Nine Masterpieces in the Northeast, and How they Got There

Though far younger than their European contemporaries, the great American art galleries of the Northeast have amassed collections of art that rival anything to be found in the Old World. The American tradition of philanthropic bequests, an insatiable curiosity with the art of the European masters, prescient predictions about the careers of once unknown artists, and a rich tradition in modern art of its own have combined to produce some of the most stunning galleries in the world. Here are nine masterpieces of world art that can only be seen in the United States, and how they got there.

The Starry Night (1889) – Vincent Van Gogh
Museum of Modern Art, New York City

One of the most famous paintings of Western art, Van Gogh painted this dream-like view from the window of the asylum at Saint-Remy-de-Provence. At a low-point in his mental illness and only a year before his suicide, Van Gogh nonetheless produced many of his greatest works here, including the Irises and the blue self-portrait. When writing to his brother Theo about the painting Van Gogh stated that “this morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise with nothing but the morning start, which looked very big.” Astronomers have confirmed that Venus was visible and at its brightest on the mornings of spring in 1889, and the brightest star to the right of the cypress tree must be Venus. Van Gogh sent the painting shortly before his death to his brother, whose widow would send it on to a gallery in Rotterdam, and was acquired from there by the great French modern art dealer Paul Rosenberg. It was in Paris for a time but then rushed out of Europe (along with much of Rosenberg’s collection) on the eve of World War II in anticipation of its seizure by the Nazis, who intended it for Hitler’s massive art gallery that was to be built in Linz. A Jew, Rosenberg narrowly escaped occupied-France to New York, where he reopened his gallery and would donate many of his priceless contemporary works to the Museum of Modern Art.

The Annunciation (1436) – Jan van Eyck
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

One of the greatest masterpieces of Early Dutch art, the Annunciation depicts the Virgin Mary receiving the news from the Archangel Gabriel that she will bear the son of God. Filled with complex and obscure symbolism, the painting’s various hidden meanings have been debated by art scholars for centuries. Like the famous Ghent altarpiece, the Annunciation was part of a triptych for a church, though its two companion leaves have never been documented. Owned by the Dukes of Burgundy for centuries, it was bought by King William II of the Netherlands, and then in 1850 by Czar Nicholas II of Russia for The Hermitage. During the 1930s the Soviet Union sold hundreds of its artistic treasures to acquire foreign currency to fund its ambitious Five-Year Plan for rapid industrialisation of the nation. Andrew Mellon, financier, businessman and Secretary of the Treasury, through secret negotiations bought almost half of what was sold from The Hermitage Collection. He donated the greatest of these to his newly established National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., which he hoped would prove an equal to the National Gallery of Art in London.

Le Bonheur de Vivre (1906) – Henri Matisse
Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

When it was first displayed publicly in the Salon de Independants in Paris, this landmark work of Fauvism elicited public outrage for its lurid colours (particularly cadmium yellow) and distorted figures. A bold, daring and experimental artist, Henri Matisse has many American admirers, most notably Gertrude Stein, who regularly hosted him at her salon in Paris. Later in his life he was greatly supported by Dr Albert Barnes, an American chemist who had unexpectedly made a fortune through his invention of Argyrol, an early antiseptic. Barnes would encourage Matisse greatly in his later career and hosted him in the United States. He commissioned Matisse to produce a unique mural series for his Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, which would eventually acquired 59 of his works, more than any other museum. Unlike most art galleries, the Barnes Foundation was designed as an art school and educational institution, with its paintings hung closely together in related sets to help viewers understand relationships, contrasts, and the evolution of art.

The Hunt of the Unicorn (C.15th)
The Cloisters, New York City

A series of seven tapestries that tell the story of the hunt for the legendary unicorn, these rare surviving French masterpieces are also replete with Christian and romantic symbolism, and are thought to have been designed to celebrate a noble union. The works are of such detail and fine quality that in one particular tapestry over one hundred different species of flora can be accurately identified. For whom they were commissioned is unknown, but they passed to the famous La Rochefoucauld family, and were hung in their ancestral chateau. During the French Revolution, the chateau was stormed and sacked by the impoverished surrounding villagers and the tapestries disappeared. A century later, the family tracked them down and purchased them back from a farmer, who was using the tapestries to cover his harvested potatoes. In 1922, the reunited tapestries were being displayed in New York City, when John D. Rockefeller, making an offer the family couldn’t refuse, purchased them for the Medieval department of the Metropolitan Museum.

Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte (1886) – Georges Seurat
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago

A rebellious impressionist, Seurat pioneered the technique of pointillism, using small dots of colour in patterns to form an image. His most famous work depicts Parisians relaxing on the banks of the Seine, in extraordinary detail and vivid colours that are blended from a distance by the eye. Unlike many artists, Seurat was passionately interested in science, mathematics and the logical foundations of painting, and his exploration of pointillism was as much a exploration of the science of art as it was artistic expression. Seurat’s genius was little recognized at the time of his early death at age 31, and had attracted limited interest. Helen Birch Bartlett, a Chicagoan and an admirer of post-impressionism, encouraged her husband to buy the painting for the Chicago Art Institute in 1924 for just $24,000. It left has been loaned from the Art Institute just once, in 1958, to the Museum of Modern Art. A fire broke out in MoMA while the painting was visiting there and it narrowly escaped destruction, prompting the Art Institute never to allow it to leave again.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) – Pablo Picasso
Museum of Modern Art, New York City

One of the most important and influential paintings of modern art, reactions to this Picasso masterpiece were heated when it premiered. It showcases Picasso’s emerging Cubist style and experimentation with geometry, combined with African influences and the flouting of many established artistic conventions of his day. It’s depiction of prostitutes in a brothel scandalised the art-going public. Some have posited that Picasso’s friendly rivalry with Henri Matisse, whose Le Bonheur de Vivre (discussed previously) had caused such a sensation the previous year, drove Picasso to new heights of daring in order to reclaim preeminence in the avant garde of modern art. In 1924, the now world-famous Picasso sold the painting to Jacques Doucet for a bargain, apparently on the assumption that Doucet would leave the painting to the Louvre when he died. For unclear reasons, Doucet’s will did not do so, and this critical masterpiece was eventually bought by MoMA after it sold a Degas to raise the funds at auction. MoMA would unveil the painting in its new location on 54th Street in a 1939 retrospective of Picasso’s works, which brought together an incredible 344 of his paintings and established MoMA’s reputation as a world-leading gallery.

The Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881) – Auguste Renoir
Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.

Few paintings are as instantly recognisable as this one, Renoir’s most famous work, depicting a group of the artist’s friends at a restaurant on the Seine. The painting depicts people of all classes socialising – artists, businessmen, patrons, shop girls and seamstresses – representing the decline of social stratification and class rigidity observed in Renoir’s day. The painting showcases Renoir’s mastery of impressionist brushstroke, light, composition, detail and colour. Yet it also typifies the beauty and ease of Impressionism, as Renoir developed the initial scene it seems without advance studies or underdrawing. Heir to a banking and steel fortune, American philanthropist Duncan Phillips spent nearly a decade trying to acquire the painting, eventually succeeding in 1923. As the dealer said of the sale of so much of France’s art during this period, “The American public does not laugh. It buys!”

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907) – Gustav Klimt
Neue Galerie, New York City

The Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, influenced by Japanese artistic styles and techniques, created some of his greatest works using gold leaf. The most lavish use is to be found on the sometimes-titled Woman in Gold, a portrait of the wife of a wealthy Jewish banker and sugar producer. The painting was stolen by the Nazis in 1941, and after World War II, it was placed at the Belvedere Palace museum in Vienna. In the 1990s, Maria Altmann, niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer and living in California, enlisted the help of lawyers and journalists to scrutinise Austria’s Nazi past and the status of her family’s paintings. It would become a decade-long legal battle that Altmann ultimately won, a story told in the movie The Woman in Gold, with the portrait and several other Klimt’s returned in 2006. The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was ultimately sold to the Neue Galerie of New York for a then record price, financed by cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder, and now forms the centerpiece of this gallery specialising in early modern German and Austrian art.

American Gothic (1930) – Grant Wood
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago

One of the most recognisable paintings of American art, Grant Wood depicts here an earnest farming couple, modeled off his dentist and his sister, in front of a farmhouse constructed in the style known as ‘Carpenter Gothic.’ Although often thought of as a comedic picture, it was in fact a tribute to the Midwestern farming family, a fixture of America’s past that was rapidly disappearing during the rapid urbanisation and industrialisation of the early 20th century. Grant Wood, and several artists of the period, began an artistic movement known as Regionalism which sought a genuinely American style of art that depicted subjects from the vast rural heartlands, rather than urban coastal cities. Wood entered his picture into a competition at the Art Institute, where he received a bronze medal and $300 for it, and thereafter it was then acquired by the gallery. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the painting became an icon of the pioneering spirit and the struggles of rural America, and within a decade was the most famous painting in the country, endlessly parodied and reproduced.

Dr Matthew Laing

Dr Matthew Laing is a historian and political scientist at Monash University who has led tours to the Americas and Europe with Academy Travel for five years. He has a strong personal interest in architecture, cultural history and modern art, with a particular expertise in the United States. Matthew holds a BA and PhD from the Australian National University, and wrote his doctorate on the history of the United States presidency.


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