The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is the jewel in the crown of the city’s vast array of cultural offerings. Founded in 1885, its collection is among the largest and most prestigious in the US, with around 66,000 works and over 100 galleries. With such riches on offer, narrowing down what to see and do can be a difficult task, but we think you can’t go wrong starting with these 12 pieces.
Before you even enter the DIA, you can see The Thinker, one of the first monumental versions of Rodin’s most famous work and one of the most recognized sculptures of all time. Created in 1904, it was displayed in Leipzig and Berlin before Horace Rackham purchased it and gave it to the museum in 1922.
At the height of his career, Diego Rivera was commissioned by DIA director Wilhelm Valentiner to create a series of frescoes in the museum’s central marble court. Considered by Rivera to be his most successful work, Detroit Industry depicts the relationship between man, science and technology, and was inspired by Rivera’s time in Detroit’s booming auto and manufacturing industry. The 27 individual pieces took eight months to complete and opened in 1933.
The first painting by Vincent van Gogh to enter a US museum collection, Self-Portrait was acquired by the DIA in 1922. One of a series he painted in Paris in mid-1887, it depicts him wearing a straw hat and turned to the right, displaying the ear he would infamously mutilate the following year. Its light palette suggests it was painted during a relatively happy time for van Gogh.
Acquired in the same time as the van Gogh, The Window was a similarly significant purchase as the first Matisse in an American public collection. Painted in 1916 in Paris, it depicts an interior room with a window in the background, using typically bright colors and a series of flat shapes and lines.
Though Bouguereau has come in and out of fashion during the century since his death, his 1882 work The Nut Gatherers has proven to be one of the most popular pieces at the DIA since its donation to the museum in 1954. While he was considered by many as one of the greatest painters of his time, his traditionalist work was simultaneously reviled by avant-garde artists such as Degas and Gaugin.
Painted while Monet lived in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil from 1871 to 1878, Rounded Flower Bed shows his wife Camille strolling around their garden, though the painting is dominated by the flower bed of the title, which he painted with thick, short brushstrokes to create a shimmering effect.
Master of Post-Impressionism Paul Cézanne famously worked on a series of “Bather” paintings throughout his career. After he returned to his native south of France, this work was created in 1880 during what would become known as his most “constructive period.” With a lack of models to work with, he often painted his bathers from his imagination.
The DIA contains an impressive collection of American art, and an example of that is painter and graphic artist Robert Rauschenberg’s Creek. His work in the 1950s had integrated a number of printing techniques and influenced the early pop art movement. Creek, completed in 1964, combines a number of photographs from newspapers and magazines transferred to the canvas by silkscreen.
Hans Holbein the Younger was a German artist from the 16th century who is known as one of the great portrait masters. He is predominantly associated with portraits of Henry VIII and his royal court, but this portrait of an unknown woman is thought to have been painted several years before his first work with the monarchy.
African American artist Bob Thompson packed a lot of work into a short career, producing over a thousand pieces before he died of a tragic heroin overdose at the age of 28. He was known for producing bold and colorful reinterpretations of works by the Old Masters, as typified by Blue Madonna, which he created in 1961.
Considered to be the high point of Whistler’s series of nocturnes, Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket was painted in 1875 and depicts a fireworks display over London’s Cremorne Gardens. It was famously criticized by art critic John Ruskin, who Whistler then sued for libel. Though Whistler won, the trial led to his bankruptcy.
Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti is considered one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century. In 1958, he was commissioned to create a monumental sculpture for the Chase Manhattan Bank building in New York. He created four, Grande femme debout I through IV, but abandoned the project due to concerns over the relationship between the sculpture and the site.