Ten Best Art Museums in the U.S.


My list of the ten best art museums is biased, like everyone else’s. Here’s my bias: I want an art museum to have masterpieces, preferably the canvases of the great European and American artists of the 16th to the 20th century. Now, I am not such a philistine that I can snub my nose at a great Greek vase or a piece of Georgian silver by Paul Storr or a Faberge egg, but I do think that holding the masterpieces of Rembrandt, Monet, Picasso, Seurat, Vermeer, Goya, El Greco, Manet, Van Gogh, Pollack, Ingres, Delacroix, and their colleagues makes for instant credentials in an art museum’s being judged as “great.”

1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)

The Metropolitan Museum is like the New York Yankees of art museums. It has depth, breadth, a long tradition, many masterpieces, and could easily take a day or two to see completely. Its four-city-block space has a terrific representation of the greats, including Goya, El Greco, Monet, Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Vermeer. And for those who relish antiquities, statues, porcelain, African masks, swords, furniture, and other bravura bric-a-brac, you will get lost among the treasures. When I visit the Met, I no longer try to see everything or even just the paintings. I choose 10 or 12 canvases, park myself across from each and let them communicate their force to me a little at a time.

Though the Met’s collection of European paintings numbers only around 1,700 pieces, it contains many of the world’s most instantly recognizable paintings. And admission is whatever you feel like giving which is the best bargain in New York. Let’s choose a few paintings that should be enough to justify a single trip to the Met:

  1. Young Woman with a Water Pitcher. Vermeer
  2. The Musicians. Caravaggio
  3. The Death of Socrates. Jacques Louis David
  4. Portrait of Madame. John Singer Sargent
  5. The Houses of Parliament. Monet
  6. Self Portrait With Straw Hat. Vincent Van Gogh
  7. View of Toledo. El Greco.
  8. A Girl Asleep. Vermeer
  9. Portrait of Juan de Pareja. Diego Velazquez


2. National Gallery of Art  (Washington, DC)

Thank you, Mr. Mellon, for your generous support of the National Gallery, which deserves to be on any list of great art museums. There are about one dozen Rembrandts in one room at the National and that room is not far from an exit. If someone tried a daring heist of all these paintings, the loss would be not in the millions or even hundreds of millions, but close to a billion.

Here is a museum boasting eight El Grecos, the largest collection of his work outside Spain. Most museums would be pleased to have a single Goya, but the National has eight Goyas. They also has more than a half dozen Van Goghs, Cezannes, Monets and Degas. And they have their share of the boldface names of modern art, also, including Calder, Matisse, Pollack and Rothko.

For those, like me, who adore every one of the 35 plus paintings done by Vermeer, the National offers two spectacular examples of his work: A Woman Writing and Woman Holding a Balance. (A Girl With Red Hat, although attributed to Vermeer, has been questioned.)

3. Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute, located at the start of Chicago’s Miracle Mile along Michigan Avenue, has a number of wonderful canvases.

It is perhaps best known for “A Sunday on Grand Jatte,” which inspired Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. It is certainly the great masterpiece of this pointillist who died in his 30s.

There’s much more to this cozy, versatile museum, including some iconic images. My favorite ten paintings here are:

  1. Nighthawks Hopper
  2. The Child’s Bath Cassatt
  3. The Assumption of the Virgin El Greco
  4. Old Man With a Gold Chain Rembrand
  5. Untitled Rothko
  6. Poppy Fields  Monet
  7. American Gothic Grant Wood
  8. Improvisation #30 Kandinsky
  9. Excavation De Kooning
  10. Paris Street; Rainy Day Caillebotte


4. Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Rocky character is immortalized by a bronze statue erected near the Rocky Steps in Philadelphia, adjacent to the Philadelphia Art Museum, recalling the famous scene from the original Rocky movie.

Maybe it took the film Rocky to give special attention to this monumental museum (Rocky ran through the museum’s grounds as part of his training routine), but this museum would be a standout in any crowd. Not filled with treasures like the Metropolitan or the National Gallery, The Philadelphia Museum boasts a well-rounded collection of first rate artists like Velazquez, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Cezanne, Hogarth, Constable, and Corot. Modernists include Pollack and Rothko.

