9 Must-See Paintings in Detroit

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The Detroit Institute of Arts houses one of Detroit’s most vibrant and extensive collections of art. Here are just nine of the paintings worth seeing there.

Earlier versions of the descriptions of these paintings first appeared in 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die, edited by Stephen Farthing (2018). Writers’ names appear in parentheses.


  • The Bay (1963)

    Helen Frankenthaler was the inventor of Color Field painting, and her creations are among the most beautiful and poetic examples of abstraction in the genre’s history. Frankenthaler, who was the youngest daughter of a justice on the New York State Supreme Court, attended New York City’s leading private high school, Dalton, where she studied under the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo before earning her BA from Bennington College, Vermont. She was introduced to the New York art scene through pioneering critic Clement Greenberg and her artistic mentor Hans Hofmann, and later married the Abstract painter Robert Motherwell. In 1952, Frankenthaler became known in the New York art community through Sea and Mountains, an enormous, luminous canvas. The ethereal beauty of Frankenthaler’s abstraction derives from her signature “staining” technique, in which oil paint heavily diluted with turpentine or kerosene is painted onto an unprepared canvas, so that the fabric soaks up colors. She termed this technique “soak stain,” and it was later adopted by painters such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. The Bay is an impressive, poetic example of her graceful compositions and elegant, impassioned use of color. In a 1975 interview, Frankenthaler described her act of creation: “I think very often it takes ten of those over-labored efforts to produce one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it, and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute.” (Ana Finel Honigman)

  • The Nightmare (1781)

    This is Henry Fuseli’s most famous painting, as well as a landmark in the development of the Romantic movement. The likeliest of many theories about the source of Fuseli’s inspiration is that this picture started out as a visual pun. The creature squatting on the woman is an incubus, or mara. It is this demon who is causing the nightmare, rather than the horse (or “night-mare”) that peers from behind the drapes. In contemporary folklore, horses were often linked with nocturnal visitations. They were ridden by night-hags and witches, and “hagridden” was used as a term for someone troubled by nightmares. The horror is heightened by the unsettling pose of the woman, which creates an air of sexual menace. There is a theory that the picture was designed as an act of sexual revenge. On the reverse of the canvas, there is an unfinished portrait of a girl, who may have been the object of Fuseli’s unrequited affections. However, the pose may simply reflect contemporary scientific theories, which fascinated Fuseli, about the physical causes of nightmares, such as sleeping with the head lower than the feet. (Iain Zaczek)

  • Watson and the Shark (1782)

    John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark was inspired by a celebrated incident that took place in 1749 off the shore of Havana, Cuba. Fourteen-year-old Brook Watson, an orphan serving as a crew member on a trading ship, was attacked by a shark while swimming alone in the harbor. He suffered three attacks by the shark, and his leg was bitten off before his shipmates managed to rescue him. In this dramatic, emotionally intense painting, Watson appears as an almost mythic creature. He struggles in the water but his naked, white body appears to melt with the waves, as if he were already half part of the sea. Yet Watson survived the ordeal and went on to become a highly successful merchant and politician in London, where he served a term as mayor from 1796 to 1797. Watson himself is believed to have commissioned the painting from Copley. Critical analysis has been devoted to the sociohistorical context for the Black sailor standing in the center of the boat. Although Copley probably had little political interest in including this character, and it was not uncommon at this time for free Black men to work on the seas, the figure is one of the earliest examples of an African American as a heroic figure in Western art. The themes of courage, teamwork, perseverance, and self-made success are typical ideals that the colonialist Copley became famous for expressing in his paintings. They also illustrate ideals that the revolutionaries hoped to realize in the new United States of America. (Ana Finel Honigman)

  • American Lake Scene (1844)

    Despite his English birth, Thomas Cole became one of the greatest American landscape painters of the 19th century. Having emigrated to America in 1818, the young Cole found himself enamored with the beauty of the Ohio countryside. Determined to become a painter, he learned rudimentary skills from a traveling portraitist named Stein before dedicating himself to landscape. In 1825 Cole executed a series of paintings along New York’s Hudson River that were to make his fortune, attracting the attention of the city’s most important patrons. American Lake Scene is a mature work of 1844, just four years before Cole’s premature death. Having spent several years in Europe studying the work of the Old Masters, Cole greatly admired the landscapes of Claude Lorrain, and the weighty concepts of Italian history paintings had encouraged him to introduce a morality into his own works. In this painting, a lone Native American under a luminous sky contemplates the silent lake, evoking the idealized tranquillity of the early settlement years. A Romantic, Cole had campaigned against America’s railroad fever, believing that nature reinforces humankind’s morality and must be preserved. His skillful rendering of color, naturalism, and atmosphere is second to none at this time, causing one contemporary critic to proclaim that the work “looks like the earth before God breathed on it.” Cole is considered the founder of the Hudson River School, a Romantic movement in which artists produced realistic landscapes with moral narratives. (Susan Flockhart)

  • Georg Brandes at the University in Copenhagen (1889)

