The Art Institute of Chicago: 25 Must See Artworks

With over 300,000 pieces of incredible art on display, the Art Institute of Chicago is the second largest art museum in the United States. Here are the top 25 famous artworks you must see.

Jul 20, 2020By Kristen Arcus, BA History, History of Art & Architecture
art institute chicago thomas struth
Art Institute of Chicago II, Chicago by Thomas Struth, 1990, via Art Institute of Chicago


The Art Institute of Chicago was voted one of the “Top Museums in the World” for four straight years. At one million square feet of space, and with a collection of over three-hundred thousand individual artworks on display, the AIC is the second-largest art museum in the United States. It also holds the largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artwork outside of Europe, along with many other incredible collections from medieval relics to contemporary design exhibits (and everything in between). This may be overwhelming if you only have time for a short visit, so we hope this guide will help you decide where to start.


History Of The Art Institute Of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago was initially founded as the ‘Chicago Academy of Design’ by a group of artists, mostly featuring plaster casts. After facing financial difficulties, it was then reinstated under its current name jointly as a museum and academy of the artists in the late 19th century. Its collections eventually expanded into art masterpieces from around the world, spanning from ancient bronzes to post-modernist contemporary pieces. Today, it holds hundreds of thousands of famous artifacts, and both the academy and the museum are recognized as leading international institutions. To find out more or plan your next visit, click here.


1. Buddha Shakyamuni Seated in Meditation

Buddha Shakyamuni Seated in Meditation, about 12th century


This statue comes all the way from Southern India, where Buddhist monasteries prospered and drew practitioners from all over the world. You can distinguish the Buddha by his lotus meditation posture, elongated earlobes, the wheel marks on his palm and the mark on his forehead called an urna.


2. The Aztec Stone of the Five Suns

Coronation Stone of Motecuhzoma II (Stone of the Five Suns), 1503, via Art Institute of Chicago


This stone was carved to commemorate the reign of Emperor Motecuhzoma II. The hieroglyphic signs on the stone represent the five cosmic era, or “suns,” which legitimize the emperor’s rule. This piece is an amazing relic from the center of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec’s expansive empire, whose ruins now lie underneath downtown Mexico City.

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3. El Greco’s The Assumption of the Virgin

The Assumption of the Virgin by El Greco, 1577-1579, via Art Institute of Chicago


This was painted over four-hundred years ago by one of Greece’s most famous painters. It is the central panel of an altarpiece from El Greco’s first major Spanish commission. The composition is divided into two – the bottom is the earthly sphere of the apostles and the top is the realm of heaven where angels await Mary.


4. Medieval Field Armor for Man and Horse

Field Armor for Man, 1520, via Art Institute of Chicago


A centerpiece of the museum’s new Medieval Arms and Armor collection. This may remind you of the classic “knight in shining armor,” but it actually represents the common soldier. The armor is from 16th century Germany, but the cloth was carefully recreated in 2017. Look closely enough and you will notice detailed touches like mud splattered up the legs.


5. Rembrandt’s Old Man with a Gold Chain

Old Man with a Gold Chain by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1631, via Art Institute of Chicago


Portraits were a specialty of the Old Master Rembrandt, and this work is a stunning example of his expertise. It is more a study in character than a portrait, and the artist’s use of sharp contrast and light brings the figure to life right in front of you.


6. Hokusai’s The Great Wave

The Great Wave by Katsushika Hokusai, 1830/33, via Art Institute of Chicago


This is one of the most famous and recognizable artworks in the world. Katsushika Hokusai’s print is a part of the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjûrokkei), which contributed to the worldwide popularity of landscape prints. The museum owns three copies of the famous work by Katsushika Hokusai, and in one you can see a pink sky which has faded in almost every other print.


7. Paris Street; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte

Paris Street; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte, 1877, via Art Institute of Chicago


Gustave Caillebotte’s work is a glimpse into the changing culture of the time, showcasing a Parisian neighborhood recently rebuilt by architect Haussmann and figures dressed in the latest fashions. While the precision and rigid perspective were traditional, the contemporary subjects, asymmetrical and cropped composition, and impressive rain-wash effect were radical artistic choices for the time.


