Museum-goers observe a painting at the National Gallery of Art. How can art lovers find the essential pieces of art in a city filled with classics? (Lisa Corson/Gallerystock.)

In a city awash with museums, perusing art is always possible, but it isn’t always easy. With so much on view, it can feel like you need an art history degree to navigate it all. Which paintings should out-of-towners see at the National Gallery of Art? Which pieces should new transplants visit at the Smithsonian museums? And is there anything left for locals to discover?

Jump to: The classics | Philip Kennicott's picks | Museum staff favorites

To answer those questions, we asked museum directors, curators and The Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic, Philip Kennicott, to tell us about their favorite pieces. Throw in the classic works everyone should visit at least once, and the result is an impressive list of the must-see art in D.C. Consider it an art lover’s bucket list — and if you get hungry along the way, remember that the best lunch on the Mall is at the National Museum of the American Indian’s Mitsitam Cafe.

The classics


The portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci is the only da Vinci painting on public display in all the Americas. (National Gallery of Art.)

Leonardo da Vinci, “Ginevra de’ Benci,” ca. 1474/1478.

Where: National Gallery of Art, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-737-4215. nga.gov.

You might say she’s Washington’s “Mona Lisa.” The portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci is the only Leonardo da Vinci painting on public display not just in the District, but in all the Americas. The late 15th-century oil is more austere than da Vinci’s best-known portrait, made about 25 years later. There’s no hint of a smile on the face of this young woman, probably 16 and newly engaged when she posed. But like “Mona Lisa,” she is lovely, beautifully portrayed with da Vinci’s then-innovative naturalism and set against landscapes rather than in stuffy parlors. Ginevra’s cheeks are subtly rounded, her skin appears nearly translucent and her hair seems to meld with a juniper bush, symbolizing chastity. On the painting’s reverse, a Latin motto proclaims, “beauty adorns virtue.” Maybe that’s why she looks so somber; in Ginevra’s time, a bride’s virtue was nothing to grin about. — Mark Jenkins


Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party" is the best-known painting ever acquired by art collector Duncan Phillips. (The Phillips Collection.)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” 1880-1881.

Where: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. 202-387-2151. phillipscollection.org.

It’s the best-known painting ever acquired by art collector Duncan Phillips, but “Luncheon of the Boating Party” is not typical of the work assembled by him and his successors at the Phillips Collection. (He bought it in 1923, two years after the museum opened.) The Phillips places emphasis on colorists such as Mark Rothko, and while Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s painting is certainly colorful, it’s more notable for its deft (if somewhat idealized) depiction of the artist’s own friends at leisure along the Seine. The picture was finished in 1881, when Impressionism was still suspect in France. Yet it was never especially controversial, perhaps because its looser approach was not a dramatic break with realism. More radical than Renoir’s style is the scene itself, which portrays people from various classes, relaxed and, at least in the case of the men, informally dressed. The revolution on display here is less artistic than social. — Mark Jenkins


The Freer Gallery and its famed Peacock Room are closed for renovation until next year. (Neil Greentree/Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian.)

James McNeill Whistler, Peacock Room, 1876-1877.

Where: Freer Gallery of Art, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. 202-633-1000. asia.si.edu.

This must-see can’t be seen, at least until the Freer completes its renovation next year. Some Freer holdings may be shown at the adjacent Sackler Gallery, but it’s not easy to move an entire room of ornate painting, decoration and ceramics. And yet James McNeill Whistler’s exotic environment has been relocated twice before: from London to Charles Lang Freer’s Detroit mansion around 1904, and then to the Washington museum Freer endowed, which opened in 1923. Designed in an Anglo-Japanese style, the chamber is mostly in turquoise and gold and has a vibe somewhere between decadent and serene. The room’s history, however, is turbulent. That inspired contemporary artist Darren Waterston to do a “remix” that draws on Whistler’s feud with his original patron, Frederick Leyland. On exhibit at the Sackler, “Filthy Lucre” faithfully reproduces the room’s elements, but utterly trashed. Waterston gleefully tips the scales toward decadence. — Mark Jenkins


Nam June Paik outlined the states and the Mississippi River in "Electronic Superhighway." (Smithsonian American Art Museum.)

Nam June Paik, “Electronic Superhighway,” 1995.

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum, 800 G St. NW. 202-633-7970. americanart.si.edu.

Approach the tiny screen that represents the District in “Electronic Superhighway,” and you’ll see yourself live on closed-circuit TV. That’s one of many playful touches in Nam June Paik’s 40-foot-wide assemblage, which represents the United States in images fed from 50 DVD players to 335 television sets, plus that D.C. one. The screens show sweeping landscapes, iconic products and clips from Hollywood movies, all hurtling by as if glimpsed from a car racing at the speed limit. Colorful neon tubes outline the states and one other geographic feature: the Mississippi River, rippling from Minnesota to Louisiana as blue light. The Korean-born Paik’s early TV-related works were minimalist. But he’d been in the United States for three decades when he made “Electronic Superhighway” in 1995 and had come to appreciate American excess. Go big, as they say, or go home. — Mark Jenkins


Auguste Rodin completed his long-planned tribute, "The Burghers of Calais," in 1889. (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.)

