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.)
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.
In the 19th century, some painters began challenging the norms of art with schools such as impressionism, marking the origin of modern art. These works were originally dismissed as "not 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.
Until the 20th centyr, art of non-European origin had low status, labeled with terms such as primitive 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-European art today; the Louvre devotes a whole section to pre-colonial art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas.
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. The latter genres were mostly regarded as practice.
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 literary work in pre-industrial Europe, and the Church was the dominant political estate (at least up to the 16th century Protestant Reformation, Christian art came to be the dominant genre of the time. 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, maritime expeditions and other historical events, perceived as important for the time when they were commissioned. 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.
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.
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 and The Third of May 1808 by Goya, Adoration of the Shepards by El Greco, and David with the Head of Goliath by Caravaggio. 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. RUB400 foreigners; RUB250 citizens of Russia & Belarus; free for students of all nationalities; free on the first Thu of the month (200 rubles 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 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 ¥420; free admission on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of each month.