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by Jerry Saltz
I remember the first time the earth moved for me at a museum. My culture-deprived, aspirational mother dragged me once a month from our northern suburb -- where the word art never came up -- to the Art Institute of Chicago. I hated it. Art seemed so old and boring and not baseball. Then one day, when I was about nine, we stumbled on a couple of small paintings. In the canvas on the left, a man’s head was stuck between the bars of a jail cell; a soldier outside the cell was raising an ax in the air. In the painting on the right, blood was spurting from the same man’s neck, and the soldier’s ax was at his side. Of course the blood and guts were cool. But something else happened. It suddenly dawned on me that these paintings were telling a story. To this day, the work that moves me most -- that sweeps me up, even to the point of rapture -- vibrates with that sense of storytelling. (The artist, I later learned, was fifteenth-century Italian master Giovanni di Paulo. You can find his sublime The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Summer is a great time to visit art museums, which offer the refreshing rinse of swimming pools -- only instead of cool water, you immerse yourself in art. To remind myself of my favorite Western paintings in New York (my criterion for this list), I spent a month dipping in and out of our city’s museums, like the character in John Cheever’s classic short story The Swimmer, who swam across the pools of Westchester County one hot summer day. Think of me as your Sister Wendy in swimming trunks.

Henri Matisse
Goldfish and Palette (1914)
Museum of Modern Art
In this staggering esthetic shot over Cubism’s bow, Matisse turns his guns on Picasso and Paris, a city then enamored with the brilliant, quixotic Spaniard. Complicating the faceted flat space of Cubism, transforming black into light, conjuring blues that hadn’t been harnessed since Giotto, Matisse returns fire -- and for me wins the war. ?

Joan Miró
The Birth of the World (1925)
Museum of Modern Art
The first time I saw this smudged abstraction, I wasn’t sure if it was art. I eventually gleaned that Miró’s rickety lines, quasi-crawling baby trapezoid, blurs, blots and pools of paint are what they are, but they are also about mark-making, process, chance and control. Abstraction, as it turns out, is among the greatest tools invented by human beings to envision the chaos of the universe.

Jackson Pollock
Room of eight paintings
Museum of Modern Art
Looking at these canvases (including One: Number 31, 1950, at right), installed chronologically, reminds me that few artists were less naturally talented than Pollock. That he virtually willed himself to newness, deploying something that had been there since the caves -- the drip -- then went in search of something else that killed him, makes this a monument to the bravery of creation.

Frida Kahlo
Self-Portrait With Cropped Hair (1940)
Museum of Modern Art
That Kahlo has become kitsch (much like the equally groundbreaking O’Keeffe) is one of the great shames of modern art. Can you argue with the audacity and fervid emotion of this canvas, which shows the artist in drag, her hair shorn, wearing what looks to be the clothing of her philandering painter husband,? Diego Rivera? It’s painting as magic talisman, evil eye and self-flagellation.

Philip Guston
Stationary Figure (1973)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
In an image reflecting Guston’s egomania, his love of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, his felicitous touch and rosy-fingered color sense, a monstrous, one-eyed figure lies in bed, smoking and staring at a pulsating bare light bulb. A clock reads 2:25. That’s a.m. In one cartoonish flourish, Guston sums up the dark nights of the soul, when artists wonder if they will ever produce something good.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes
The Duchess of Alba (1797)
The Hispanic Society of America, New York
Goya, master of dashed hopes, daredevil brushwork, and the color black, gives us this voluptuous duchess in mourning dress -- though she isn’t grieving so much as being mourned by Goya. Sixteen years her senior and stone deaf, he offers up a vision of imperious sensuality and unrequited love. The inscription at her feet translates to "Only Goya." That’s how I often feel.

