Detroit Institute of Arts
American Fine Art Museum: History, Highlights of Permanent Collection.

Cotopaxi (1862) a wilderness scene
By Frederic Edwin Church

Detroit Institute of Arts


Fifth Largest Fine Arts Museum in America
Acquisitions History
Permanent Collection
How to Appreciate Paintings


The Nightmare (1781)
By Henry Fuseli.
A masterpiece of surreal romanticism.

Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Barnes Foundation
Carnegie Museum of Art
National Gallery of Art Washington DC
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Phillips Collection
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
J Paul Getty Museum Los Angeles
Art Institute of Chicago
Museum of Fine Arts Houston
Indianapolis Museum of Art

See: Art Museums in Europe.

Fifth Largest Fine Arts Museum in America

Founded in the early 1880s and originally called the Detroit Museum of Art, The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is the fifth largest art museum in the United States (the second largest municipally-owned museum), with one of the best collections of fine art in the world. Located in the city's Cultural Centre Historic District near Wayne State University, the Museum's orginal building was designed by Paul Cret. Following a substantial renovation and expansion program, completed in 2007, it now boasts over 100 galleries, and occupies more than 670,000 square feet. The museum's encyclopedic permanent collection, valued in 2003 at more than $1 billion, consists of more than 65,000 works dating from the 4th Millennium BCE, and illustrates creative achievements from all corners of the globe. The Detroit Institute of Arts is also home to the Detroit Film Theatre and hosts major art exhibitions.

Albright-Knox Art Gallery
Frick Collection
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
Guggenheim, New York
Whitney Museum of American Art

To help you get the most from
your visit to the Detroit
Institute of Arts, please see:
Art Evaluation: How to Appreciate Art

For details of the Top 40
3-D artists in America, see:
American Sculptors (1850-present)

For a list of the finest works of
painting, by the world's top
artists, see:
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Acquisitions History

Following the 1889 gift to the Museum of a group of 100 works by Old Masters by newspaper magnate James Scripps, the Museum gradually began collecting in earnest and its acquisitions were many and varied. Early examples included: a relief sculpture from the ancient city of Babylon, reliefs and statuettes from ancient Egypt. Then, from 1924, under the direction of director William Valentiner, and with the assistance of several notable benefactors, another important group of oil paintings was acquired including masterpieces like The Wedding Dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, St. Jerome in his Study by Jan van Eyck, and Madonna and Child by Giovanni Bellini. Other purchases included works by Peter Paul Rubens, Albrecht Durer and Rembrandt, as well as modern painters like Claude Monet, Odilon Redon, and Edgar Degas. Other gems acquired by the Detroit Institute of Arts included a Vincent van Gogh self-portrait, along with important works by Henri Matisse, Hans Holbein the Younger, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Eugene Delacroix, and Auguste Rodin. As regards 19th century works, the DIA benefited significantly from the 1970 Robert H. Tannahill bequest of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works.

For news of any major exhibitions
of fine art being held at the
Detroit Institute of Arts, see:
Art News Headlines.

For the best art and design
colleges in Detroit and
and elsewhere in Michigan,
see: Michigan Art Schools.
For universities and institutes
of fine arts across America, see:
Best Art Schools.


The Museum authorities also fastened onto German Expressionism at an early stage, securing numerous masterpieces for the Museum's Modern collection. In addition, it purchased Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry cycle of frescos, as well as the highly popular Nut Gatherers by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Because the museum entered the European market at a comparatively early stage, it was able to capture a number of important works and establish itself as one of the best art museums in the world. By comparison, the richer J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles began collecting at a later stage and, as a result, has been able to acquire mostly lesser works.

Museum Highlights

Among the finest individual works of art at the Detroit Institute of Arts are:

• Glazed brick Dragon from the Ishtar Gate at Babylon (604-562 BCE)
• Illustrated Buddhist Manuscript of the Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Verses
Detroit Industry fresco series by Diego Rivera
The Nut Gatherers by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
The Wedding Dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
St. Jerome in his Study by Jan van Eyck
Madonna and Child by Giovanni Bellini
Portrait of a Woman by Hans Holbein the Younger
The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob Van Ruisdael
Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley
The Trappers Return by George Caleb Bingham
Cotopaxi by Frederic Edwin Church
Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket by Whistler
The Window by Henri Matisse
Mosquito Nets by John Singer Sargent
Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh

These collection highlights help to make the Detroit Institute of Arts one of the best art museums in America.

