There are bigger art museums than the Art Institute of Chicago, although not many. There are art museums which receive more annual visitors, although not many. No art museum, however, houses as many instantly recognizable paintings as the Art Institute of Chicago.
Edward Hopper, American, 1882-1967. Nighthawks, 1942. Oil on canvas. 33 1/8 x 60 in. (84.1 x 152.4 cm)
Of all the famous paintings in Art Institute of Chicago, I think this tops the list. Edward Hopper’s commentary on the isolation of urban living has been endlessly parodied across Popular culture. Even if people don’t know the name of the artist, or the artwork, they’ve seen this image – somewhere.
This painting is so famous it even has a famous copycat, Gottfried Helnwein’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams placing Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, James Dean and Elvis Presley into the positions of Hopper’s anonymous New Yorkers.
Georges-Pierre Seurat, French, 1859-1891. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884, 1884–86, painted border 1888/89. Oil on canvas. 81 3/4 x 121 1/4 in. (207.5 x 308.1 cm)
Featured prominently in “Ferris Buehler’s Day Off,” Seurat’s enormous (over 12-feet across), eye-bending, Pointillist masterpiece wows every visitor who lays eyes on it. Read any textbook on art history and you’ll find this painting in it.
Grant Wood, American, 1891-1942. American Gothic, 1930. Oil on beaver board. 30 3/4 × 25 3/4 in. (78 × 65.3 cm)
If Nighthawks isn’t the most famous image in American art history, American Gothic is. Your parents have seen this painting, somewhere. So have your nieces and nephews and cousins and probably everyone else you know.
Also, like Nighthawks, it has been endlessly parodied in Popular culture, the main figures altered to represent Kiss, “Star Wars,” the Simpsons and virtually everything and everyone else you can imagine.
Vincent van Gogh, Dutch, 1853-1890. The Bedroom, 1889. Oil on canvas. 29 x 36 5/8 in. (73.6 x 92.3 cm)
Van Gogh’s eerie bedroom from when the artist was living in Arles can read as something of a self-portrait. All is not right here. The unsettling green color in the floor. How the room seems to be folding in on itself.
Van Gogh was struggling mightily with mental illness at this time in his life and this painting hints at his internal disquiet.
Katsushika Hokusai, Japanese, 1760-1849. The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura), from the series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjûrokkei), “c. 1830 – 1831. Color woodblock print; oban. 25.4 x 37.6 cm (10 x 14 3/4 in.)
The most famous artistic image produced in Asia to Western audiences, Hokusai’s “Great Wave” can be seen on coffee mugs, t-shirts, tote bags and a galaxy of other retail items.
This is a print, not an original, one-of-a-kind painting like the other artworks on this list of famous paintings in Art Institute of Chicago, so other museums do have copies of it, and the Art Institute has three. Since the artwork was produced on paper, not canvas, and as such is more susceptible to damage and color fading from light, the Art Institute only displays its copies a few months out of every five years.
Georgia O’Keeffe, American, 1887-1986. Sky above Clouds IV, 1965. Oil on canvas. 96 × 288 in. (243.8 × 731.5 cm)
Some of the famous paintings in Art Institute of Chicago you have to see before you start “seeing” them everywhere else. Such is the case with Georgia O’Keeffe’s Sky above Clouds IV. A staple of textbooks, now that you recognize the composition, you’ll begin noticing takeoffs on this theme all over the place.
The painting is 8-feet tall by 24-feet wide.
Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926. Water Lilies, 1906. Oil on canvas. 34 1/2 x 36 1/2 in. (87.6 x 92.7 cm)
Monet’s most famous Water Lilies paintings are housed at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, but Chicago’s Water Lilies is a fine example of arguably the most famous artist-subject combo in history.
Claude Monet. Stacks of Wheat (End of Summer), 1890-91. Oil on canvas. 23 5/8 × 39 9/16 in. (60 × 100.5 cm)
While not as famous as his Water Lilies, Monet’s haystacks represent a pillar of art history filling books, museums, documentaries and lectures.
Gustave Caillebotte, French. Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877. Oil on canvas. 83 1/2 x 108 3/4 in. (212.2 x 276.2 cm)
Another enormous painting – nearly 10 feet across – Caillebotte isn’t as well known as his Impressionist colleagues Monet, Renoir or Degas, but this precise, dreary, geometric, cityscape proves he measured up in talent. As with Nighthawks, the image is a commentary on modernity and urban life, a psychological study of a time and place.
Pablo Picasso, Spanish, 1881–1973. The Old Guitarist, late 1903–early 1904. Oil on panel. 48 3/8 × 32 1/2 in. (122.9 × 82.6 cm)
Before helping invent Cubism and painting his fractured portraits of women – the Art Institute has exceptional examples of those as well – Picasso went through a “blue” period. This famous paintings in Art Institute of Chicago collection exemplifies that period. Picasso, a prodigy, painted this in his early 20s.
Joan Mitchell, American, 1925-1992. City Landscape, 1955. Oil on linen. Unframed: 80 × 80 in. (203.2 × 203.2 cm)
Joan Mitchell’s genius radiates off this painting. The energy, the color, the dynamic brushwork. Her artistic vision – can you see the “city landscape?” The Chicago native is a favorite of art nerds and historians – and me too. This painting isn’t as famous as it should be, but in arty circles, its worshipped, and I have a feeling its peak of widespread appreciation has yet to occur.
Put them all together and you’ll understand why the Art Institute of Chicago is one of the best art museums in the US and the world.