8. Ballet At The Paris Opéra by Edgar Degas

Ballet at the Paris Opéra by Edgar Degas, 1877, via Art Institute of Chicago


A prominent member of the Impressionist Movement, Edgar Degas is known for his ballerinas, many of which are at the Art Institute of Chicago. This piece is especially interesting because Degas merged the medium of pastel with the monotype technique. The cropped composition from the monotype plate enhanced by the soft pastel dancers draws you right into the show.


9. Two Sisters by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Two Sisters (On the Terrace) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1881, via Art Institute of Chicago


The Art Institute says this painting is one of the most popular in the museum. Pierre-Auguste Renoir is known for painting joyous and bright scenes, and this work is both a radiant landscape and a vision of youthful beauty. Funny enough, the two girls were not actually sisters, but the name of the painting comes from its first exhibition.


 10. The Song Of The Lark by Jules Breton

The Song of the Lark by Jules Adolphe Breton, 1884, via Art Institute of Chicago


Jules Breton was a 19th-century French Naturalist painter who is known for conveying idyllic visions of rural life. But Breton’s fame actually peaked posthumously, when this painting was voted the most popular painting in America in a 1934 poll after being unveiled by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at the Chicago World’s Fair.


11. A Sunday On La Grande Jatte by George Seurat

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by George Seurat, 1884, via Art Institute of Chicago


This is George Seurat’s largest and best-known painting. It depicts a leisurely Parisian afternoon. The painting is an impressive example of pointillism, an illusion where countless individual dots of color form a larger image. Look out for Seurat’s drafts on display in the same room to see how the artist came to imagine the final piece.


12. The Bedroom by Vincent Van Gogh

The Bedroom by Vincent van Gogh, 1889, via Art Institute of Chicago


This is the second of three versions Vincent Van Gogh painted of the bedroom in his home in Southern France. It is a classic example of the artist’s use of color and strong brush strokes. The series evokes the theme of home as haven, and interestingly Van Gogh painted this second copy from a psychiatric hospital.


13. The Child’s Bath by Mary Cassatt

The Child’s Bath by Mary Cassatt, 1893, via Art Institute of Chicago


It is wonderful to see a painting by Mary Cassatt, who is impressively counted as the only American artist belonging to the French Impressionists. Inspired by Japanese woodblock prints, the depth of the human figures here contrasts with the flat background, to emphasize the intimate relationship between the two subjects.


14. At The Moulin Rouge by Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec

At the Moulin Rouge by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1892/95, via Art Institute of Chicago


Henri de Toulouse Lautrec created some of the most iconic images of modern Parisian life. This painting depicts the famous Moulin Rouge, a cabaret in Paris’s artist neighborhood, Montmartre. Its bold colors, interesting crop, and daring composition make it a piece worth visiting. Keep an eye out for the artist’s self-portrait (Toulouse-Lautrec was only 4’8”).


15. The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso

The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso, 1903-04, via Art Institute of Chicago


This is one of Pablo Picasso’s most recognized works, painted during his “Blue Period,” when the artist was struggling with depression and a series of personal tragedies. The monochromatic blue palette creates a haunting image. Interestingly, X-rays have shown three more figures painted underneath the old man including a naked woman, a child and a cow.


16. Water Lilies by Claude Monet

Water Lilies by Claude Monet, 1906, via Art Institute of Chicago


The Art Institute has the second largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings in the world, and over thirty paintings by Claude Monet alone including the water lilies from his world-renowned series which he painted in the flower garden outside his French home. The museum also houses a small delegation from Claude Monet’s Stacks of Wheat series.


17. Joan Miro’s The Policeman

The Policeman by Joan Miro, 1925, via Art Institute of Chicago


Joan Miro was a member of a group of avant-garde painters called The Surrealists, who advocated for joining the rational world with that of the unconscious and dreams. This painting is one of Miro’s “dream paintings,” an experimental series of abstract, calligraphic compositions. You can find the equivalents of a policeman and his horse within Miro’s forms.


