From Girl with a Pearl Earring to Portrait of Mme Matisse, superstar pictures make you go the extra mile

Planning a summer escape? Then why not base your trip around an artwork? Claudia Pritchard offers up some suggestions

You’ve seen the film, read the book, but have you viewed the painting? Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring takes pride of place when the Mauritshuis reopens in the Hague at the end of this month, with double the space to show its outstanding collection of 17th-century Dutch art and other masterpieces.

Since Vermeer’s three dozen or so treasured paintings rarely hit the road, they are among the superstar pictures that are worth basing a holiday around. But what other works of Western art merit a special journey? For art lovers planning their summer escape, here are 10 of my favourite ports of call:

Columba Altarpiece

Rogier van der Weyden (1455)

Where: Alte Pinakothek, Munich (pinakothek.de).

Scene upon scene is piled into this triptych painted for a Cologne church by the Dutch master, and although the religious tableaux are from conventional Christian iconography – the annunciation, the adoration of the Magi, and the presentation in the temple – the lengthened figures, quizzical animals, and tumble of contemporary architecture make this a spellbinding spectacle. Worth the journey for the whippet alone.

The Resurrection

Piero della Francesca (1465)

Where: Museo Civico, San Sepolcro (museocivico sansepolcro.it).

Aldous Huxley called this challenging image of Christ stepping from his tomb past sleeping soldiers The Best Picture in the World. Frescoed on the walls of the council chamber of Piero’s Tuscan home town, its appeal lies partly in its story of dogged survival. Painted over and so preserved as tastes changed, but then exposed again, it was also rescued during the Second World War bombardment of the city by the Allies, when one Captain Clarke recalled Huxley’s essay and stopped the shelling. The betrayal and confrontation in the eyes of Christ transfix every visitor, and the curly-headed soldier is a self-portrait of the artist. But ask the children to count the soldiers’ legs ….

The Fall of Icarus

Pieter Bruegel (c1558) 

Where: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels (fine-arts-museum.be).

“About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters …” So W H Auden began his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” after seeing the ultimate “life goes on” picture, which sums up the nobility of simple tasks and the vanity of over-ambition, as Icarus flies too close to the sun and plunges into the distant sea, while useful farming and fishing plods simply on in the foreground.

The Rape of Europa

Tiziano Vecelli (Titian) (1562) 

Where: The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (gardenermuseum.org).

In 1990, thieves stole a Rembrandt, a Manet, Vermeer’s The Concert and other portable works from the Venetian-style palace that the Boston heiress Gardner built to house her exceptional private art collection. The thousands of treasures undisturbed include this dynamic abduction, painted between 1554 and 1562 for Philip II of Spain. Jupiter disguised as a baleful bull charges out of the picture with Europa clutching his horn, not altogether subtly. The loosely painted riot of putti, storm clouds and lingerie made Gardner exclaim: “I am breathless …. Every inch of paint seems full of joy!”

Two Cats Fighting

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (c1786)

Where: Prado, Madrid (museumdelprado.es).

There is no match for Goya when it comes to degradation, decay and depravity, but this playful, 6ft-long over-door painting of two squabbling felines is the perfect antidote to all that misery. Possibly meant for a dining room, even its provenance has been called into question, but with its affectionate observation of cats’ hunched and hissy posturing on the ivied ruins of a brick wall, it lingers in the memory long after all the great masterpieces of this stupendous collection have fused into each other.

The Raft of the Medusa

Théodore Géricault (1819)

Where: Louvre, Paris (louvre.fr/en).

When a French frigate bound for Senegal ran aground in 1816, with too few life rafts, 150 of the stranded put to sea in their own rudimentary vessel. Only 10 survived a two-week voyage to safety. Géricault, who interviewed survivors and studied the severed limbs of cadavers, was the toast of Paris’s great exhibition, the Salon, in 1819, praised not only for the arresting technique of his 5m by 7m painting – the figures sharply and painfully delineated yet drained of colour – but also for its humanity. Those who see the ship on the horizon are elated by hope, while those too far gone to revive fail at their feet. The heroic black sailor is considered a clear statement of the artist’s stance on colonisation and emancipation.

Portrait of Madame Matisse:  The Green Line

Henri Matisse (1905)

Where: National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen (smk.dk).

Prolific and driven to create art until the end of his long life, Matisse left a vast body of work, including many portraits, but few of his wife Amélie who handled, in Paris, new works despatched by her husband from Nice. This radical portrait relies on colour to create form, and was influenced by Matisse’s experimental summer of painting with André Derain in Collioure. The livid stripe that runs through the face creates the light and shade from left to right and puts Matisse streets ahead of other artists experimenting with colour beyond representation.

Improvisation 33: Orient I

Vassily Kandinsky (1913)

Where: Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

(stedelijk.nl).

Inspired to create on canvas the explosive effects of Wagner’s radical chromaticism and vivid orchestration, Kandinsky even took to using musical terms for his titles. This exuberant piece, while apparently abstract, contains references to Eden and the Fall, and one of its main attractions is the ease with which it can be enjoyed at a gallery that, compared with its neighbours, the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum, is relatively under-visited yet stuffed with outstanding modern and contemporary art.

Joie de Vivre

Pablo Picasso (1946)

Where: Musée Picasso, Chateau Grimaldi, Antibes.

Picasso visited the ailing Matisse in Nice in 1946, staying in Antibes with his new lover, Françoise Gilot, who is probably the dancing figure in this joyous fertility dance (and who was soon to reveal that she was pregnant). A tribute to Matisse’s own libidinous Bonheur de Vivre 50 years earlier (itself influenced by Cézanne’s Grandes Baigneuses), it features jumping goats, a saucy centaur, a jaunty seascape and saturating sunlight. Hung within sight of the sapphire sea, it explains at a glance why the artist, 65 at the time, chose to spend the rest of his long life in the South of France.

Green and Tangerine on Red

Mark Rothko (1956)

Where: The Phillips Collection, Washington (phillips collection.org/collection).

This is one of four works in the Rothko Room created by the wealthy Washington collector Duncan Phillips for his private house gallery on the corner of Twenty-First and Q. More luminous than the black-and-red Seagram murals, its square of grassy green over a slab of orange, on a terracotta background, is scintillating. Rothko, highly prescriptive about the way his pictures were hung, visited the chapel-like room in 1961 while Phillips was away and made slight changes to the room. Phillips changed it back, but did agree to restrict seating to a single bench. And you may well get it all to yourself.

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