Permanent Collection

The Detroit Institute of Arts divides its permanent collection into the following departments: Africa, Oceania and Indigenous American Art; General Motors Center for African American Art; American Art; The Arts of Asia and the Islamic World; European Art; Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; The James Pearson Duffy Department of Contemporary Art; and Performing Arts (not covered). Here is a brief overview of each.

Africa, Oceania and Indigenous American Art

African Art
The DIA's assembly of African art is one of the finest in the United States. Mostly dating from the 19th and 20th centuries, it features world-class works from roughly one hundred African cultures, predominantly from sub-Saharan Africa, ranging from sculpture to textiles to exquisite crafts and applied art, religious artifacts and bodily ornaments. The core of the 300-piece collection was developed during the period 1890-1930: notable exhibits include: Benin royal brass sculptures, a 16th century Kongo Afro-Portuguese ivory knife container; a 17th century Owo carved-ivory bracelet; a Kongo steatite figurine (ntadi); an Asante royal gold soul-washer’s badge from the 19th century Asante King, Kofi Karikari; a Guro standing female figure from the collection of Dada artist Tristan Tzara; and numerous items of Kuba tribal art obtained by the famous German explorer Leo Frobenius. Recent acquisitions include: a rare bronze equestrian statue from Benin; a carved wooden palace door by the 20th century Yoruba master carver Olowe of Ise; an Epa mask by the Yoruba artist Bamgboye of Odo-Owa; a 19th century Kongo nail figure (nkisi nkonde); an Ethiopian Coptic Christian triptych; an imposing 19th century Ijo funerary screen from Nigeria, and a pair of Xhosa bridal outfits.

Egyptian Art
The museum's collection of Egyptian art began with a donation from the pharmaceutical magnate Frederick Stearns, in 1890. Today the collection covers a diverse range of genres, imagery, and media, illustrating some 3000 years of Egyptian civilization. Sculpture highlights include the Seated Man (2465-2323 BCE), the Seated Scribe (ca.1350 BCE) and the portrait of the High Priest Sebek em hat (1780 BCE). Other exhibits include mummies, seals, sarcophagi, an array of funerary and religious objects, steles and papyri - notably The Papyrus of Nes-min (c.300 BCE) a complete book of the dead containing prayers and spells to assist the deceased's spirit in the next life.

Oceanic Art
The DIA has a small, but fascinating collection of Oceanic art from the Islands of the South Pacific, primarily Polynesia and New Guinea. Spanning some 150 years (c.1800-1950), among other items, it features a most unusual carved chest-ornament from Easter Island.

Indigenous American Art
The collection of Native American Indian art includes sculptures, ceramics and textiles from North, Central and South America. The earliest carved artworks derive from the famed Olmec culture (900-600 BCE) and include an exquisite jadite maskette. Other highlights include tunics and costumes dating from 100 BCE – 1000 CE, as well as an outstanding group of painted clay vessels and stone sculptures from later pre-Columbian art of mesoamerica. More recent exhibits feature early religious artifacts, animal skin and bead-embroidered ceremonial attire, moccasins and shoulder bags, together with several historic pieces from the Chandler-Pohrt collection.

General Motors Center for African American Art

This is a curatorial department and resource centre that pursues acquisitions, organizes special exhibitions, lectures, symposia and workshops on African American arts. Founded in 2000, the GM Center for African American Art represents one of the first departments concerned exclusively with African American art at any major art museum. The centre's collection currently numbers some 400 objects in various media, with a focus on modern graphic art. Notable African American artists represented in the collection include: Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, Robert Colescott, Roy DeCarava, Beauford Delaney, Robert Scott Duncanson, Sam Gilliam, Richard Hunt, Jacob Lawrence, Al Loving, Hughie Lee-Smith, Allie McGhee, Gordon Parks, Howardena Pindell, Martin Puryear, Alison Saar, Augusta Savage, Lorna Simpson, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Robert Thompson, Carrie Mae Weems, William T. Williams and Hale A. Woodruff.