    This portrait is seen as the changing point in Harald Slott-Møller’s artistic career; with it, he is leaving the completeness of Naturalism in favor of a visual language dominated by detail, symbols, and a new aesthetic. In Georg Brandes at the University in Copenhagen, the artist portrays his good friend within a very constructed and simple setting. The blackboard, the dark brown podium, and Brandes’s black coat and hair stand out in a strong contrast to the beige wall, to his white shirt, and to the light coming from the two lamps above him. Slott-Møller has presented the viewer with an elemental construct, visually as well as theoretically: a lecturer within a bare room only consisting of contrasting colors. In the following years Slott-Møller turned toward a more symbolic world, affirming his association with the Symbolists and his interest in the Pre-Raphaelites. (Signe Mellergaard Larsen)

  • Ring Gymnast No.2 (1912)

    This work belongs to a period, starting in the early 1900s, when Eugène Jansson produced several pictures of naked men bathing, lifting weights, and performing gymnastics. These images—influenced partly by a new fashion for healthy living, and partly by the artist’s preoccupations with his constant poor health and his sexuality—were shockingly frank for their time and duly outraged many people. This gymnast is painted in such a way that the detail of his body position dissolves on close scrutiny. His body looks as if it is turned inside out, with his upper torso and shoulders resembling a curved but rather two-dimensional piece of carved wood. This adds to the sense that he is doing an almost impossible maneuver. The striated style, especially exaggerated on the limbs, evokes a real feeling of strong muscles being stretched to their limit. At the same time, however, the muted palette, with both human skin and simple background painted in the same tones, and the balletic quality of the man’s pose, lend the work a simple harmony. The unusual, stylized approach for which Jansson is known is present, as is the influence of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, whose work Jansson had seen exhibited in Stockholm in 1894. Underappreciated in his time, Jansson is recognized as a genuine, highly individual talent. In the stylized, almost Symbolist lingering over the muscular male form seen in pictures such as this one, he added an unusual and progressive note to the history of the male nude. (Ann Kay)

  • Ferocious Painting (1980)

    Enzo Cucchi, a member of the Transavanguardia movement, began drawing in the 1970s and held his first one-man show in 1977. The Italian landscape, people, and experiences are often the inspiration for his work; early Etruscan art or biblical stories also show their influence. His oeuvre encompasses many different styles and media, including ceramics, sculptures, drawings, and paintings. Ferocious Painting is one of his earlier works and representative of one of his most well-known styles—visionary figure painting employing bold primary and secondary colors. The imagery employed here—of the venerable bearded religious icon-style figure about to be obliterated by a very commonplace ballpoint pen—shows a clever melding of old and new styles and a comment on the old being written off by modernity. The bright yellow human figure is burdened with what appears to be a sacrificial lamb, a symbol for Jesus Christ. The man’s frightened face appears in a square-cut tunnel in the velvety green hillside. From the same tunnel issues forth a train, but is the train coming out of the hillside or out of the man? It is a steam train in smart red and black design, harking back to a golden age, or perhaps to a less enlightened age than our age of modernity and gleaming bullet trains; the steam train could symbolize both. Is this a comment on Christianity versus older religions or is it about modern society versus history? Questions are raised but it is left to the viewer to find the answers within themselves. (Lucinda Hawksley)

  • Cabalistic Painting (1983)

    Born in Brooklyn, Julian Schnabel moved with his family at the age of 14 to Texas, and he subsequently studied at the University of Texas. In 1973, he returned to New York to follow the independent study program at the Whitney Museum, his successful application apparently consisting of a set of his color slides sandwiched between two slices of bread. Schnabel’s first solo exhibition was in 1975 at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. Four years later, he had his first New York show with Mary Boone, in Soho, who during the 1980s was also exhibiting the likes of Georg Baselitz, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, Anselm Kiefer, Jannis Kounellis, and Sigmar Polke. Cabalistic Painting has all the qualities of a classic Expressionist painting. There is, however, a twist—it is painted onto intentionally bad-taste velvet. Schnabel transforms a surface more frequently associated with sleazy boudoirs into a dark mysterious space. Schnabel said of his 1980s Neoexpressionist paintings that he was “aiming at an emotional state, a state that people can literally walk into and be engulfed by.” During the mid-1990s, as the rebirth of painting became gradually less radical, Schnabel reinvented himself as a screenwriter and director. (Stephen Farthing)

  • Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (c. 1875)

    Having decided to move from Paris to London in 1859, the American-born James McNeill Whistler became an instrumental figure within the English Aesthetic movement. In 1877, when Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery, John Ruskin accused it of being a “pot of paint [flung] in the face of the public,” which led to a high-profile libel trial. Although Whistler successfully defended the painting, and by extension the set of aesthetic beliefs that Nocturne embodied—that art was necessarily autonomous and not therefore constrained by its responsibility to inscribe a “lifelike” effect—he was only awarded the token sum of a farthing in damages.

    Nocturne is one of six paintings loosely based on a site in London called the Cremorne Gardens. This was a park wherein various forms of entertainment took place, including firework displays. It is relatively easy to appreciate why Nocturne would have proved such a provocative painting. Rather than organize the painting around some form of figure/ground relation, Whistler instead creates a rather indeterminate pictorial impression given through the incandescent glow of the fireworks themselves. Without any overt figurative reference, Nocturne instead appears almost entirely abstract. It is this unwillingness to yield to received opinion, represented in this case by the critic Ruskin, that gives the painting its vitality as an image. (Craig Staff)

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