Visual art of centuries past with origin in Europe is a popular attraction; seeing an impressive collection can be one of the most memorable parts of your trip. For more recent artistic traditions, see Modern and contemporary art.
The art described in this article was, at the time it was made (in Europe from the 15th to the 19th century) known just as "art", and is usually categorized by period, genre, medium, and country. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the study and recognition of art broadened, and came to include folk art and modern art.
Most non-European art used to have lower status in Europe and among people of European heritage. It was labeled with terms such as primitive art or tribal art, with some exceptions; art from Imperial China and pre-modern Japan was highly appreciated in Europe. The institutions have given more recognition to non-Western art today; the Louvre devotes a whole section to pre-colonial art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Similarly, the status of artists has changed - while most notable artists of the Renaissance could make a living with government or church work, later artists like van Gogh struggled to keep financially afloat and there is even "outsider art" made by people who have seemingly no connection to the wider art world - some of them patients in mental institutions or people who lived a "normal" life producing art that only came to the attention of the wider world after their death.
Periods and styles
Artistic moments and periods have usually been defined by posterity, and contain expressions of painting, sculpture, interior design, architecture and literature. They overlap in time, and were usually more prominent in some countries than others. Many of them have had a later revival period, marked by affixes such as neo- or revival.
Medieval art includes works from the 5th to the 15th centuries, by nations such as the Franks and Norsemen. Many styles came and went during this 1,000-year period; some of the most prolific are Romanesque and Gothic art.
Oil paintings on canvas became widespread in the 15th century. The painters were usually not celebrities in their time, and many of the "old masters" are anonymous. Oftentimes art was produced by apprentices of a master under the "collective name" of the master, and it is thus often difficult to identify who painted what, even if the names of people who might have contributed are known.
Mannerism (or Late Renaissance) was a 16th-century movement to refine Renaissance art techniques, such as shading, perspective, and anatomic realism, though the result was often asymmetry such as elongated necks.
Baroque was a 17th- to 18th-century art style recognized for florid ornamentation, rich colours, nudity, and motion.
Rococo art, which was popular in the mid 18th century, took the Baroque penchant for decoration further and concentrated on pleasing the viewer, not necessarily moving them.
Neoclassicism was an 18th- to 19th-century style, a kind of updated version of ancient Greek and Roman style, often based quite directly on ancient art and known for geometric symmetry and harmony. It was revived in the early 20th century, inspiring the Art Deco movement.
Romanticism was a mainly 19th-century style which revolted against rationality and the industrial revolution, promoting individualism, spirituality, mythology, nature, and cultural heritage, in particular that of the Middle Ages. Many Romantic artworks were inspired by folklore, folk culture and history, and expressed the national identity of countries in Europe and on other continents.
From the mid-19th century, photography made other arts increasingly unnecessary as documentary media. Some painters began challenging the norms of art with schools such as Impressionism, marking the origin of modern and contemporary art. These works were originally dismissed as "mundane art" or "not art" (fascists called it degenerate art), and took a generation or more to find recognition. For historical reasons, pre-modern and modern works of art are usually displayed in different museums.
Mundane motifs such as portraits, genre painting (scenes of everyday life), landscapes, animals and still lifes were easier to depict, and therefore had lower status.
Biblical art and Christian art depict events from the Old and New Testament, or post-Biblical figures such as saints or martyrs. Many of these works are part of church architecture, as sculptures, reliefs, murals or altars. Among the most common Old Testament themes are the Creation, the Fall of Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark, the Exodus of Moses, Hebrew kings, and the Prophecies. New Testament art describes Jesus and his apostles, with the crucifixion as the most iconic event, represented at nearly all Christian buildings in some form. As the Bible was by far the most widespread book in pre-industrial Europe (together with cathecisms and other Christian literature), and the churches were the dominant communication platforms up to the 16th century Protestant Reformation, Christian art was the highest genre. Cities with a Christian tradition usually have a patron saint, depicted in statues and paintings around the city.
Mythological art usually depicts Greek mythology, in many cases in its Roman interpretations, including well-known legends such as the Trojan War. Many of these works are inspired by preserved Graeco-Roman art. In the Nordic countries, romanticized depictions of Norse mythology were popular during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Non-religious historical art depicts battles, coronations, the Age of Discovery and other historical events, in many cases commissioned centuries after the depicted event. Historical art became a dominant genre with the national romanticism of the 19th century. Many historical paintings are large in format, with plenty of detail to provide a complex narrative, taking months or years to finish. They were usually sponsored by a head of state, or someone else of great wealth, for purpose of propaganda and prestige. Many of these paintings are printed in history books, and become the canonized image of historical events that took place before the age of photography, some of them more famous than the event itself.
Portraits of royals and other people of high estate were usually commissioned by the model, and are today more commonly kept in palaces or private collections, than in museums.
Genre art depicted mundane scenes (such as working people or maritime painting), usually in a realistic manner. While some genre paintings were as elaborate as the historical paintings, they had lower status. They were especially prevalent in the Benelux and Germany. These motifs were called impressions, and became typical to the impressionist movement of the late 19th century. In modern times, these works are appreciated for describing the lifestyle of common people, who were otherwise omitted from early modern art and literature.
