From John Singer’s Madame X to Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates, Musement shares 10 must-see pieces of artwork at The Met.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, better known as just The Met, is one of the world’s top museums and by far the largest in the United States. Spanning over 2 million square feet, the legendary museum was founded in 1870 and contains over 2 million works, with works dating back 5,000 years.
From ancient Egypt to every major European movement, and American and modern art, it’s easy to see why one can spend days exploring this national treasure. The permanent collection alone is situated in seventeen different departments. Plus, the mazelike rooms might make it a bit confusing to navigate.
In order to help plan your visit, we decided to share 10 must-see pieces of artwork that will help optimize your time while visiting the Met.
1. Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat, Vincent van Gogh, 1887
One of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings, Self Portrait with a Straw Hat was completed during his time in Paris from 1886-1888. While staying with his brother, Van Gogh purchased the best mirror he could afford and produced more than twenty self-portraits. He was often the subject of his own paintings when he couldn’t afford a model or was feeling anti-social. Based on the somber look on his face, it might be safe to say it was the latter. Each brush stroke from the remarkable Neo-Impressionist painter displays his iconic impasto technique and is hypnotizing to the viewer. The short, sharp strokes hint at Van Gogh’s personality. Gallery 825
2. The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787
This Neoclassical work depicts the moments just before the death of the great philosopher Socrates. It is believed that in ancient Athens, Socrates was convicted of corrupting the youth and denying the gods. With the option of renouncing his ideas or drinking poison hemlock, Socrates opted for option two and died for his beliefs. Jacques Louis David shows Socrates as an old man seated on a bed, with one hand ready to take the cup of poison, while the other pointing up, perhaps to the heavens? His followers look on in disbelief, some with their hands over their eyes, as Socrates lectures them one final time. The woman in the background with her hand raised is said to be Socrates’ wife, saying farewell to her husband. Gallery 614
3. Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1931
Part of the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, this oil on canvas painting by Georgia O’Keeffe is said to represent her idea of the “Great American Story”. After spending time in New Mexico and Lake George, New York, her interest in paintings shifted. Instead of big New York buildings, O’Keeffe’s focus turned to nature, particularly skulls. In this painting, the skull’s worn surfaces and jagged edges represent the beauty of the American desert and the strength of the American spirit. The red, white, and blue background gives it that American finishing touch, a sense of patriotism.
4. The Sphinx of Hatshepsut, around 1479-1458 B.C.
Hatshepsut, which means “Foremost of Noble Ladies” was the first, and one of only two female pharaohs in ancient Egyptian history. She came to the throne in 1478 B.C. at the age of 29. Her sphinx, made from granite, shows the body of a lion with a human head. She is dressed wearing a striped headcloth (nemes) and a fake beard, two main characteristics of an Egyptian pharaoh. Gallery 131
5. Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies, Claude Monet, 1899
Claude Monet’s Water Lilies is easily one of the most renowned series of paintings in the history of art. During his last 30 years alive, the founding father of Impressionism turned to the flower garden and pond he had installed in his backyard in Giverny. Monet really focused on the effects of light and the sun in his works, and mastered this with over 250 oil paintings. This specific version includes his Japanese footbridge, which was the focal point in 12 of 18 paintings he completed in 1899. This timeless classic is a must-see when you’re visiting The Met. Gallery 819
6. Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints, Raphael, around 1504
As part of an altarpiece for the Franciscan convent of Sant’Antonio in Perugia, the Italian Renaissance artist completed this painting in the early 16th century. The conservative clothing choice of the saints and a fully clothed baby Jesus is thought to have been a request from the nuns. It was housed in an area reserved strictly for nuns for over a century. Mary is sitting on a throne, front and center, as saints surround her as she looks down at an infant St. John the Baptist. The semicircle canopy on top shows the Godly world, depicting two angels with God in the center. Gallery 962
7. Madame X, John Singer Sargeant, 1883-1884
Singer’s most controversial work is also considered to be his best. Madame X, Virginie Avegno Gautreau, was the American wife of a French banker who was popular in the French capital for her good looks and artful appearance. Singer had the opportunity to paint a portrait of her for the Paris Salon in 1884. The black satin dress she donned contrasted perfectly with her pale-toned skin. After receiving much criticism for displaying his subject’s daring style with the strap of her gown slipping off her right shoulder, Singer was asked to remove the painting from the exhibition. Today, one of the Met’s best artworks generates large crowds due to its popularity and the story behind this masterpiece. Gallery 771
8. Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, Jackson Pollock, 1950
American artist Jason Pollock is one of the driving forces behind the Abstract Expressionism movement. Autumn Rhythm: Number 30 is one of his most notable works and was revolutionary for the modern and contemporary art game. His poured-painting technique gave him the freedom to paint as he pleased, dripping, flicking, and splattering paint over a large canvas. What might just look like a bunch of paint thrown onto a canvas may have been intentional, showing Pollock’s physics intelligence. Not only did he have great influence in the paint world, but he also played an influence in the fashion world. Gallery 919
9. Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1653
Rembrandt’s portrayal of Greek philosopher Aristotle is deemed one of the greatest portraits of the 17th century. With one hand on his hip and the other touching a bust of Homer, Aristotle seems to be contemplating to himself. Is he comparing his success to that of Homer? A medallion of Alexander the Great hangs from his gold chain. The Dutch painter uses lighting to shine a ray of light through what the viewer could imagine is a window onto Aristotle’s face. The Baroque style painting was completed for Sicilian patron Antonio Ruffo. Gallery 964
10. The Dance Class, Edgar Degas, 1874
The French Impressionist painter devoted his time to dance-themed works, more specifically ballerina dancers. Degas was able to perfect the posture and body movements of these ballerinas after attending dance rehearsals of French master Jules Perrault at the Paris Opera house. This particular work shows one ballerina executing an “attitude” as Perrault looks on. Other dancers can be seen practicing their dance moves while waiting for their turn to perform for their teacher. Degas was a master at color shading, and it is on full display here. Degas’ other renowned ballet work, Ballet Class, can be found at the Orsay Museum. Gallery 815