The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York covers hundreds of thousands of square feet, housing millions of objects produced over the last 5,000 years of human creativity. Famous paintings in Met draw millions of visitors annually.
Its collections of Egyptian, Roman and Greek antiquities are unsurpassed. Arms and armor, unsurpassed. Decorative arts – furniture, lamps, vases – unsurpassed. Clothing and fashion, unsurpassed.
Along with the Louvre in Paris, the Met is widely considered the best art museum in the world.
Whether or not you’ve ever visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art along 5th Avenue inside of Central Park on Manhattan’s upper East Side, you’ve surely seen some of the famous paintings in Met collection somewhere. A textbook. A movie.
While I would argue that New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago have more singularly famous paintings than The Met, the famous paintings in Met are well worth your time. They better be at $30 for general adult admission for non-New York residents.
When visiting The Met, you’ll want to be sure to hit these highlight paintings before digging into the encyclopedic collection’s deep cuts. Here are the most famous paintings in Met from earliest to most recently produced.
View of Toledo, El Greco (1599-1600)
Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco – the Greek – was, not surprisingly, born in Greece, but came to artistic prominence in Spain. I love his moody landscape of Toledo in Spain where he lived and worked most of his life. It’s a big painting – nearly four feet tall.
Beams of sunlight breaking through dark clouds give it a feeling of rapture. An early example of landscape painting infused with emotion.
The Vision of Saint John, El Greco (1608-14)
Mannerism was a short-lived artistic movement bridging the Renaissance (Michelangelo, di Vinci, etc.) and the Baroque (Caravaggio, Rembrandt). It was most recognizable for exaggerated, elongated figures. This painting defines the style.
Juan de Pareja, Diego Velázquez (1650)
Who’s the GOAT among painters? The Greatest of All Time? Diego Velázquez according to many. No argument here.
His painting of Juan de Pareja, an Afro-Hispanic painter who was enslaved in Velázquez’ workshop before being freed, was the subject of a blockbuster exhibition in 2023. The exhibition and painting demand visitors wrestle with difficult questions about Velázquez, Western Civilization, and the history of painting.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait from 1660.
If Velázquez isn’t the GOAT, it may be Rembrandt.
Art history is full of self-portraits, good ones. For my money, however, the best self-portraitists – those who produced multiple examples throughout their careers – are Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo and Francis Bacon.
This is one of the master’s best, showing the artist at 54. Wrinkly, pudgy, graying, wrinkled, Rembrandt pulled no punches in portraying himself. No one has ever been better with brown.
Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (1662) Johannes Vermeer
Study of a Young Woman (1665-1667) Johannes Vermeer
With fewer than 40 known oil paintings in existence, any Vermeer is a special thing. The Met has a handful. Young Woman with a Water Pitcher exemplifies his tender, nuanced, delicate treatment of interior spaces which he is best known for.
I love the fresh, bright, youthful, optimistic expression on the sitter in Study of a Young Woman. I’ve stood enraptured in front of this small painting – 17-inches-tall – for long stretches of time. I hope you can meet her one day.
Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Leutze (1851)
Leutze’s monumental painting, more than 12 feet across, has been endlessly reproduced and likely appeared in your American History textbook. I find it to be a laughable example of American propaganda.
For starters, when Washington crossed the Delaware River to launch a sneak attack on Hessians during the American Revolution, Christmas Day 1776, it was during the night, not the day. Furthermore, it was freezing cold and Washington would have been huddled and bundled under coats and blankets not standing, as anyone whose ever been in a rowboat knows you NEVER do. Ridiculous.
His uniform looks clean and pressed. The oarsmen look fresh, utterly unlike soldiers who had been spending weeks in the field on low rations and on the run from the British. They aren’t wearing winter clothing or gloves. It’s nonsense.
Artworks like this one, this one being the classic example, explain how American mythology and hero worship took hold in this country.
Sadly, in my opinion, because of its endless reproduction, Washington Crossing the Delaware is probably tops on the list of most famous paintings in Met.
A Woman Seated Beside a Vase of Flowers (1865), Edgar Degas
The Met has a fine stash of Degas’ ballet paintings for which he’s best remembered, but for an individual painting, A Woman Seated Beside a Vase of Flowers is probably best known, at least most significant to art history, for its then radical composition which pushed the sitter to the very edge of the picture plane, and, in fact, out of it.
