The top ten artworks you must see in real life

Let's assume you've been to the Louvre and witnessed Leonardo's Mona Lisa and been awestruck in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel gazing at those Michelangelo masterpieces, The Last Judgement and The Creation of Adam.

You may even have visited Milan's Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery to admire Leonardo's damaged fresco, The Last Supper.

What other paintings are worth making a detour to experience firsthand, even if you're not an art fanatic? Any list has to be subjective, but how can this one contain no Monet, Cezanne, Caravaggio, Rubens, Renoir or Turner?

In fairness, I've chosen only one painting by each artist, spread over ten different cities, with each work either having a significant impact on art history or becoming part of 21st Century popular culture. Feel free to disagree.

THE SCREAM, EDVARD MUNCH  – THE NATIONAL GALLERY, OSLO.

Perhaps the most haunting image ever created, much parodied and incorporated into other artworks since the Norwegian created it in 1893.

People still debate what it means. Pure despair? Alienation? Who is the androgynous figure suffering such agony? Man, woman? Munch himself? And why do the other figures in the painting not hear the scream?

Munch created four versions of The Scream between 1893 and 1910, two of which are in Norway's National Gallery. One was stolen in 1994 but returned a few months later.

The scene is a real location, south east of Oslo – close to where Munch's sister had been committed to an asylum the year before he painted this first version of The Scream.

In his diary Munch explained how, in January 1892, he was taking an evening stroll along the Oslo fiord: "I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fiord – the sun was setting and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature..."

More: nasjonalmuseet.no

GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING, JOHANNES VERMEER - MAURITSHUIS GALLERY, THE HAGUE.

Sometimes called "the Dutch Mona Lisa", this equally enigmatic portrait of a young woman became even more celebrated following Tracy Chevalier's 1999 novel which spawned an award-winning 2003 film starring Scarlett Johansson as the servant girl and Colin Firth as the artist.

Most experts agree the girl in the painting was probably Vermeer's teenage daughter.

Exactly when Vermeer painted it, and for whom, remains unknown. It is signed "IVMeer", but undated.

Shortly after leaving Vermeer's studio the painting disappeared for two centuries before resurfacing, in terrible condition, at an auction in 1881 where it was purchased for a pittance. Only when the painting was sent to Antwerp to be restored was Vermeer revealed as the artist. Today it's regarded as a masterpiece of subtle colour and intense intimacy.

More: mauritshuis.nl

GUERNICA, PABLO PICASSO - MUSEO REINA SOFIA, MADRID.

Probably the most famous anti-war work ever painted: certainly the most political work Picasso ever painted.

On 26 April, 1937, Nazi warplanes bombed the Basque town of Guernica, in Northern Spain, in support of General Franco's Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War. It was the first time the Germans had tested the tactics later known as Blitzkrieg.

Less than a week later, Picasso began work on his complex allegory, Guernica, in Paris.

The symbolism relates directly to Spain, but the painting became a potent statement about the terror inflicted by anonymous warriors using industrial weapons on innocent humanity.

When Franco won the war, the mural was sent to New York for safe keeping where it remained until 1981, fulfilling Picasso's desire that it should never be shown in Spain until democracy had been restored.

More: museoreinasofia.es

THE NIGHT WATCH, REMBRANDT VAN RIJN - RIJKSMUSEUM, AMSTERDAM.

Rembrandt's monumental masterpiece not only remains his most ambitious painting, but also revolutionised the genre of group portraiture.

The Dutch artist had been commissioned to paint 18 members of a ceremonial militia company under the command of Captain Frans Banning Cocq (in the red sash) and his lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch (in the white sash). He completed it in 1642.

Conventional artists would have arranged the company in a line, paying strict attention to the pecking order. But Rembrandt displayed them as an informal, active bunch of friends preparing to parade. Instead of the original 18, he has included 34 characters – including the small girl and a drummer.

In the recent refurbishment of the Rijksmuseum, The Night Watch alone was returned to its original position.

More: rijksmuseum.nl

STARRY NIGHT, VINCENT VAN GOGH - MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK.

Van Gogh painted Starry Night in June 1889, a few weeks after he arrived as an inmate at the asylum at Saint-Remy, in the south of France. For a few months, his mental condition remained stable and he produced some of his finest works.

We know Starry Night was inspired by an actual event because he wrote a letter to his brother, Theo, describing how that morning he'd been looking out of his asylum window "a long time before sunrise" and seen "nothing but the morning star, which looked very big".