My personal favorites are: Rain by Van Gogh; Flowers in a Vase by Monet; Girl in a Red Ruff by Renoir; The Seesaw by Goya and Morning at Antibes by Monet.

5. Barnes Collection (Philadelphia, PA)

This standout personal collection, once housed in an estate in the suburban Merion, PA (and requiring reservations to see) is now located in Philadelphia, founded in 1922 by Albert C. Barnes. Barnes was an American chemist and art collector. With the fortune made from the development of the antiseptic, gonorrhea drug Argyrol, he founded the Barnes Foundation, an educational institution based on his private collection of art. It is strongly represented by paintings by Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modernist masters, as well as furniture and crafted objects.

Known as the Citizen Kane of the art world, Barnes built his collection by buying paintings at bargain prices by the carload. Celebrated for its exceptional breadth, depth, and quality, the Barnes Foundation’s art collection includes works by some of the greatest European and American masters of impressionism, post-impressionist, and early modern art, as well as African sculpture, Pennsylvania German decorative arts, Native American textiles, metalwork, and more.

Barnes’s collection grew to house 69 Cézannes—more than in all the museums in Paris—as well as 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos, and an astonishing 181 Renoirs. The 2,500 items in the collection include major works by (among others) Rousseau, Modigliani, Soutine, Seurat, Degas, and van Gogh. The entire collection is estimated today to be worth between $20 and $30 billion. Although John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie were vastly wealthier than Albert Barnes, the Barnes Foundation has assets 10 to 20 times greater than either the Carnegie Corporation or the Rockefeller Corporation. Among the not-to-be-missed paintings:

  1. Leda and the Swan Cezanne
  2. Madame Cezanne Cezanne
  3. The Smoker  Van Gogh
  4. The Postman  Van Gogh
  5. Tarring the Boat Manet
  6. The Joy of Life  Matisse
  7. Young #Woman Holding a Cigarette  Picasso
  8. Girl With a Jump Rope  Renoir
  9. Models Seurat
  10. The Ladies Man  Seurat

 6. J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles)

The Getty has two locations in Los Angeles: the Getty Villa in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood, and the main museum, The Getty Center, in the Brentwood neighborhood. The Getty Center which contains a collection from “Western art and the Middle Ages to the present;” its estimated 1.3 million visitors annually makes it one of the most visited museums in the United States. The museum at the Getty Villa contains art from “ancient Greece, Rome, and Etruria.”

Located in a matchless hillside setting, The Getty Center has an astounding array of canvases as well as priceless porcelain, silver, furniture, clocks, and antiquities.

As far as European paintings, it is surprisingly diverse, with four Rembrandts, a Munch, several Courbets, two Brughels (the Elder), De La Tour, and Tiepolo. Add to that a smattering of Gericault, Monet, Manet, Gainsborough, Degas, and Renoir.

My favs are: An Old Man in Military Costume (Rembrandt),The Sermon on the Mount (Brughel), Starry Night (Munch), Irises (Van Gogh), Bullfight (Goya), Rouen Cathedral (Monet), Christ on the Cross (El Greco), and very steamy painting by Gericault titled Three Lovers.


7. Legion of Honor (San Francisco)

Of the two sister San Francisco museums, the de Young Museum in lovely Golden Gate Park is the better known, but the Legion of Honor takes the prize for its noteworthy canvases.

The Fine Arts Museums’ collection of European paintings is showcased throughout the elegant Beaux-Arts architecture of the Legion of Honor’s galleries. The Legion’s rich collection of over 800 European paintings includes masterworks from the 14th into the early the 20th centuries.

Go to the Legion of Honor to see such masterpieces as El Greco’s John the Baptist, Seurat’s Eifel Tower, Monet’s The Grand Canal, Venice, or Manet’s At the Milliners. Other noteworthy artists represented are Daumier, Corot, Tiepolo, Cezanne, Watteau, and Fra Angelico.