Madame X (1883-84), John Singer Sargent
What the art world calls a painting jumping off the wall, demanding to be recognized.
The visual equivalent of Whitney Houston’s voice.
No picture ever painted has more of it than John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X (1884).
Not Mona Lisa. Not Starry Night. Not Birth of Venus.
Madame X exudes – with a total lack of subtly – the power and confidence manifested by a beautiful woman who knows she is beautiful, and what’s more, knows what effect that beauty has on people, men and women.
“Sargent depicted Virginie Avegno Gautreau, an American expatriate from Louisiana, as the quintessential Parisienne: self-confident, perfectly groomed, and immensely glamorous,” Erica E. Hirshler, Croll Senior Curator of American Paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, told Forbes.com. “Madame Gautreau was well-known in Paris for her artful appearance, which she enhanced with lavender powder and bespoke gowns. The artist painted her with care, emphasizing her contours and profile, almost as if she were a classical sculpture.”
All well and good.
Sargent was a genius with the brush, Gautreau a knockout, but that doesn’t fully explain this painting’s presence. Why it had Parisian tongues wagging. The uproar it caused. The fame the image has gone on to acquire.
“Sargent’s original composition (later repainted), in which her right strap had slipped from her shoulder, further emphasized the daring cut of her dress,” Hirshler explains. Scandalous. This wasn’t an idealized Venus showing that much shoulder, but an actual person long before even pinups, laughably modest by today’s standards, were a thing. The bikini wouldn’t be invented for another YEARS. “She described it as a ‘masterpiece,’ but the painting was much criticized at the 1884 Salon, and Sargent’s ambitions as a portrait painter in Paris were severely compromised by the event. The hostile reception may have come in part because Madame Gautreau and Sargent—both Americans—had presumed to take on the French at their own game: fashion and art.”
The enormous, nearly life-sized painting was ridiculed by critics and the public. It trashed Sargent and Gautreau’s (1859–1915) reputation in Paris. Sargent reworked the painting considerably, including lifting the dress strap back over Gautreau’s shoulder.
He held the painting for 30 years before selling it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916, one year after Gautreau’s death, requesting the museum rename it so as not to dredge up the scandal it caused both artist and subject. By that time, he considered it the best work he’d ever made.
Gautreau became Madame X, the painting one of the most recognizable in art history.
Wheat Field with Cypresses (1889), Vincent van Gogh
No museum outside of Europe has a richer collection of van Gogh paintings than The Met. It’s not even close. MoMA’s Starry Night is more famous, but for depth and breadth, The Met reigns supreme.
Irises, Woman Rocking a Cradle, Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat are all major, recognizable paintings, but give me Wheat Field with Cypresses as the most famous.
The Card Players (1890-92), Paul Cézanne
The Met has an embarrassment of brilliant Cézanne paintings. They fill an entire gallery with them. One of my most memorable arts experiences came on a Friday evening at The Met when the crowds dwindle thanks to the museum’s extended hours (9 PM) and I was able to spend several minutes completely alone with the better part of 20 Cézanne masterpieces.
His “Card Players” series is one of the most famous in art history. The Met’s example is a dandy.
Gertrude Stein (1905-06), Pablo Picasso
The Met has definitive examples of paintings from Picasso’s “Red,” “Blue,” and Cubist periods, but its this portrait of the American expat who was such a fixture in the turn of the century arts scene in Paris that is the most famous and most important.
The likeness is hardly flattering, but what it lacks in glamour, it more than makes up for in honesty. Contrasts that with Leutze’s portrayal of Washington.
Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) (1950), Jackson Pollock
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a best in class collection of Abstract Expressionist paintings with numerous masterpieces by Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, but none better defines the movement than Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm.
AbEx was big. Pollock’s painting is 17-feet across. It was bold, expressive, physical. The dynamic and dramatic brushwork of this piece – drips and flicks and slashes – reveals the movement inherent in its making. It was mesmerizing. Stand in front of this painting, as I have done, and find yourself lost in it. Start with a single square inch and move out from there.