The best art worth travelling for: New York City – Art to stir your soul and get you travelling
New York City is, without question, the artistic capital of North America. Few cities fire the soul and passion of artists like the Big Apple, whether they're fresh dreamers scraping a living in a tiny apartment or titans of the artistic world. Artists and art lovers alike should rejoice at the chance to be in this city and experience the unbelievably varied art on display.
New York is a city filled with masterpieces: art lovers could be satisfied with the incredible offerings in Manhattan alone, but there are amazing pieces to discover across all five boroughs, from lesser known museums to independent galleries and even the iconic street art collectives. We've selected some key pieces from major museums that simply should not be missed, but we implore our readers to explore New York and discover what treasures the entire city has to offer.
Many of the museums mentioned are in extremely popular tourist destinations. As such, they can be difficult to navigate, and there’s little chance of escaping the swarms of selfie sticks. For our LuxuryBARED PLATINUM members, we can arrange private tours at many to offer you a much more pleasant and peaceful experience. Find out more about our PLATINUM Member benefits here.
Here goes with the list...
Ugolino and His Sons, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux – The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Really, The Met could take up a bookshelf of its own when it comes to seeing incredible art. The fourth largest museum in the world with over two million exhibits spread across seventeen distinct departments, it can be mind-boggling choosing just one room to visit, let alone selecting individual masterpieces. Below is just one amongst hundreds of thousands, and we encourage you to attempt to explore a lot more.
The European Sculpture collection is one of the largest in the Met, and the court where its most prominent pieces are displayed is one of the most beautiful in this wonderful building. With pieces ranging from the 15th through to the early 20th century, there are some absolute masterpieces here. As we've already extolled the virtues of Rodin in our Paris entry of this series [link], we've selected the powerful and disturbing Ugolino and His Sons.
The sculpture depicts the tale of the Pisan Count Ugolino della Gherardesca who was sentenced to starve to death along with his sons for treason. Legend has it that Ugolino eventually devoured his sons out of hunger, and Carpeaux's sculpture depicts the count contemplating this heinous act. The piece is an incredible example of Romantic era art, with emotion and physicality depicted in heightened, exacting detail. The sons cling to their father in distress, who turns himself away as if to remove temptation from his sight, graphically gnawing at his own fingers in desperation. Carpeaux leaves it up to the observer to decide if Ugolino will succumb in this depiction of the harrowing tale, but it is interesting to note that while the sons are in various degrees of emaciation, or even already dead as the youngest appears to be, Ugolino himself is still strong and well muscled. While this could be simply portraying the artistic human ideal popular in Romantic-era artwork, it could also be a subtle hint from Carpeaux that the father will soon feed on his children to maintain his strength.
While you’re there, don’t miss: Young Woman with a Water Pitcher by Vermeer, Madame X by John Singer Sargent, Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, and practically everything.
Course of Empire, Thomas Cole – New-York Historical Society
What it lacks in scope when compared to the big hitters of New York's museum scene, the New-York Historical Society on 77th and Central Park West has the prestige of being the oldest museum in New York (opened in 1804). The exhibitions within offer fascinating insights into the growth and development of this incredible city, as well as a very fine collection of American art from throughout the United States' history.
Perhaps we're cheating by including Thomas Cole's Course of Empire as a singular entry as its five paintings. However, while each piece is extremely well executed and dramatic in its own right, it's only by seeing the pieces together, as Cole intended, that one can truly appreciate the grandeur and ambition of the artist's vision.
Charting the rise and fall of an unnamed civilisation, Cole presents each stage in a thoroughly bombastic, emotive manner. Each painting when viewed in sequence (The Savage State, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, The Consummation of Empire, Destruction, and Desolation) contains the seeds of that which is to follow. The fires that are the first sparks of civilisation in The Savage State lead to the smoke of the sacrificial offerings in The Arcadian or Pastoral State; the tunics of the squabbling boys in the bottom right of Consummation mirror the banners of the brutal war in Destruction.
Across them all, a stony crag remains a constant, and the ruins of a once proud civilisation are reclaimed by plantlife, both of which could be of the transience of humanity in comparison to nature. Is it a pessimistic look at the tragedy of humanity's self-destructive nature, or a more hopeful depiction of cycles of creation born from destruction? A popular analysis is to see it as the rise and fall of the Democratic Party in the 19th century (the military hero of Consummation is often conflated with Andrew Jackson). In truth, the ultimate interpretation lies with the beholder.
