait (1889), and many others. The Gallery’s American collection boasts Childe Hassam’s Allies Day, May 1917, Winslow Homer’s Breezing Up (A Fair Wind), and many pieces by masters of the Hudson River School Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church.
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Like the other New York museum on this list, the Museum of Modern Art is usually referred to by its nickname, MoMA. Founded through the efforts of Abby Rockefeller and her cadre of high-society New York socialites, MoMA is a comprehensive collection of 20th century masterworks. To give just a small idea of the rarities to be found inside, MoMA is home to Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory, and van Gogh’s Starry Night.
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
Last on the list, the Art Institute of Chicago is another historic American museum dedicated to both ancient art objects and modern masterpieces. Located between the University of Chicago and Lake Michigan, the museum holds everything from a priceless hoard of Asian and Mediterranean artifacts to a top-tier collection of impressionist, expressionist, and realist paintings. Among the most famous works are Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street: Rainy Day, and Grant Wood’s American Gothic.
Of course, the quality of a museum doesn’t just depend on how many famous works it has. A museum is as much about the experience as the artworks themselves, and what you think is “best” will depend on your own unique tastes. Most importantly, while these institutions are of course must-sees, you should never pass up the chance to visit local museums wherever you go, even if they don’t make a “Top 10” list on the Internet.