American Art

The Detroit Institute of Arts collection of American Art spans a wide range of media and objects, dating from the early Colonial period to the mid-20th century. Holdings include painting, sculpture, furniture, the decorative arts and architecture. The great strength of the American collection is its paintings. Highlights include Watson and the Shark by the portraitist and history painter John Singleton Copley; The Trappers Return by the Luminist frontier painter George Caleb Bingham; Cotopaxi by the Hudson River School artist Frederic Edwin Church; Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket by the Symbolist and Impressionist James Abbott McNeill Whistler; and Mosquito Nets by the society portrait artist John Singer Sargent.

Other American painters represented include: George Bellows, Alexander Calder, Mary Cassatt and Childe Hassam, (see also American Impressionism), Thomas Cole, Thomas Eakins, Robert Henri (see also Ashcan School), Charles Willson Peale, Winslow Homer, Hiram Powers, Georgia O'Keeffe, Paul Revere, Frederic Remington, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, John French Sloan, Gilbert Stuart, Andy Warhol, and Andrew Wyeth.

Also included is Diego Rivera's celebrated Detroit Industry fresco series, the most important work by a Mexican mural painter in the United States. Commissioned by Edsel Ford and museum director William Valentiner, this vibrant work chronicles the importance of industry to the city of Detroit.

The American decorative art collection features furniture of the 18th and 19th century, made by craftsmen like Duncan Phyfe, Henry Belter, the Herter Brothers and Louis Comfort Tiffany. Also represented are works by silversmiths including Paul Revere, Gorham and Tiffany & Co., along with a ceramic collection based around the pottery of Pewabic Pottery and renowned Arts and Crafts potter Adelaide Robineau. The American glass collection illustrates early 20th century designs.

Pre-Islamic Middle Eastern Art

The Ancient Middle East collection features a group of objects produced between 3000 BCE and 600 CE. These artworks and artifacts illustrate the increased incidence of writing, of trade, of religions, of urban development and of imperial conquest in the great civilizations of the Ancient Middle East. Exhibits include: examples of ancient pottery, cuneiform clay tablets, carved stone reliefs, seals and carved gemstones, metalwork, glass, textiles and coins. One of the special highlights of the collection is the glazed brick Dragon from the Ishtar Gate at Babylon (604-562 BCE).

Ancient Western Antiquities

The museum's collection of ancient art features a selection of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman works, including sculpture, jewellery, amphorae, and other decorative artworks. Established under the direction of William Valentiner, important works include the Greek Panathenaic Prize Amphora from the Panathenaic games in the 4th century BCE, the exquisite Etruscan Bronze Horseman, and the Roman statue, Venus Genetrix.

Islamic Art

The Islamic art collection features ceramics and metalwork from the central Islamic lands, a large collection of medieval Egyptian fabrics decorated with religious inscriptions, lusterware from Iran, Egypt, Syria and Spain, silks from early modern Iran, and carpets from Western China, among other items. Unusual highlights include: a 13th century enameled glass bottle from Egypt made for a Yemeni Sultan, and an elaborate 15th century Qur’an inscribed on coloured Chinese paper.

Asian Art

The DIA’s collection of Asian art largely features material from China, Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia, dating from 2500 BCE to the present. Many of Asia's philosophies and traditions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism etc., are represented in a variety of artworks including: jade carving, ritual bronzes, funerary and functional ceramics, painting on scrolls and screens, Chinese lacquerware, furniture, textiles, and religious sculpture.

Chinese Art
Highlights of the Chinese art collection include: early Chinese Buddhist sculptures like Sakyamuni Emerging from the Mountains (Yuan Dynasty art, 1279-1368), paintings and calligraphy by artists including Shen Zhou, Wen Zhengming, and Dong Qichang.