Florine Stettheimer
The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue (1931)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Paint as cake frosting; color as shimmering cellophane. This hallucination of a wedding procession on a red carpet spilling out of a department store raises shopping to a batty rite of passage.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
The Comtesse d’Haussonville (1845)
Frick Collection
A showstopper in any context, even at the Frick, which has one of the highest concentrations of masterpieces of any small museum in the world. The girlish 27-year-old countess, already a mother of three and destined to be a historian, scrutinizes us coyly, within a typically sumptuous Ingres setting. The amazing Delft-blue ensemble, her insanely creamy, curving arms -- she’s a decadent dessert almost too rich to digest.

Paul Cézanne
The Bather (1885)
Museum of Modern Art
Think of this enigmatic boy as stepping into a new optical dimension: He is simultaneously seen from above and below, left and right, surrounded by a subtly destabilized space that will fracture into Cubism. The Bather is the dawn of a new pictorial era. Matisse was right: Cézanne is "a sort of god." He’s in my top four Western painters along with Velàzquez, Goya and Matisse himself.

Marsden Hartley
Evening Storm, Schoodic, Maine No. 2 (1942)
Brooklyn Museum
I am so overwhelmed by the wounded otherness in Hartley’s art that I can’t write about it or him. He defeats me. This is the work that I would most want to live with.

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn
Self-Portrait (1658)
Frick Collection
The artist as monumental Buddha, cloaked foremost in shadow but also in furs and embellished silks worthy of a magus -- a poignant counterpoint to his careworn face, staring from beneath the brim of a nearly invisible hat. From that face, Shakespeare could have written King Lear. Rembrandt, Goya and Velàzquez were the painters who opened the door widest to the fullness of human emotion.

Kazimir Malevich
Morning in the Village After Snowstorm (1912)
Guggenheim Museum
Like an explosion in an airplane factory, the Cubo-Futurist masterpiece depicts gleaming robot peasants in curved metallic shards. The composition of snowdrifts, houses and people spirals energetically toward a distant sled-puller, and recalls the artist’s childhood -- a way of life that predated the Industrial Revolution and outlasted the Russian one.

Georgia O’Keeffe
Blue Lines X (1916)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
The visionary painter was one of only about a dozen European and American artists attempting abstract paintings in 1916. The simplicity here is poetic, the blue lines reminding me at once of animal tracks, hieroglyphics and Barnett Newman’s zips.

Édouard Manet
Young Lady in 1866
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Isolated against a background of unbroken gray (containing Brice Marden’s entire career) is one of the greatest housecoats in the history of painting on one of the period’s greatest models, Victorine Meurent -- the nude star of Manet’s once scandalous Olympia. This is what she looked like on her day off.

Thomas Chambers
Staten Island and the Narrows (1835–55)
Brooklyn Museum
This bewitching picture of white-crested waves, wispy clouds, and gorgeous ships passing between Brooklyn and Staten Island jumps off the wall: How wondrous and magical New York was -- and still is. I imagine Walt Whitman on the shore, in his usual state of multitudinous ecstasy.

Vincent Van Gogh
Mountains at Saint- Rémy (1889)
Guggenheim Museum
A progression of motion and emotion set off by brushwork, color and Van Gogh’s turbulent sense of surface design. The road, trees and house in the foreground are reasonably real. But the undulant mountains beyond -- under a threatening sky of raw impasto -- are haunted with figures, flames and, in the middle of it all, a blue angel’s wing.

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Mortlake Terrace: Early Summer Morning (1826)
Frick Collection
Although I’m not a Turner fan, this painting speaks to me for its uncharacteristic calm. Instead of the painter’s usual bombast and histrionic portrayals of nature’s violent indifference, or just its special effects, we see the beneficent unity of man and nature. Nothing is forced, there is no drama, and for at least one painting, I love Turner.

Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio
The Denial of Saint Peter (ca. 1610)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Notice the dramatically gesturing figures, stark lighting, compact cropping and complex moments of internal and external emotions. That is how Caravaggio essentially foreshadowed modern filmmaking.

