7 stunning paintings you should see in person

First things first, I am not a painter. I am just a fan of painting and I wanted to offer up seven remarkable paintings that have made a huge impression on me and have inspired huge amounts of my own creative output. Hopefully they will spark similar reactions for you. My father was a painter, so he undoubtedly influenced me a great deal in the choices below (as I was growing up he took me along to several galleries to see these paintings in person) and I am indebted to him for seeing many of them. 

There are a dozen other extraordinary works that could have easily made this list but these were the ones that came to mind first. These reproductions, of course, only offer a glimpse of the brilliance of the original works themselves. If you can, I urge you to find them on your travels and soak up their mystery and genius.

Gas (1939) by Edward Hopper

I could pick any Edward Hopper painting and marvel at it for hours. I love them in the same way I love Raymond Carver stories. Each one of them a lonely, cinematic, beautiful slice of America. They are so sparse and effortlessly profound, with a wonderful underlying drama in each painting. Perhaps more than any other painter, it is his ability to capture the way light falls that is so compelling. In this painting I love the falling evening light above the treeline compared to the banks of light from the white building that run out across the courtyard. And the man at the pump is one of those classic Hopper figures that I love, who seems to throw up as many questions as he answers. Ultimately, Edward Hopper will probably never be the most popular painter of all time, but to me he is undoubtedly one of the greatest.

Can be seen at : Museum of Modern Art, New York City, USA

Böhmen liegt am Meer (1996) by Anselm Kiefer

No reproduction can truly do justice to the stark emotional pull of Anselm Kiefer’s painting. It hangs alone on a massive wall in the mezzanine of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (or at least it used to) and dares you to look at it. It is a big, stark, imposing painting with the title “Böhmen liegt am Meer” (Bohemia lies by the sea) scrawled across the dirty horizon on the canvas. It’s taken from a poem by Ingeborg Bachmann and the writer in me loves that mixing of the two artforms. No matter how often I see it, I can’t get over how roughly and coarsely it is painted in big dollops of thick oil paint, with sections of the raw canvas peeking through in other parts. And those splashes of poppies across the burnt out landscape are so deft and brilliant. It’s a painting I will never see enough times. My dad adored it so much that I sprinkled a few of his ashes in front of it after he passed away, so at least, if there is some kind of afterlife, he can see it forever. 

Can be seen at : Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, USA

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) by Joseph Wright of Derby

I still remember seeing this bizarre candlelit scene for the first time and almost being hypnotised by it. I still wonder what made Wright-of-Derby choose this particular scene to paint above all others? Apart from the way he conjures light so beautifully in such a modern cinematic way, it is the chilling main character staring directly at me (as if he is willing a reaction) who remains the most compelling part of the painting for me. There is also something particularly ominous about that moon (a common motif of his paintings) being revealed from behind the clouds in the window at the top right. I recently went back to the National Gallery with my eldest son on a trip to London and we sat and marvelled at the painting for an age. It felt fitting to share that moment with my own son. A moment in time. A timeless moment. A masterpiece.

Can be seen at : National Gallery, London, UK

Bed (1955) by Robert Rauschenberg

I absolutely love the fact that Robert Rauschenberg brazenly sticks objects to his canvas, paints on household artifacts and simply creates these mish-mash constructions of art and everyday objects. It makes sense to me. My own efforts at painting were definitely inspired by his work, as I stuck shoes and old receipts to makeshift canvases. Mine hung on an apartment wall in Sunnyside, Queens rather than the MOMA though. While it isn’t apparent from the image, “Bed” is quite a large installation and it is pretty striking. Especially when you see it up close in all its dirty detail. I still can’t get over how simultaneously colourful and grimy it is (must be a nightmare for art restoration experts), while at the same time coming across as really funny and perhaps not really taking itself too seriously. Maybe none of that is true, but it feels that way to me. I can understand how it doesn’t connect with some people (but that’s art for you) but it always resonates with me every time I see it.

Can be seen at : Museum of Modern Art, New York City, USA

Untitled (1948) by Jackson Pollock 

I have to admit I didn’t really get Jackson Pollock until I saw his paintings on a wall in front of me. Part of it is the sheer scale of some of the works which doesn’t translate well in reproductions. It’s such a different experience standing in front of these enormous canvases with thick swirling drips of paint that dance across the canvas. The other thing is how surprisingly emotional the paintings are. Pollock went through loads of phases but this “Jack the Dripper” phase, which is his most well-known style, will always be my absolute favourite. This untitled painting from the Met manages to be not overly cluttered like some of his other pieces and I am really fond of the simplicity of the red and black on a big raw open canvas. I love his work, unlike the English couple I overheard at the Met who quipped “Jackson Bollocks more like”. 

Can be seen at : Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, USA

The Taking of Christ (ca.1602) by Caravaggio

Caravaggio’s breathtaking painting hangs in the National Gallery in Dublin and it is a painting that never fails to astonish me (It also has a fascinating and odd history). It is impossible to not be bowled over by the incredible painterly skill on display.  The composition of the scene and its balance of light & darkness, as well as the little details in Jesus Christ’s body language as he accepts his fate with such resignation are more impressive with each viewing. Apparently there are only about 80 of Caravaggio’s paintings in the world which makes this one an even rarer treat every time I see it. Stunning.

Can be seen at : National Gallery, Dublin, Ireland

Pie Counter (1963) by Wayne Thiebaud

Wayne Thiebaud was one of those painters I had never heard of until my dad and I went to see a retrospective of his work in the Whitney in New York. I was absolutely knocked out by his paintings. To see a painter’s extended body of work like that was wildly inspiring, as I really got to see the different phases and creative processes that happened along the way. I was drawn instantly to “Pie Counter” because it appealed to my jokey sensibility but at the same time I loved the bigger statement it was making about consumption and mass production in America. Thiebaud later went on to paint remarkable, colourful brainbending landscapes that would easily belong in a list like this, but for now I will enjoy these slices of pie thank you very much. 

Can be seen at : Whitney Museum, New York City, USA

6 thoughts on “7 stunning paintings you should see in person

  1. Joseph Wright of Derby painted an even better pic than the one shown. It’s on show at Derby Museum and Art Gallery. It’s called ‘A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery’ check it out

  2. My favourite painting is Gas. I’m not a great art afficianado but I like all Hoppers work. A few years ago I saw quite a few of his works at the Tate Modern in London, but Gas wasn’t there. “No Gas” I said to my daughter. Behind me a voice came, “that’s right no Gas”. So I wasn’t the only one who was a little disappointed.

  3. ‘Pie Counter’ is much better than ‘Pi Counter’, which gets kind of tedious after the first few hours.

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