Landscapes, architecture and animals were perceived as easy motifs, and were of low status. Still life painting was considered the lowest genre of all. These still allowed painters to practice their skills to depict perspective, light and colour. The selection of the motif could also contain allegory and symbolism; a common theme was vanitas; the certainty of death.
Folk art, also called vernacular art, is art made by common people, usually not commissioned by governments, aristocrats or institutions. Folk art had low status before the 19th century, and is an often overlooked part of Europe's cultural heritage, rarely seen in museums. Open-air museums can have ornamented artifacts on display.
The Graeco-Roman civilizations left behind many statues and other sculptures, which inspired Europeans. Gothic sculptures are prevalent in Gothic churches. Renaissance sculpture had an ambition to copy the ancient tradition.
Marble has been a popular material for human statues, allowing a skin-like texture. As marble is brittle and does not carry its own weight as easily as the human models do, marble statues need a strong base.
Granite is among the most common rocks. Difficult to work by hand, it was up to the 18th century mostly used for gravestones. With steam power for mining, cutting and transportation, granite monuments became more prevalent.
Bronze is used for casted statues, allowing copies. Typically used for outdoor monuments.
Wood is cheap, but less durable. Wood sculptures have mainly been used for interiors and folk art. Many wood objects have been lost to fire.
- Main article: Art and antiques shopping
Most well-known original works are not on the market, unaffordable for the average traveller and subject to export restrictions. Reproductions of works from the 19th century and earlier, and some from the 20th century, are easy to find and buy, as copyright of art usually expires 70 years after the artist's death, which puts a lot of old art in the public domain in most countries. "New" art is still covered by copyright, but authorised reproductions may be available.
However, don't count on a certain work being in the public domain in your home country, as rules vary between countries, and e.g. a descendant of an artist from Ancient Egypt could still claim copyright in the USA on art found in a tomb and published for the first time in the 1990s with their permission (given that they have evidence on their family tree). In practice, the issue arises with art published in a window varying by country, in the USA 1928 to 2002, in the EU after 1997.
Art by contemporary artists is easy to find. You won't find works of world-famous artists in the random gallery, but you might find art by a to-be celebrity, or art that just suites your taste and your living room. Most cities have an abundance of galleries and even small places may have some. In some touristy areas such as Montmartre' Artists' Square, you can get a painting made for you.
Most European cities have some art on display. Here is a list of the most renowned and representative exhibitions.
- 1 Musée du Louvre (Paris, France). Its exhibits come from such diverse origins as ancient Egypt, classical Greece and the Roman Empire, medieval Europe, and Napoleonic France. Its most famous exhibit, of course, is Leonardo da Vinci's painting of the Mona Lisa (French: La Joconde, Italian: La Gioconda), generally to be found surrounded by hordes of camera-flashing tourists.
- 2 National Gallery (London, UK). Houses the British national collection of western European art dating from the 13th to 19th centuries. A truly awe-inspiring collection, notable works include Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors, Van Gogh's Sunflowers and Constable's The Haywain.
- 3 Museo del Prado (Madrid, Spain). One of the finest art collections in the world and the best collection of classical art in Madrid. It includes many different collections: the Spanish (El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya), the Flemish and Dutch (Rubens, van Dyck, and Brueghel), Italian (Botticelli, Tintoretto, Titian, Caravaggio, and Veronese) and German (Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, and Baldung Grien).
Some highlights not to miss at the Prado include the Bosch masterpiece The Garden of Earthly Delights, Velázquez's masterpiece Las Meninas, the Black Paintings, The Third of May 1808, as well as the pair of paintings The Clothed Maja (La maja vestida) and The Naked Maja (La maja desnuda) by Goya, Adoration of the Shepards by El Greco, and David with the Head of Goliath by Caravaggio. An easily overlooked gem is a copy of the famous "Mona Lisa" also painted in Da Vinci's workshop which you can see here without the crowds and with much more possibility to study it in detail.
- 4 State Hermitage Museum (Saint Petersburg, Russia). The Hermitage is Saint Petersburg's prime attraction, a massive palace-museum showing the highlights of a collection of over 3 million pieces spanning the globe. Hosted in the Winter Palace, the former main residence of the Russian tsars, and several other historic buildings nearby, the Hermitage is one of the world's great museums, with an imposing setting displaying priceless works by Rembrandt, Raphael, Rubens, Velázquez, Michelangelo, van Dyck, Matisse and many more.
- 5 The Vatican Museum (Vatican City). One of the greatest art galleries in the world, the museum is most famous for its spiral staircase, the Raphael Rooms and the exquisitely decorated Sistine Chapel famous for Michelangelo's frescoes. Much of the museum is organized so you follow a one-way route leading to Raphael's rooms and the Sistine Chapel but there is much more to see as well. If you are very short of time, it will take at least an hour to visit the Sistine Chapel.