Korean Art
Highlights include: a Joseon Dynasty Grapevine Screen, and an early 17th-century lacquered Stationery Box. See: Korean Art (from c.3,000 BCE.)

Japanese Art
Highlights of the Japanese art collection include: Japanese textiles of the Edo period (1615-1868) including a rare Noh Theater Robe with motifs of chrysanthemums, butterflies and grasses; Rimpa School painted screens and scrolls by masters including Ogata Korin, Maruyama Okyo, and Suzuki Kiitsu.

Southeast Asian Art
Highlights include: a complete set of the illustrated Buddhist Manuscript of the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Verses (Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita) - one of only two in the United States; a processional bronze sculpture of Parvati from the Chola Dynasty (c.860-1279); and a schist bust of a Bodhisattva from the Gandharan region.

European Art

The Detroit Institute of Arts' collection of European art is one of the largest and most important in America. It features a diverse range of fine art painting, and sculpture from across Europe, exemplifying almost all historical periods and artistic movements from Classical Antiquity up to the 20th century.


The European paintings collection encompasses very large holdings of paintings, from the Renaissance (1400-1530), Mannerist (1530-1600) and Baroque (1600-1700) periods, by artists such as Jan van Eyck, Giovanni Bellini, Hans Holbein the Younger, Albrecht Durer, Titian, Caravaggio, the Frenchman Nicolas Poussin, and many others. Its assembly of Dutch and Flemish schools is also renowned for its depth and quality, and features works by Rubens, Bruegel, Rembrandt, Van Ruisdael and others.

Sculpture and Decorative Arts

The collection of European sculpture and decorative arts has roughly 7,000 pieces. Dating from the Dark Ages (c.400-800) through the 1800s, it illustrates all major movements and traditions from the early Christian art era thru the Renaissance up to Art Nouveau, and includes includes armour, ceramics, furniture, glass, ivory carvings, jewellery, precious metalwork, tapestry, and sculpture - statues, reliefs and busts - in all media. It is especially strong in Italian Renaissance sculpture, with works by Nino Pisano, Donatello, Luca della Robbia, Gianlorenzo Bernini, and other important sculptors. Northern Renaissance sculpture is exemplified by important exhibits of German limewood sculpture and stained glass. French decorative art is represented by Sèvres porcelain, furniture, silver, as well as tapestry art from the Beauvais and Gobelins tapestry factories.

Modern Art

The collection of modern art features a breathtaking array of 20th century European artists, including: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Joan Miro Yves Tanguy, the "rediscovered" William Adolphe Bouguereau, the German Expressionists Franz Marc, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde, Lovis Corinth, the sculptor Ernst Barlach, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paula Modersohn-Becker, the Austrian Oskar Kokoschka, the Russians Wassily Kandinsky and Chaim Soutine and the Norwegian Edvard Munch. The collection also comprises a number of important sculptures by Henry Moore, Max Ernst and others.

Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

This collection, numbering some 35,000 items, features a wide range of prints, drawings, photographs, watercolour painting, posters and artists books, dating from 1500 onwards. Many different cultures are represented although the collection is strongest in European and American works. Highlights include: 2,500 sketches by the 19th-century American landscape artist, Thomas Cole, acquired in 1939. Donations by John S. Newberry (1965) and Robert H. Tannahill (1970) significantly expanded the collection, and in 1980 the Schwartz Galleries of Prints and Drawings was opened to best display the collection. The Albert and Peggy de Salle Gallery of Fine Art Photography followed in 1983.

The James Pearson Duffy Department of Contemporary Art

Detroit's department of contemporary art covers works from 1950 onwards, with a focus on postwar American art, notably Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Pop Art. Many important contemporary exhibits - including works by Willem de Kooning, Donald Judd, and Andy Warhol - were donated by the arts patron W. Hawkins Ferry or his museum support group the Friends of Modern Art. The collection of postwar European art also features important works by Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon. Acquisition of contemporary works by young artists continues and the collection is beginning to introduce new art media including installation and video art.

• For more about famous art-buyers and their collections, see: Art Collectors.
• For details of the development of painting and sculpture, see: History of Art.
• For more information about the world's greatest art museums, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.