Auguste Rodin, “The Burghers of Calais,” 1884-1889, cast 1953-1959.

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 700 Independence Ave. SW. 202-633-4674. hirshhorn.si.edu.

In a city full of triumphant statuary, “The Burghers of Calais” cracks the mold. It’s big, yet human-scaled, and the heroism it celebrates is self-sacrifice, not conquest. In the 14th century, during one of those many wars between the French and their cousins across the channel, the city of Calais was about to fall. England’s Edward III reportedly said he would spare the city’s residents if six of its leaders surrendered to him with nooses around their necks. They did but were not hanged, thanks to the intercession of Edward’s queen, Philippa. Auguste Rodin, who completed this long-planned tribute in 1889, was the ideal artist to memorialize these men. His rough-edged, early-modernist style suits their humble clothing and vanquished countenances. The Hirshhorn’s bronze, one of 12 official casts, was made in 1943, when France was again enduring defeat. — Mark Jenkins

Philip Kennicott's picks


James Hampton's vast piece is dedicated to his own religious vision. (Smithsonian American Art Museum.)

James Hampton, “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly,” ca. 1950-1964.

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum.

James Hampton was a classic “outsider” artist who worked much of his life on a single piece so large that only part of it is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Constructed in a rented garage, “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly” is a vast, mystical assemblage piece, made of found objects and refuse, covered in foil and dedicated to the artist’s religious vision. There’s nothing quite like it in the world. — Philip Kennicott


Both Philip Kennicott and Lonnie Bunch selected a favorite that is not inside a museum, but at Rock Creek Cemetery. (Robert A. Reeder/The Washington Post.)

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, “Adams Memorial,” commonly known as “Grief,” ca. 1890.

Where: Rock Creek Cemetery, 201 Allison St. NW. 202-726-2080. rockcreekparish.org/cemetery.

There are works by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art(the plaster version of his famous memorial to Robert Gould Shaw), but one of the most evocative of his statues isn’t in a museum, but rather in Rock Creek Cemetery. Commissioned by the great American writer Henry Adams, the Adams Memorial is a haunting, shrouded figure, set alone in a peaceful copse, a powerful memorial to Adams’s wife, who died by her own hand in 1885. — Philip Kennicott


The Yamaki Pine survived the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. (U.S. National Arboretum.)

Yamaki Pine, 1625.

Where: U.S. National Arboretum, 3501 New York Ave. NE. 202-245-2726. usna.usda.gov.

The Yamaki Pine was given to the United States in 1976 by the bonsai master Masaru Yamaki, who was only one in a long line of artists who have tended this living fusion of design, craft, vision and horticulture since 1625. It survived the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, and it flourishes today at the U.S. National Arboretum, full of life, perfect in form, older than the city itself and certainly one of its most beautiful man-made objects. — Philip Kennicott


This jadeite mask, part of the pre-Columbian collection at Dumbarton Oaks, was once thought to be a work from China. (Dumbarton Oaks, Pre-Columbian Collection.)

Olmec jadeite mask, 900-300 B.C.

Where: Dumbarton Oaks, 1703 32nd St. NW.202-339-6401. doaks.org.

An enormous Olmec head with down-turned lips and a heavy headpiece sits outside the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History — but it’s a reproduction of an original meso-American carving. Smaller, but even more exquisite and genuine, Olmec pieces can be found in the collection of Dumbarton Oaks. Among them is this gem, a jadeite mask from 900-300 B.C. that was once thought to be a work from China. — Philip Kennicott


Jean-Baptiste-Siméon's "Soap Bubbles" capture an ephemeral moment. (National Gallery of Art via Associated Press.)

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, “Soap Bubbles,” ca. 1733.

Where: National Gallery of Art.

There are too many essential works — an important Leonardo, several Vermeers, magnificent El Grecos, a stunning Dutch collection — in the National Gallery of Art to chose one. But Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s captivating “Soap Bubbles,” painted around 1733, is a work you can usually have to yourself. It captures an ephemeral moment, with a beautiful play of light and a little bit of mystery, and can serve as a metaphor both for life itself and the transitory experience of looking at great art. — Philip Kennicott

Museum staff favorites


A plaster mock-up of the Shaw Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens is on view at the National Gallery of Art. (U.S. Department of the Interior/National Park Service.)

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, “Shaw Memorial,” 1900.

Where: National Gallery of Art.

For Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, art is a window into the past. Years after seeing Saint-Gaudens’s Shaw Memorial in Boston, a commemoration of one of the first official units of black soldiers during the Civil War, he discovered the bronze’s plaster mock-up at the National Gallery of Art. “The faces on the men are so individualistic, so human at a time when African Americans were reduced to stereotypes,” Bunch said. “This piece really embraced their fullness as human beings.

