Since I’m an art historical novelist, a lot of fans ask about my favorite museums…
I love giant art museums — the Louvre, Met, National Gallery of Art, Chicago Institute of Art, Getty, Vatican, British Museum; you can wander through their halls for days and still not see everything on display.
But even more than a giant museum, I love walking into a smaller museum that has a collection that rivals the big kids. Sure it’s fun to walk through miles and miles of art, but if you’re looking for a more intimate experience, here are my favorite small art museums with giant collections.
I have to start with one of my favorite museums in the world: the Norton Simon. In Los Angeles, the Getty, LACMA, and the Broad always seem to steal the show, but the Norton Simon is the real star. At this tiny museum, every piece is a masterpiece. Van Gogh, Degas, Monet, Picasso, Rembrandt, Raphael — they are all here, hanging side by side in this jewel-box of a space. And it’s FREE every first Friday of the month, so you have no excuse NOT to go.
Okay, it’s not exactly SMALL, but in comparison to the two behemoths in Paris — the Louvre and Musee D’Orsay — this smaller museum in the suburbs often gets overlooked, but you should absolutely make a special trip to visit. It’s a GEM. This small museum packs a giant punch — with some of the most famous impressionist works in the world including paintings by Renoir, Degas, Berthe Morisot, and Monet’s Impression: Sunrise, the painting that gave the Impressionist movement its name.
This museum is located in the opulent residence of Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919); according to the website it’s “one of New York City’s few remaining Gilded Age mansions,” so if you’re as interested in old houses as art, this is a must-see spot for you. It also happens to be home to masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Goya, Whistler, Ingres and Bellini. Amid the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, this is a tranquil spot to travel back in time and soak in some art.
This is one of the greatest finds in all of London. Part historic house, part library, part art collection, this is one of the most surprising museums I have ever had visited. It’s small, but every inch is crammed with unique pieces from ancient marble sculptures to paintings by Hogarth and Turner. Plus, it’s all located in a house designed by Sir John Soane, one of England’s most famous and unique 19th century architects. Oh, and it’s ALWAYS free to visitors. The next time you are in London, do NOT miss this spot.
The Kimbell is home to the only Michelangelo painting held in an American Collection, so of course I rank it high on my list. (It’s a small copy Michelangelo made when he was only 12 or 13. Not representative of his style or interests, but an impressive example of his prodigious talents). Their permanent collection is also home to works by Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Goya, Monet, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Titian… I love the Kimbell for focusing on quality over quantity — it’s small, but for quality of works, it can’t be beat.
When you go to Spain, yes, you’ll want to see the Prado, the Reina Sofia, Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Dali Museum… but if you want to get up close, personal, and really intimate with Pablo Picasso, I must recommend stopping at the Museo Picasso in Malaga. It doesn't have the most “important” Picassos, necessarily, but the collective will give you a world-class view of the artist’s life and work. If you’re a Picasso fan, don’t miss it. If you are NOT already a Picasso fan, a visit to this museum might just turn you into one.
One of my favorite things about this museum is its venue: a 15th-century Venetian-style palace located in the heart of Boston. It doesn’t feel like a huge museum; it feels like someone’s house—which it was. There’s a peaceful courtyard surrounded by three stories of galleries. Titian, Raphael, Rembrandt, and Matisse are all represented on these walls. This museum was also home to the biggest art heist in history; the thieves made off with works by Degas, Rembrandt and Vermeer. Empty frames still mark the places where the paintings once hung. But even without the stolen masterpieces, this is still home to one of the best art collections in the world.
When you’re traveling up to Rouen, no doubt the Cathedral and Joan of Arc are top of mind, but don’t miss the shockingly wonderful art museum there. It houses a brilliant collection of legendary artists, including Rubens, Caravaggio, Delacroix, Degas, Renoir… They museum also holds one of Monet’s renditions of the city’s cathedral, so you can contemplate Monet’s version before meandering down the street to encounter the real thing. The best thing about this museum? It gives you the space and time to really drink in these masterpieces; they even let you lean in close enough to get a good look at the brushwork!
It’s really easy when you go to Washington, DC to get caught up in the Smithsonian Museums—there’s SO much to see and do down by the Mall. But next time you visit our nation’s capitol, I highly recommend heading over to the Phillips Collection. It boasts one of the best small collections I’ve ever seen, famously including Renoir’s Luncheon at the Boating Party, but also El Grecos, Van Goghs, and a Rothko Room that is the most perfect art-lover space I’ve ever seen. Despite everything there is to see and do in DC, the Phillips is a “Must See” for me.
Okay, okay, this last one on the list obviously has one of the largest art pocketbooks in the world, the Guggenheim, but in comparison to other museums in Italy, it physically feels tiny and intimate when you are in it. And unlike its much larger counterparts in New York and Bilbao, this is a stellar gallery on the canals of Venice, showing off the personal collection of Peggy Guggenheim. Pollocks and Picassos, Duchamps and Dalis, Mondrians, Miros and Magrittes — in a city teaming with Italo-Byzantine architecture and Renaissance art, this jewel on the canal is an escape into some of the best modern art in the world.