There's a ferocious energy in the sky with its swirling patterns of thickly applied paint, but it doesn't seem at all menacing or brooding. If anything, it seems to signify hope – with the powerful forces of the universe failing to disturb the slumbers of villagers asleep in their beds.

Yet, less than a year after painting Starry Night, Van Gogh died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

More: moma.org

THE BIRTH OF VENUS, SANDRO BOTTICELLI - UFFIZI GALLERY, FLORENCE.

In 1486, Botticelli was commissioned to create this classically-inspired painting by the Medici family in 1486. For a long time, it hung in the Medici's country villa alongside another Botticelli masterpiece, Primavera.

At a time when most artists chose religious subjects, Botticelli was drawn to pagan mythology. His idealised painting shows an adult Goddess of Love arriving from the sea on a scallop shell blown by Zephyrus, God of Winds.

The model for Venus is said to be Simonetta Cattaneo de Vespucci, a Medici favourite. Legend insists Botticelli was in love with her, which adds another dimension to one of the most beautiful and timeless images ever created.

More: uffizi.org

LAS MENINAS, DIEGO VELAZQUEZ - PRADO, MADRID

Velazquez was the favourite court painter of Spain's King Philip IV, and this is his greatest and most influential work, created in 1656, four years before he died.

At first glance it appears to be a depiction of a strange miscellany of characters: children, servants, a nun, two dwarfs and a dog. In fact, it's an innovative royal portrait showing Velasquez himself at work in his studio.

We see the scene through the eyes of the King and Queen of Spain, who are posing for the artist and are seen reflected in the mirror at the back of the room.

Velazquez is on the extreme left, pausing in front of his large canvas. A courtier appears in the doorway of the studio, presumably with some news for the King. At the centre of the painting is the Infanta Margarita, the King's daughter, attended by her Maids of Honour (Las Meninas, in Spanish). So modern, it changed art.

More:museodelprado.es

AMERICAN GOTHIC, GRANT WOOD - ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO.

A strange choice, but this painting is deeply entrenched in American popular culture and endlessly referenced by other artists, partly because it remains so enigmatic.

In 1930 Grant Wood was visiting a small town in his native Iowa when he saw a wooden farmhouse in a style known as Carpenter Gothic.

Wood asked himself what kind of people would live in such a house and used his sister and dentist as models, painting them in a rigid style influenced by the Flemish Renaissance masters he'd studied on trips to Europe. It won him an art prize, and fame.

Opinions are divided about American Gothic. Some see it as a sinister depiction of small-minded, mid-western conservatism, while others regard it as a celebration of rural American values, persevering and enduring through hard times, such as the Depression. That's art.

More: artic.edu

METAMORPHOSIS OF NARCISSUS, SALVADOR DALI - TATE MUSEUM, LONDON.

Dali himself was a narcissist so his subject matter was particularly appropriate. By 1937,  he was already an international celebrity, as famous for his bizarre eccentricities as for his stunning surrealist paintings.

In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a youth of such beauty and self-regard that the gods punished him, making him fall in love with his own image reflected in a pool. Unable to embrace his true love, Narcissus died of frustration - and was turned into a flower by the gods.

Dali's technical excellence and brilliantly inventive mind is on full display in this wonderful depiction of the myth, showing the moment when the kneeling, self-loving Narcissus is transformed into a stone hand holding an egg and an emerging flower.

The symbolism in the painting is multi-layered and complex. Dali was so proud of the painting he took it with him in 1938 when he met his hero, Sigmund Freud.

More: tate.org.uk

THE LAST JUDGEMENT, HIERONYMUS BOSCH - KUNSTHISTORISCHES  MUSEUM, VIENNA.

No-one ever portrayed hell as well as Bosch, the mysterious, late medieval Dutch artist whose fantastic imagination found exquisite expression in convincing fellow believers the wages of sin are far worse than death.

With Bosch, the devil really is in the details. Look closely at this painting and you'll see scores of demons finding bizarre ways of torturing souls condemned to eternal damnation.

This is perhaps Bosch's finest triptych (three-panelled painting). The left-hand panel shows the creation story with the banishment of Lucifer from heaven and Adam and Eve from paradise.

The central panel shows Judgement Day, but heaven hardly figures: the focus is on those who have succumbed to the seven deadly sins and are getting their just rewards.

Yet the true horror is found in the right-hand panel, Hell itself.

Doesn't it feel good to be alive?

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