Bucket List Art

11 Masterpieces You Can (and Should) See Before You Die

Plus: two you can't.

By Bill Wiatrak May 27, 2016

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Pictured: literally every tourist in Paris knocking the Mona Lisa off their art bucket lists.

Knowing art is like knowing wine. You might inherently understand what suits your taste, but sometimes it can be difficult to know why or even how to describe it to others. It's subjective, in other words. But if enough people love it, even if they can't explain why either, then it's considered great.

Take a moment to think about which world-famous art pieces you know. Most of us in the western world have heard of the Mona Lisa and can describe it to some degree. You may even know Leonardo da Vinci painted it, but that might be it when it comes to your base of Old Masters knowledge.

I asked a couple thousand friends to name art they thought everyone might know, and between us we came up with the list below. Chances are you've heard of most items on this list—but you may not know that you can see them yourself, up close and personal, nor where to find them across the world.

Mona Lisa

Da Vinci's masterpiece is believed to be a portrait of Lisa Gheradinim, the wife of merchant Leonardo del Giacondo, and was painted between 1503 and 1506. After Da Vinci's death, the painting hung in Fontainebleau, and later taken to Versailles by French king Louis XIV. Napoleon even had the Mona Lisa hung in his bedroom. In 1911, the little-known painting was stolen by an Italian handyman, making international headlines. It remained missing for two years. Pablo Picasso, ironically enough, was a prime suspect for the theft. After being recovered, it now hangs in the Louvre in Paris, France. That lady gets around.

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Do you think Venus and Mona Lisa gossip with each other after the Louvre is closed?

Venus de Milo

While you're in the Louvre, visit the Mona Lisa's most famous neighbor. Venus, or Aphrodite, as she was known by the Greeks, is a female sculpture thought to be carved by Alexandros of Antioch around 100 BC. The statue was discovered in 1820 by a peasant in the ancient city of Milos. It is widely believed the original sculpture was holding an apple and standing next to a plinth. The whereabouts of the missing arms are a mystery.

The Starry Night

This swirly, Impressionist painting is arguably Vincent van Gogh's most famous work. At the time he painted the street scene, van Gogh had checked himself into an asylum in southern France and it is believed that the painting was a view from his room—with a picturesque village added in the background. Some speculate his style was the result of overindulgence in absinthe or undiagnosed mental issues. Unfortunately, van Gogh killed himself before his art was appreciated on a wide scale. One might expect to find Starry Night in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, but it's hung in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City since 1941.

The Thinker

Auguste Rodin's most famous sculpture was originally intended to compliment a doorway surround called the Gates of Hell, except...the museum it was commissioned for was never built. The original Thinker was finished in 1902, and today there are at least 28 castings of the sculpture located around the world, meaning it's possible to see it in multiple places. Some of these castings were created after Rodin's death, however, and it's not entirely clear how many of them were replicated. The original can be seen in the garden at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia with many other sculptures created by this famous artist.

American Gothic

One of the best-known American works, painted by Grant Wood, is a simple portrait of a man and a woman standing in front of a house with a pitchfork. Though now seen by millions, the painting was inspired by a house in Iowa that Wood saw only once and quickly sketched. His sister and his dentist served as inspiration for the faces of the people in the painting, who became the poster-children of American virtue and hard work during the Great Depression. Fittingly, this Midwestern classic can be seen at Chicago's famous Art Institute.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring gracing a Dutch stamp.

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer's most famous work, often called the "Mona Lisa of the North," was painted around 1665, featuring a woman wearing a turban and an impossibly large pearl earring. The identity of the woman is unknown and the mystery surrounding her identity has created much speculation in the centuries since, most recently in the form of a Scarlett Johansson film (based on the the novel by Tracy Chevalier). The painting was purchased in 1881 for less than $30 and donated to the Mauritshuis museum in the The Hague, the Netherlands in 1902, where it now resides on a permanent basis.


This 17-foot statue remains one of Michelangelo's most famous works, as it portrays a larger-than-life version of the Biblical hero. It was sculpted between 150 and 154, though Michelangelo was actually the third sculptor to work on the massive piece. Originally commissioned by Agostino Di Duccio, it was later passed on to Antonio Rossellini 10 years after the original project was abandoned. Rossellini ditched the project as well, and the giant block of marble was left exposed to the elements for 25 more years. Though Michelangelo was only 26 years old when he came across the unfinished statue, he was able to convince the authorities to let him have the contract. He finished the iconic six-ton statue two years later. Today, can be viewed at the Accademia Gallery in Florence, Italy.

The Creation of Adam

Michelangelo's opus is part of a large collection of frescoes painted between 1511 and 1512. In this oft-imitated painting, God reaches his hand towards Adam to give him the spark of life. Michaelangelo considered himself a sculptor rather than a painter, and was afraid he wouldn't be able to accomplish the commission. Instead, he created one of the most famous paintings in the western world and in Christianity, despite his doubts. One can see this in the midst of the other panels on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, Italy.

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The Last Supper hangs today in a Dominican convent.

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The Last Supper

There are many artistic representations of Christ's last gathering with his apostles, but none as famous as Leonardo da Vinci's painting created at the end of the 15th Century. The painting can be seen at Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy on the back back wall of the convent's dining wall, appropriately enough.

Birth of Venus

Boticelli's painting of Roman goddess Venus is believed to have been painted around 1480 and is considered one of the earliest Renaissance works. Nudity was unheard of in art at the time, hence the lack of clothing on canvas was groundbreaking. Because of is controversial nature, Boticelli's masterpiece was hidden for 50 years, only finding its audience after 400 years passed. Now this painting can be found at the Ufizzi Gallery in Florence, Italy.

The Scream

This series originally included two pastels and two paintings created by Edvard Munch between 1893 and 1910. Some scholars believe Munch was influenced by a mummy display he had seen in Paris, though Munch himself described his inspiration for the twisted, distorted face in his painting as witnessing "a scream pass through nature" one day while he walked home between the city and a fjord. The National Gallery in Oslo has one, the Munch Museum (also in Oslo) has two, and a private collector owns the fourth. He purchased the painting for nearly $120 million in 2012. The Scream has the distinction of being stolen twice in its history: once in 2004 and then 2012.

Dogs Playing Poker

Speaking of private collectors... Actually a series of paintings rather than a single sketch, these works have been parodied enough to make them as laughable as a velvet Elvis, and it is for this very reason that C.M. Coolidge's anthropomorphic canines are so famous. Coolidge was commissioned to paint cigar ads in 1903 for Brown and Bigelow, painting 16 in all, of which only nine actually contain dogs playing poker at a table. Also, none of them are actually called Dogs Playing Poker. Instead, they have names like Waterloo, His Station, and 4 Aces. Most are owned by private collectors, however, which means you're much more likely to find an April Fool's article about a gallery exhibition of these paintings than an actual showing.

The Son of Man

The Son of Man was featured in the film The Thomas Crowne Affair, and is easily recognizable as a portrait of a man wearing a bowler hat, suit and tie, a large green apple covering his face. This painting was a self-portrait by Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte. Unfortunately the painting is privately owned and there are few chances to see the original.

So here's your art bucket list! Italy and France are good places to start, since the majority of these works are located in and around these countries. And if you can't make a trip anytime soon, just order a Dogs Playing Poker print on Ebay. You can always put it next to your Margaret Keane, and your velvet Elvis will be glad for the company.

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