Duccio di Buoninsegna
The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain (1308–11)
Frick Collection
This powerful little canvas once appeared on the back of Duccio’s Maestà in Siena, one of the landmarks of Western painting. But it does quite well on its own. It depicts the moment that Christ rejects Satan’s offer of two marzipan-like cities (Italian hill towns, actually). Note cowering devil slinking off, stage left. (The equally fabulous landmark painting St. Francis in the Desert, by Giovanni Bellini, lives at the Frick as well.)

The Journey of the Magi (1435)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
In a crisscrossing, snow-covered landscape, the three magi follow the star of Bethlehem, fabulous entourage in tow. I am enchanted by the mix of opulence and tranquility and the whimsical pink walls of the city behind them. New York is filled with superb but easily missed sleeper paintings like this.

Robert Campin
Altarpiece of the Annunciation (1425)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
A paean to the spatial joys of one-point perspective, this masterpiece of early Nederlandish painting places the seminal event of the annunciation in an interior detailed with insect-eyed precision. Note the resplendent primaries of red, yellow and blue, anointing the archangel and the virgin, and signaling the trinity of color that is painting's other joy. The tiny figure of the Christ-child carrying a cross arriving on rays of light from the left seals the deal and foretells the future. (A nearby gallery houses the glorious "Unicorn Tapestries," painting by another name.)

Cubiculum from Boscoreale (Roman, 40-30 AD)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Looking at the impeccably proportioned frescos adorning this Pompeian bed chamber puts the lie to the fallacy that perspective was invented in Florence in around 1414. Terraced buildings and intricate courtyards rendered in near perfect perspective produce full-on spatial illusions. The Romans had perspective; they just weren't that into it.

Giovanni di Paolo
The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise (1445)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
The minute I saw this small panel I knew it was by the same artist who'd first ignited my love of art in Chicago in my childhood: Giovanni di Paolo. The same cosmic narrative, dazzling local color depicting the newly made rainbow-ringed world, and the end of Eden juxtaposed on the same surface always take me back to my own artistic loss of innocence.

John Vanderlyn
Panoramic view of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles (1818-1819)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Pictorial space; who doesn't love it? Especially, when it seems like you can almost step into it, and what you're stepping into is Versailles. . . bathed in golden light. That's what this 165 foot-long wrap-around picture portrays. I always wonder why more contemporary artists aren't tempted to attempt this completely unwieldy format.

Giovanni Bellini
St. Francis in the Desert (ca. 1480)
Frick Collection
In the signal experience of his life, St. Francis offers himself up to God and receives the stigma while God's world -- seen through his eyes or those of a passing bird -- goes on around him, magnificently indifferent, its every detail seen in a green-gold light.

Piero della Francesca
St. John the Evangelist (ca. 1454-1469)
Frick Collection
This small depiction of Saint Peter is human figure as architectonic form, pictorial structure transformed into something like the Law. Peter's radiant red robe, gigantic hands and head seem forged in a furnace of otherworldly clarity.

Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez
King Philip IV of Spain (1644)
Frick Collection
Many artists painted monarchs; but no one better than Velazquez. In this portrait of Philip IV of Spain, perhaps the most powerful person then on earth, the privileges of such might are outweighed by the burdens of responsibility, solitude and a consuming ambivalence. I doubt therefore I am.

Lee Bontecou
Untitled (1961)
Museum of Modern Art
In the 1960s, Donald Judd, one of the greatest art critics of the era, wrote that Lee Bontecou's three-dimensional forms and hell-holes were "explicit and powerful;" had "a primitive, oppressive. . . and unmitigated individuality;" and were "credible and awesome." I still go with those.

Jasper Johns
Flag (1954-55)
Museum of Modern Art
In 1954 the 26-year old Jasper Johns said, "I dreamed I painted the American Flag." Then he did! The psychic content of this uncanny, sensuous, cerebral work is the simultaneous inclusiveness. . .  of America but also the ways Johns was an outsider to this openness. The painting, made with encaustic (a medium used by the ancient Egyptians to embalm their dead), is a Betsy Ross moment of modern art; something generations have pledged artistic allegiance to.

JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at