Recent Exhibits include “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay” and The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860–1900


8. Museum of Modern Art (New York City)

As a lifetime New Yorker, I hate the idea of spending $20 or so to enter an art museum. Having said that, this art museum is worth the admission cost.

You’ll see such important and familiar works as: Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso, The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí, Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian, Water Lilies triptych by Claude Monet, Dance by Henri Matisse, and The Bather by Paul Cézanne.

MoMA is the type of art museum in which you know you will see the originals of works you have seen in books, prints, and copies. Here is where you’ll view Matisse’s Dance, Gustav Klimt’s The Park, Henri Rousseau’s The Dream, Paul Gauguin’s The Moon and the Earth, and Renoir’s La Promenade.

MoMA also owns works by leading American artists such as Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, Edward Hopper, and Andy Warhol. I personally love the Monet Water Lilies, a series of large canvases to be viewed as a whole. These water lilies beat all the others, except for the room of Water Lilies at L’Orangerie at the Tuilleries in Paris.

Affectionately known as MoMA, The Museum of Modern Art is a place that fuels creativity, ignites minds, and provides inspiration.

Located in midtown Manhattan, the Museum of Modern Art was the first museum devoted to the modern era. MoMA’s unparalleled collection offers a comprehensive, panoramic overview of modern and contemporary art.

9. Museum of Fine Arts (Houston)

The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston is the largest art museum in America south of Chicago, west of Washington, D.C., and east of Los Angeles, with a collection of  nearly 60,000 works ranging from ancient art to the present that includes art from the major civilizations of Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Africa and includes  Italian Renaissance paintings, French Impressionist works, photographs, American and European decorative arts, African and Pre-Columbian gold, American art, and European and American paintings and sculpture from the post-war period.  In other words, an encyclopedia of art. Being a large museum, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts attracts great exhibits (they had one on Rembrandt’s drawings, Arts of North America, and The Art of Exaggeration. The permanent collection includes works by Rembrandt, Mondrian, Degas, Turner, Mondrian, Monet, Corot, Picasso, Goya and Tintoretto. My favorite canvases include Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Young Woman, Van Gogh’s The Rocks, Courbet’s The Gust of Wind.

10. The Guggenheim Museum (New York City)

If the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a glorious piece of classical architecture (before the additions were slapped onto the back of the building), the Guggenheim is perhaps the most famous museum for its purpose driven architecture. One of the most iconic and instantly recognizable buildings in the world, it was architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s last building and is widely considered to be his masterpiece. Specifically designed to house modern art, it offers visitors a unique approach, start at the top of the spiral, walk down to the ground level and you will see every item in the exhibit in the order in which it was intended to be seen.

The museum bills itself as “an internationally renowned art museum and one of the most significant architectural icons of the 20th century, the Guggenheim Museum is at once a vital cultural center, an educational institution, and the heart of an international network of museums. Visitors can experience special exhibitions of modern and contemporary art, lectures by artists and critics, performances and film screenings, classes for teens and adults, and daily tours of the galleries led by experienced docents. Founded on a collection of early modern masterpieces, the Guggenheim Museum today is an ever-growing institution devoted to the art of the 20th century and beyond.”

While the Guggenheim’s collection may pale in relation to the Museum of Modern Art’s collection, it’s rare to visit a museum that is, in itself a work of art. The Guggenheim is the epitome and apogee of that place.

And five runners up:

  • Phillips Gallery (Washington, DC) Frick-like in its smallness but high quality per canvas;
  • Museum of Fine Arts (Boston) Monet’s Water Lilies is, as always, a standout.
  • Carnegie Art Museum (Pittsburgh) boasts trophy paintings of artists like Degas, Monet, Homer, Hopper, Klimt, Sargent, Van Gogh, and Cezanne.
  • The Frick Museum (New York City) where almost every painting is a gem, featuring works by Goya, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Renoir, and El Greco.
  • Kimball Art Museum (Ft Worth, TX) The Kimball’s permanent collection is small in size, comprising fewer than 350 works of art, and distinguished by an extraordinary level of artistic quality and importance.