While you’re there, don’t miss: Corn Planter by F. Bartoli, Undutiful Boys by William S. Mount, Flags on Fifty-Seventh Street by Childe Hassam
Campbell’s Soup Cans, Andy Warhol – Museum of Modern Art
Few art museums have shaped the modern art world as thoroughly and for as long as New York's Museum of Modern Art, or MoMA. One of the largest museums in the world devoted specifically to modernist art, its collection is truly staggering in scope, scale and quality. Containing some of the most recognisable artworks in the world, a pilgrimage to the MoMa is essential for any art lover at some point in their life.
It's almost impossible to discuss art in New York without alluding to Andy Warhol, as the artist is practically synonymous with the city's art scene in the late 20th century. His famous studio, The Factory was perhaps the most important hub of creatives in the city from the 1960s right through to the early 80s. His creations are some of the most recognisable in the world, and none more so his paintings of Campbell soup cans.
Intended as the ultimate celebration of mundanity, the objective was to show how the vulgar, ordinary trappings of modern living could become art when displayed on canvas. They act as a deliberate contrast to the gorgeous, lush fruit of historic still life paintings, showing an item that was likely more recognisable to ordinary people. Fruit might be a rarity for the average person, but Campbell's soup – at the time the most prominent soup producer in America – would have likely been found in most ordinary households.
European critics were keen to interpret Marxist themes in the work, as a critique of mass-produced American capitalism, although Warhol himself never gave a definitive answer as to intentions in this regard. The work took the art world by storm. While artists such as Roy Lichtenstein (make sure to see his Drowning Girl while you’re in the MoMA) and Jasper Johns had been working in the freshly minted movement of pop art for several years, it was Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans that gave the movement prestige in the wider art world and catapulted Warhol to superstardom.
While you’re there, don’t miss: Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair by Frida Kahlo, The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalì
Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, Kehinde Wiley – The Brooklyn Museum of Art
Manhattan doesn't have the monopoly on amazing museums, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art is ample evidence of that. As New York's third largest museum with a collection of over 1.5 million pieces sourced from across the globe, it is one of the most diverse galleries in the city.
Kehinde Wiley is one of the most prominent contemporary African-American Artists, to the extent that he was chosen to paint Barack Obama's critically acclaimed presidential portrait. His work centres around heroic portraits of African-Americans painted in a naturalistic style. The works fuse hyper-realistic human figures in the style of neo-classical masters, but with elements of Islamic architecture, West African patterns, and iconography derived from hip-hop and jazz, with the intention of depicting African-Americans in a status of power, dignity and spiritual awakening.
Prior to his portrait of President Obama, Wiley's most famous piece was of Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps. By borrowing the composition of Jacques-Louis' Napoleon Crossing the Alps and replacing the emperor with a young black man in contemporary clothing, Wiley makes a powerful statement about the strength of will and dignity required of African-Americans in the USA, as well as granting the prestige and visibility which black figures have lacked throughout art history in Euro-centric circles.
While you’re there, don’t miss: George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, Dark Tree Trunks by Georgia O'Keeffe, A Storm in the Rocky Mountains by Albert Bierstadt
Black Lines, Wassily Kandinsky – Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
The fact that The Guggenheim is like no other building in Manhattan makes it an attraction in itself. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright as a "temple of the spirit", it is one of the most unique and amazing buildings created for the display of art in the world. Originally conceived as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, the museum, along with its sister the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, has one of the most extensive and enduring collections of modern and abstract art in the world.
In a museum built on abstract art, Kandinsky's presence is a given. While it's impossible to say what was truly the first artwork that could be considered abstract, Kandinsky is widely recognised as being the first artist to create purely abstract works, and Black Lines is one of his first forays into abstraction. Kandinsky was as much an art philosopher as he was an artist, and Black Lines is a depiction of his philosophies on canvas. He believed that the natural world was a constraint on artistic expression, that mimesis of forms was a limitation on the ability to engage emotionally with the audience as it relied on them recognising or being familiar with the subject depicted.
Through Black Lines and abstraction, Kandinsky was attempting to express emotion and experience through a visual medium, in a way that could be universally recognised regardless of the person observing it. While the result might appear as a jumbled mess, Kandinsky planned every brushstroke, every shape, well in advance in an attempt to express a metaphysical disconnection from reality.
While you’re there, don’t miss: Morning in the Village after Snowstorm by Kazimir Malevich, Femme à l'Éventail by Jean Metzinger, Composition for "Jazz" by Albert Gleizes
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