In the heart of Midtown Detroit, you can find one of the most impressive collections of paintings in the United States.
The Detroit Institute of Arts was established in 1885 and is housed in a remarkable building. It features over 100 galleries and houses over 65,000 objects.
The museum moved to a new building in Detroit and was greatly expanded during a construction project in the early 21st century. It now covers an area of 61,100 square meters (658,000 square feet).
The DIA is rated as one of the best museums in the United States and is visited by hundreds of thousands of people every year.
In this article, you’ll discover some of the most famous paintings at the Detroit Institute of Arts, artworks that you simply can’t miss during your visit.
1. Saint Jerome in His Study – Jan van Eyck (workshop)
- Date created: 1442
- Dimensions: 20.6 × 13.3 centimeters (8.1 × 5.2 inches)
Saint Jerome in his Study is a painting that was most probably started by Jan van Eyck (1390-1441), the renowned Early Netherlandish painter but interrupted because of the artist’s death. It’s therefore considered to be a work that was completed by his workshop shortly after he passed away.
This remarkable small work of art is defined by the extreme levels of detail integrated into it. Saint Jerome is traditionally depicted inside his study and multiple items are placed on his desk. The lion is a reference to the story in which Saint Jerome removed a thorn from the lion’s pawn.
2. The Wedding Dance – Pieter Bruegel the Elder
- Date created: 1566
- Dimensions: 119.4 × 157.5 centimeters (47 × 62 inches)
The Wedding Dance is a remarkable work of art in the oeuvre of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, the leading Renaissance artist in the northern part of Europe in the 16th century. It depicts a traditional peasant wedding, a theme commonly depicted by the artist.
Other works in what is believed to be a series of similar paintings are The Peasant Wedding (1567) and The Peasant Dance (1569). The painting was rediscovered by the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts in the early 1930s in England and subsequently brought back to the United States.
3. Martha and Mary Magdalene – Caravaggio
- Date created: 1598
- Dimensions: 100 × 134.5 centimeters (39 × 53.0 inches)
Martha and Mary Magdalene is a painting by Caravaggio, the troubled Italian artist of the Baroque era, and completed shortly before he became famous in Rome. He was working for Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte at the time and the use of Chiaroscuro wasn’t as prominent as in his later works.
Little is known about the painting’s whereabouts until it was put for sale in an auction at Christie’s in London in the early 1970s. It didn’t get sold at that time and the museum in Detroit saw it as an opportunity to bring the work of the Baroque master to the United States. The museum bought it 2 years later in 1973.
4. The Visitation – Rembrandt van Rijn
- Date created: 1640
- Dimensions: 56.5 × 47.9 centimeters (22.1 x 18.8 inches)
The Visitation depicts the Biblical story of the meeting between Mary, the Virgin mother of Jesus Christ who was pregnant at the time, and Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin who was pregnant with Saint John the Baptists. Both women are illuminated in a supernatural glow which is the main focus of the painting.
A painting by Rembrandt is always a remarkable work of art and this one is no different, regardless of its relatively small size. The way that the Dutch artist composed it makes it appear much larger than it is and this allowed him to include several other figures, including several animals.
5. The Jewish Cemetery – Jacob van Ruisdael
- Date created: 1650s
- Dimensions: 142.2 × 189.2 centimeters (56 × 74.5 inches)
The Jewish Cemetery is one of the many landscape paintings by Dutch Golden Age painter Jacob van Ruisdael (1629-1682). It depicts the ruins of a church and monastery on top of a hill. The tombstones are located in the foreground of the painting.
Art historians have discovered that the artist mingles two different scenes into one painting. The cemetery is the Jewish cemetery ‘Beth Haim’ in Ouderkerk aan de Amstel and the ruins on top of the hill are those of Egmond Abbey (St. Adalbert’s Abbey) in Egmond-Binnen, both located in the town of Bergen in the Netherlands.
6. The Nightmare – Henri Fuseli
- Date created: 1781
- Dimensions: 101.6 × 127 centimeters (40 × 50 inches)
The Nightmare is a rather scary painting by Henri Fuseli (1741-1825), a Swiss artist who spent most of his career working in Britain. We can see a sleeping woman in an incredibly awkward position and some sort of demon sitting on top of her.
This remarkable work of art became an instant sensation when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1782 due to its haunting subject matter. The artist went on to produce several versions of this painting, including an engraving.
7. Watson and the Shark – John Singleton Copley
- Date created: 1782
- Dimensions: 91.4 x 77.5 centimeters (35.9 x 30.5 inches)
Watson and the Shark is arguably the most famous painting by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), the American artist who spent significant amounts of time in England. The painting depicts the story of an English boy named Brook Watson who was attacked by a shark near Havana, Cuba, in the year 1749.
Watson lost his leg but went on the become a successful politician, even becoming Lord Mayor of London. He commissioned the painting, and Copley produced 3 versions of which the one in Detroit is the smallest. The larger versions are on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
8. Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket – James Abbott McNeill Whistler
- Date created: 1872-1877
- Dimensions: 60.3 × 46.6 centimeters (23.7 × 18.3 inches)
Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket is a painting by the renowned American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and is considered to be the ultimate representation of the “Art for Art’s Sake” or L’Art pour l’art” movement. It stated that true art should be divorced from any political or moral statement.
Whistler was a great proponent of this movement and painted several nocturnal scenes. This painting and several others were inspired by the Cremorne Gardens, a pleasure garden in London. The painting depicts a fireworks display in the foggy night sky in London.
9. The Nut Gatherers – William-Adolphe Bouguereau
- Date created: 1882
- Dimensions: 87.6 x 134 centimeters (34.4 x 52.7 inches)
The Nut Gatherers is considered to be one of the most popular paintings at the Detroit Institute of Art. It was painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), a French master and Realism artist who is predominantly known for his realistic depictions of historical and mythological subjects.
Bouguereau depicted two young girls shortly after they collected hazelnuts. It features an almost photographic sense of realism. This explains why the artist achieved great success during his lifetime in both his native France and the United States.
10. Self-Portrait with Straw Hat – Vincent van Gogh
- Date created: 1887
- Dimensions: 34.9 x 26.7 centimeters (13.7 x 10.5 inches)
Self-Portrait with Straw Hat is one of the 22 self-portraits that Vincent van Gogh (1852-1890) painted while he was living with his brother Theo in Paris in 1887 and 1888. It’s one of the 5 self-portraits in which he wears a distinctively yellow straw hat.
The Dutch Post-Impressionist artist painted numerous self-portraits, most probably because he didn’t have any money to hire models most of the time. This makes these works a substantial part of his incredible oeuvre. 3 other versions with a straw hat are part of the collection of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, while the other one can be admired at the MET in New York City.