- 6 National Museum of Fine Arts (Stockholm, Sweden). Sweden's national museum for European art opened in 1866. A renovation for accessibility and climate control was finished in 2018. The museum exhibits works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Goya, Renoir, Degas and Gauguin, as well as well-known Swedish artists such as Carl Larsson, Ernst Josephson, C F Hill and Anders Zorn. The museum also has a collection of applied art, interior design, and industrial design.
- 7 Gripsholms slott (Gripsholm Castle) (Mariefred). A 16th century castle which hosts Sweden's national portrait collection, including most people who mattered in Swedish history. The honorary portrait collection depicts contemporary celebrities, such as Astrid Lindgren, Ingmar Bergman, and Benny Andersson.
- 8 Millesgården (Lidingö outside Stockholm, Sweden). The former residence and studio of world-renowned sculptor Carl Milles (1875-1955). His own work is showcased in an outdoor park with an astounding view of Stockholm Harbour. The indoor section displays Milles' collection of ancient Roman sculptures, along contemporary Swedish and international works.
- 9 Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Perhaps Italy's most famous art museum, housing the collection formerly owned by the famed Medici family, and one of the world's foremost collections of Italian Renaissance art.
- 10 Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze (Florence, Italy). Home to the famous statue of David by Michelangelo.
- 11 Alte Pinakothek (Munich, Germany), ☏ . Contains hundreds of great European masterworks dating from the 14th to the 18th centuries, including the largest Rubens collection in the world. The Alte Pinakothek underwent a major four-year closing and renovation, but reopened in 2017.
- 12 Neue Pinakothek (Munich, Germany). The Neue Pinakothek's collection includes 19th-century European paintings and sculptures. Perhaps the most popular of the Pinakotheks, there is also a very nice café here. Closed for renovation until 2025.
- 13 Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam). The largest and most prestigious museum for art and history in the Netherlands: works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and other Dutch masters. Its garden has a curious collection of architecture and has free entrance during museum opening times.
- 14 Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (Brussels, Belgium). Features both historical art and modern art in the one building. In a vast museum of several buildings, this complex combines the Musée d'Art Ancien-Museum voor Oude Kunst and the Musée d'Art Moderne-Museum voor Moderne Kunst under one roof (connected by a passage). The collection shows off works, most of them Belgian, from the 14th to the 20th century, starting in the historical section, with Hans Memling's portraits from the late 15th century, which are marked by sharp lifelike details, works by Hiëronymus Bosch, and Lucas Cranach's Adam and Eve. You should particularly seek out the subsequent rooms featuring Pieter Brueghel, including his Adoration of the Magi. Don't miss his unusual Fall of the Rebel Angels, with grotesque faces and beasts. But don't fear, many of Brueghel's paintings, like those depicting Flemish village life, are of a less fiery nature. Later artists represented include Rubens, Van Dyck, Frans Hals, and Rembrandt. Next door, in a circular building connected to the main entrance, is the modern art section. The collection includes works by van Gogh, Matisse, Dalí, Tanguy, Ernst, Chagall, Miró, and local boys Magritte, Delvaux, De Braekeleer and Permeke. Don't miss David's famous "Death of Marat.".
- 15 Tretyakov Gallery (Moscow, Russia). One of the world's greatest museums, this is probably the one to choose if you only want to visit one museum in Moscow. In contrast to the worldwide collection of the Pushkin Museum, the Tretyakov is mostly a collection of Russian art. It has the best collection of Russian icons and many of the most famous pieces of modern Russian artists like Ilya Repin.
- 16 Kunsthistorisches Museum (Vienna, Austria), email@example.com. One of the world's greatest art museums and in a palace that is a work of art itself. Serious art fans may wish to devote more than a day to its treasures. There is no other word to describe the Kunst other than mind-boggling. It contains a world-class exhibit of the Habsburgs' art collection, including Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Bosch, and Brueghel. The museum has an excellent collection of ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art. The coin & medals collection is also exhaustive in its scope.
- 17 National Museum of Western Art (Tokyo, Japan). Houses one of Asia's most extensive collection of Western art, including the original of Rodin's famous The Thinker. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage as part of "The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement".
- 18 Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City, USA). Known in short as The Met, perhaps the most famous museum in New York City, and so large that it will take you more than a day to see the entire collection. Boasts an impressive collection of art from around the world, ranging from ancient Greek and Roman pottery and sculptures to 19th-century European paintings by masters such as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
- 19 National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C. , USA). The museum was established to make world-class art freely available to all. A wide range of European and American artists are displayed, including the only Leonardo da Vinci painting in the Americas. The museum spans two large buildings and includes a sculpture garden.
- 20 The Cloisters (New York City, USA). A branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated to medieval European art, most famous for its unicorn tapestries. The museum was assembled in part from cloisters transported stone by stone from Europe, hence its name.
- 21 National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne, Australia). The oldest and most visited art museum in Australia, with a comprehensive collection including works by the old masters, and European art all the way up to the late 19th century.
- 22 Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, USA). One of the oldest and largest art museums in the United States, home to a vast collection of European and American paintings.