18. Grant Wood’s American Gothic

American Gothic by Grant Wood, 1930, via Art Institute of Chicago


One of the most famous American paintings of all time. Many people assume the pair are a married couple, but rather Grant Wood had envisioned a father and a daughter. Interestingly, Wood used his sister and dentist as models.The painting is a positive statement about rural American values, an image of reassurance at a time of great dislocation and disillusionment” during the Depression-era. 


19. Rene Magritte’s Time Transfixed

Time Transfixed, by René Magritte, 1938 via Art Institute of Chicago


René Magritte was a Surrealist, a group which believed in merging dreams with reality. This work is a prime example of the popular genre of Surrealism that you must see for yourself. The artist unconventionally joined images of a locomotive and a fireplace which creates a playfully unexpected composition and evokes intrigue.


20. Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942, via Art Institute of Chicago


Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks projects an iconic image of 20th-century America. The painting depicts a late-night New York diner. But the care taken in the composition and purposeful lack of narrative gives the painting a timeless and placeless quality that has intrigued people for decades. Hopper said that “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”


21. Archibald John Motley Jr.’s Nightlife

Nightlife by Archibald John Motley Jr., 1943, via Art Institute of Chicago


This painting by Chicago artist Archibald Motley is based on a cabaret in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the city’s South Side. The artwork showcases the vibrancy of an African American community, the spirit of which is evoked through intense colors and dynamic figures. The piece is an important visual of Chicago.


22. Andy Warhol’s Liz #3

Liz #3 [Early Colored Liz] by Andy Warhol, 1963, via Art Institute of Chicago

Andy Warhol turned this publicity photograph of Elizabeth Taylor into an iconic image of American pop culture. It was created with the silkscreen process, a signature technique of Warhol which transfers photographs onto canvas. One of a series of thirteen images of Taylor, each with different jewel-tone coloring and exaggerated makeup to highlight the woman’s features.


23. Georgia O’Keeffe’s Sky Above Clouds IV

Sky Above Clouds IV by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1965, via Art Institute of Chicago


Georgia O’Keeffe is an alum of the School of the Art Institute and the museum proudly displays many of her works. This piece is the largest painting in the museum at 8 feet tall and 24 feet wide. O’Keeffe painted this massive canvas when she was 77 to prove that age would not limit her.


24. Gerhard Richter’s Woman Descending the Staircase

Woman Descending the Staircase by Gerhard Richter, 1965, via Art Institute of Chicago


This work is one of my personal favorites. Gerard Richter is generally seen as one of the most important contemporary German artists; as an artist, he alternated between photorealism and abstraction. Richter created this “photo-painting” by transferring photographs onto canvas then dragging his brush through the wet ink to blur the image and create the illusion of motion.


25. Marc Chagall’s America Windows

America Windows, by Marc Chagall, 1977


Marc Chagall created this stained glass installation specially for the Art Institute of Chicago. The six panels commemorate America’s bicentennial and honor the country “as a place of cultural and religious freedom, detailing the arts of music, painting, literature, theatre, and dance.” This work highlights the city of Chicago’s long and rich tradition of public art.


Bonus: Thorne Miniature Rooms

Thorne Miniature Rooms by Mrs. James Ward Thorne, 1937, via Art Institute of Chicago


Hidden in the basement of the Art Institute of Chicago are 68 tiny rooms by Mrs. James Ward Thorne, also known as Narcissa Niblack Thorne. The detailed mini diorama rooms are based on European and American interiors and are constructed at a meticulous scale of one inch to a foot. They’re also just super fun!


School of the Art Institute of Chicago


As aforementioned, the Art Institute of Chicago was founded as both a museum and a school. The two still foster a close relationship, and the museum provides an incredible resource to students looking for inspiration. The school itself has grown into “one of the most historically significant accredited independent schools of art and design in the nation.” To visit the school’s website and learn more, click here.

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By Kristen ArcusBA History, History of Art & ArchitectureKristen Arcus is a life-long fine art enthusiast. She holds a BA in History and the History of Art & Architecture from Depaul University. She has experience in archives and museums, and currently works at a prestigious art gallery in Chicago.