“I feel an amazing sense of what an accomplishment it must’ve been for these African American men to fight for their own freedom and, through their own actions, change the course of the whole nation. So for me, it reminds me of how the actions of individuals can be transformative.”

Bunch often takes out-of-towners to visit another Saint-Gaudens piece: The “Adams Memorial” in Rock Creek Park Cemetery. — Winyan Soo Hoo


The Rothko Room was the first and only room installation that American painter Mark Rothko helped assemble on his own accord. (Max Hirshfeld.)

The Rothko Room.

Where: Phillips Collection.

The Phillips Collection’s Dorothy Kosinski is drawn to aesthetically driven pieces that “inspire a contemplative state of mind,” a sentiment that easily arises in the Phillips’s Rothko Room. Created in the early 1960s, it was the first and only room installation that American painter Mark Rothko helped assemble on his own accord. He worked with collector Duncan Phillips on lighting, furniture and the hanging height of four paintings, creating a space Kosinski described as “meditative, quiet and inspiring.”

“It’s quite a fabulous testimony to the daring of [Phillips] to find works by one of the most edgy, abstract artists of his day and make an assemblage — a whole room devoted to those works,” she said.

Another of Kosinski’s favorites? The Freer Gallery’s Peacock Room. — Winyan Soo Hoo


Yinka Shonibare's piece is a headless mannequin of the French chemist responsible for naming hydrogen and oxygen. (Lee Stalsworth/Yinka Shonibare/Artists Rights Society.)

Yinka Shonibare, “The Age of Enlightenment — Antoine Lavoisier,” 2008.

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Johnnetta B. Cole, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, admires artworks that are rich in contrasts, such as Yinka Shonibare’s “The Age of Enlightenment — Antoine Lavoisier,” a headless mannequin of the French chemist responsible for naming hydrogen and oxygen, on view at the Hirshhorn through April 10. “Shonibare is asking us to think about a duality — a contradiction because Enlightenment thinkers liberated our thinking in the 18th century, but they also founded arguments to support colonialism and European domination,” Cole said. — Winyan Soo Hoo


Artist Mickalene Thomas creates rhinestone-studded collages of African American women. (Mickalene Thomas/Lehmann Maupin.)

Mickalene Thomas, “ A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y,” 2009.

Where: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW, 202-783-5000, nmwa.org.

Johnnetta B. Cole encounters dualities in Mickalene Thomas’s “A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y.” Thomas creates elaborate rhinestone-studded collages of African American women. The crystals, Cole said, express how women use jewels to adorn and mask themselves: “It’s the duality of how much I share with other African American women and all women, but yet how different I am from them, as well.” — Winyan Soo Hoo


Chakaia Booker's "Anonymous Donor" is on view at the Renwick Gallery through May 8. (Ron Blunt/Chakaia Booker/Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.)

Chakaia Booker, “Anonymous Donor,” 2015.

Where: Renwick Gallery, 1661 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-633-1000. renwick.americanart.si.edu.

Sliced and shredded rubber tires were used to create 10-foot waves in E. Carmen Ramos’s favorite piece in the District: Chakaia Booker’s “Anonymous Donor” at the Renwick Gallery, on view through May 8. Ramos, curator of Latino art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is drawn to the immersiveness of large installations. “It’s amazing what [Booker] has been able to do by manipulating the tires,” Ramos said. “[She] cuts them and reveals their innards to make us look at their actual materiality.” — Winyan Soo Hoo


Chilean-born photographer Camilo José Vergara documented one location throughout the course of three decades. (Camilo Jose Vergara/Smithsonian American Art Museum.)

Camilo José Vergara, “10828 S. Avalon Blvd., LA,” 1980-2013.

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum.

E. Carmen Ramos likewise relishes in Camilo José Vergara’s photography series, “10828 S. Avalon Blvd., LA.” The series tracks the evolution of a stand-alone building for more than 30 years, as it transforms from a church to a new family home. “There’s a real beauty to the way that he makes us look at ordinary things in different ways,” Ramos said. — Winyan Soo Hoo


"Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World" closes March 20 at the National Gallery of Art. (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection.)

Victorious Athlete (“The Getty Bronze,”) 300-100 B.C.

Where: National Gallery of Art.

Renwick Gallery curator-in-charge Nicholas Bell urges art lovers to drop what they’re doing and visit the National Gallery of Art’s “Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World” before the exhibition closes March 20. A significant showing of the world’s greatest Greek bronzes, the exhibition includes a life-size bronze statue that towers over viewers with its sheer physicality. “I just about fell down when I saw the bronze piece ‘Victorious Youth,’” Bell said. “It was so moving. I was absolutely captivated.”

Bell praises Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” at the Phillips Collection, as well: “To be able to pop up in Dupont Circle on your lunch hour and sit down on a bench in front of one of the greatest French paintings ever is very humbling.” — Winyan Soo Hoo