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
The art in European museums usually originates from the early modern period; the 15th to 19th centuries.
Oil paintings on canvas became widespread in the 15th century. The painters were usually no celebrities in their time, and many of the "old masters" are today anonymous. Oftentimes art was produced by students of a master under the "collective name" of the master and it is thus often difficult to identify who painted what, even if the people who might've contributed are known.
The moments and periods in European art were usually defined by the afterworld, and contain expressions of painting, sculpture, interior design, architecture and literature. They overlap in time, and were usually more prominent in some countries.
Mannerism (or Late Renaissance) was a competitive movement in the 16th to refine Renaissance art techniques, such as shading, perspective and anatomic realism.
Baroque was a 17th to 18th century art style recognized for excessive ornamentation, rich colours, nudity, and motion.
Neoclassicism was an 18th-19th century style, with the ambition to retreat to the style of ancient Rome, known for geometric symmetry.
Romanticism was a mainly 19th century style which revolted against rationality and the industrial revolution; promoting individualism, spirituality, mythology, nature, and cultural heritage. Romantic expressions were the foundation of nationalism, creating an identity for new countries in Europe and on other continent.
In the mid-19th century, art was disrupted by photography. 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. 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 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.
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.
While most well-known originals are not on the market, or unaffordable for the average traveller, the copyright has usually expired, so that reproductions are easy to find and buy.
Most European cities have some art on display. Here is a list of the most renowned and representative exhibitions.
- 1 Musée du Louvre, Place du Carrousel (1st arrondissement, 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. The Louvre poses many of the same challenges to the visitor as Paris itself; overwhelming in size, crowded in high seasons, and much information available only in French. If you want to see everything in the Louvre, plan at least two full days. However, it is better to pick and choose, as the collection was assembled with an eye to completeness rather than quality.
- 2 National Gallery, Trafalgar Sq, WC2 5DN (London/Leicester Square), ☏ . 10:00-18:00 daily except F until 21:00. 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. The vast majority of art is free of charge to visit. Temporary exhibitions are generally fairly costly, but invariably well researched and presented. The audioguides are very comprehensive, have comments on most of the paintings in the museum, and are free though this fact is not advertised. A donation is suggested. In addition to courses, workshops, lectures and other events, the National Gallery has free talks and tours every day. Free.
- 3 Museo del Prado, Paseo de Prado (Madrid, Spain), ☏ (information), (ticket sales). M-Sa 10:00-20:00, Su 10:00-19:00; closed/shortened hrs on some holidays; extended hrs for special exhibits; last admission 30 min before closing. 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. Be sure to walk along Paseo del Prado, a pedestrian walkway full of fountains and trees near the museum. Visitors can bypass the often extremely long queues by purchasing tickets beforehand by phone or online for an additional fee per ticket. An affordable café and cafeteria-style restaurant are on the ground floor, along with a gift shop. No food, drinks, backpacks or umbrellas are permitted (a bag check is just inside the main entrance). Photography not permitted. €14/16 (adults/special exhibits), €7 (seniors 65+), free (children/students under 25); free admission M-Sa 18:00-20:00, Su/holidays 17:00-19:00; additional obligatory fee for special exhibits.
- 4 State Hermitage Museum (Государственный Эрмита́ж, gosudarstvenny ermitazh,Зимний дворец, zimniy dvorets, Winter Palace), Dvortsovaya Ploschad (Dvortsovaya Square). Palace Embankment, 38 (Saint Petersburg, Russia). Tu-Su 10:30–18:00 (W till 21:00). 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. It is possible, though not required, to get a tour guide. They can charge as much as $100 but they can tell you more about the building and the items and take you directly to the items you want to see. For many, finding their own way through the opulent interiors, huge and intricate enough to get some people lost, and exploring corners off the beaten path (and the complex is huge enough to have some) may be an attraction in itself. A popular story describes a foreign diplomat insisting to be guided, blindfolded, directly to the Rembrandts, so not to be distracted by the tremendous glittery. Sometimes the museum will limit the admission rate because of the numbers already in the museum. Large bags aren't allowed in the museum; there is a massive cloakroom downstairs for jackets and bags. 400 руб foreigners; 250 руб citizens of Russia & Belarus; free for students of all nationalities; free on the first Thu of the month (200 руб to take photos & videos).
- 5 The Vatican Museum, Viale Vaticano (Vatican City). Mon-Sat 09:00-18:00 (ticket office closes at 16:00), Sun closed (except last Sunday of the month, when it is free, crowded, and open 09:00-14:00 with last admission at 12:30). The museum is closed for holidays on: Jan 1 & 6, Feb 11 & 22, Mar 19 & 28, Jun 29, Aug 15, Nov 1, and Dec 8 & 26. 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. The Museum is usually the most hot and crowded on Saturdays, Mondays, the last Sunday of the month, rainy days, and days before or after a holiday but, basically, it is crowded every day and if you want to see the gems that it contains you will have to tolerate the crowds or sign up to very expensive private tours after the museum is closed to everyone else. Dress code: no short shorts or bare shoulders. There are often lengthy queues from the entrance that stretch around the block in the early morning. Non-guided visitors should join the queue that is to the left as you are facing the entrance; the queue on the right is intended for guided group visitors. You can book online in advance and with a booking you can skip the queue. Audio-guides are available from the top of the escalator/ramp for €7. Two people can share a single unit plugging in a standard set of earphones. €16 adults, €8 concessions. Additional €4 booking fee per ticket if booked online in advance.
- 6 National Museum of Fine Arts (Nationalmuseum), Södra Blasieholmshamnen, Stockholm, Sweden (T Kungsträdgården). 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, design, and industrial design. The museum has a nice café in its atrium.
- 7 Uffizi, Piazzale degli 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.
- 8 Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze, 58–60 via Ricasoli, Florence, Italy. Home to the famous statue of David by Michelangelo.
- 9 National Museum of Western Art (国立西洋美術館, Kokuritsu Seiyō Bijutsukan?), Ueno, Tokyo. Daily 9:30AM-5PM. 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". Entry ¥500; free admission on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of each month.
- 10 Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York City, United States. Su-Th 10am-5.30pm; F-Sa 10am-9pm. Know 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 Renior. $25 adults, $17 senior citizens (65 and over), $12 students, free for children aged 12 and under.
- 11 The Cloisters, 99 Margaret Corbin Drive, Fort Tyron Park, New York City, United States. Su-Th 10am-5.15pm; F-Sa 10am-4.45pm. A branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated to medieval European art, most famous for its unicorn tapestries. The museum was designed to resemble a French Roman Catholic monastery, hence its name. $25 adults, $17 senior citizens (65 and over), $12 students, free for children aged 12 and under.
- 12 National Gallery of Victoria, 180 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne, Australia. Daily 10am-5pm. 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. free for permanent exhibits.