Europe’s most famous artworks are well worth viewing in person if you’ve only ever seen them on a computer screen or in a textbook, and some of them have an interesting history too. It’s hard to describe the feeling of seeing a famous painting for the first time, save to say that photographs never do them justice. So where are the key stops on the art lover’s tour of Europe?
Paris: The Louvre – Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)
Widely regarded as THE most famous painting of all time, nobody really knows who Lisa actually was. Some people think she was Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine silk merchant, but whoever she was, this was undoubtedly Da Vinci’s favourite work and he never actually delivered it to the person who commissioned it in the early 16th century.
The Mona Lisa is so famous that it has its own mailbox in The Louvre, and in 1911 it was stolen from The Louvre. Artist Pablo Picasso was questioned about the theft, and the incident was so famous that people would visit the museum just to see the empty space. It turned out two years later that the real culprit was an Italian museum employee, who believed the painting belonged in Italy. After being exhibited throughout Italy, it returned to the Louvre in 1913.
If you want to see it, The Louvre is open every day (except Tuesday) from 9am to 6pm. Tickets for the Permanent Collections cost €11 for adults and children under 18 go free.
Milan: The Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie – The Last Supper
Quite possibly one of the most badly looked-after pieces of art in history, Leonardo da Vinci’s famous work was painted in oils at the very end of the 15th century. It was commissioned by Ludovico Svorza and depicts the gospel according to St John. The fact that Da Vinci chose to create this work in oils rather than watercolour is possibly one of the reasons it’s now so fragile. The fact that Napoleon’s troops used the building it was housed in for target practice didn’t help either. During the Second World War, a bomb hit Santa Maria and miraculously left only the wall with the painting on upright.
The painting takes up the whole of one wall in the refectory, and it’s an extremely popular tourist attraction, so it’s advisable to book tickets well in advance. You are only allowed 15 minutes with it in a small group before being ushered out. Afterwards, you could visit Milan’s famous Duomo (Cathedral), La Scala opera house, or shop at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.
The Refectory, on Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan is open Tuesday to Sunday: 8:15am – 7:00pm and admission costs €6.50 + € 1.50 booking fee.
London: The National Gallery – Sunflowers
This iconic painting is currently on loan to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, although there are many of Van Gogh’s other works currently on show in the National Gallery. It was intended to decorate Paul Gaugin’s room in the South of France in 1888. Van Gogh tried to impress Gaugin, whom he saw as a mentor, but they ‘agreed on very little’ which fuelled Van Gogh’s depression.
In the same year he also painted Van Gogh’s Chair, which can still be viewed at the National Gallery. Sunflowers were a recurring symbol in Van Gogh’s paintings; he painted eleven pictures of the flowers.
See more of Van Gogh’s masterpieces at The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London. The gallery is open daily from 10am to 6pm, and on Fridays until 10pm, and admission is free. Make the most of London’s free tourist attractions while you’re there: The Victoria and Albert, Natural History, British and Science Museums are all free to enter.
The Hague: The Mauritshuis – Girl with a Pearl Earring
This famous work is part of an exhibition touring the US and Italy until 2014 while the museum is being renovated. If you want to admire Johannes Vermeer’s alluring Girl with a Pearl Earring and wonder what her story really is, you’ll either have to follow her – or wait until she’s back home in The Hague.
The picture was made even more famous with the film of the same name in 2003. The film was based on a book by Tracy Chevalier, which told the story of the girl in the picture, played by Scarlet Johansson, and her relationship with Vermeer, played by Colin Firth. In truth, however, nobody really knows who she was, or how Vermeer came to paint her in the 17th century. Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch painter who lived in Delft and specialised in capturing middle class life. He was well-known in his home town but relatively unknown elsewhere until he was rediscovered in the 19th century.
The Hague is a great place to go if you’re a fan of festivals – May and June are the best times of the year to visit for outdoor music and events.
Although the Mauritshuis is closed until mid-2014, some of the collection is on view at the Gemeente Museum on Stadhouderslaan 41, The Hague, which is open Tuesdays to Sundays from 11am to 5pm. Entrance is €14.50 for adults and free for children 18 and under.
Amsterdam: The Rijksmuseum – The Night Watch by Rembrandt
Rembrandt’s famous work was originally commissioned to hang in the Kloveniersdoelen in Amsterdam. In 1715, some of the canvas was cut off so that it would fit in a space at the Amsterdam town hall, but the Rijksmuseum treated the masterpiece with more respect and architect Pierre Cuypers designed the building around it in 1885. The Night Watch was the only work that was replaced in its original location after the museum’s recent revamp.
The Rijksmuseum is open from 9-5 daily on Museumstraat 1 Amsterdam. Known to be extremely busy, you can sometimes queue for hours to get in, although with an e-ticket you can bypass the ticket counter. Admission is €15 for adults, children under 18 go free.
Other interesting places to see in Amsterdam include Anne Frank’s House, Rembrandt’s House and if you’re feeling fruity, the Sexmuseum Amsterdam.
Have you been on an arty tour of Europe? Which paintings would you recommend including on the itinerary? Let us know in the comments below!
- License: Creative Commons image source
Article by Katharina Kraetzer
Written by Katharina Kraetzer, a travel writer who loves to visit museums in her spare time. Her favourite is the Serralves Museum in Porto.