Visitor's Guide To the Fabulous Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh
Updated: Dec 10, 2020
You may not think the "Steel City" of Pittsburgh is an art mecca. But for a small city, its beloved Carnegie Museum of ART (CMOA) packs a surprisingly art punch, with international flair. CMOA should definitely be on your itinerary for Pittsburgh. It's an absolute must visit destination.
Founded by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, this gorgeous museum is in Pittsburgh's lively Oakland neighborhood near the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.
Here's my local's guide to the history of CMOA and a preview of the amazing art you'll find inside. There's something to appeal to every art enthusiast, especially lovers of Impressionism.
Overview of the Carnegie Museum of Art
Can't make it to the Parthenon in Greece? Head to CMOA. Its Hall of Sculptures is modeled on the Parthenon and the gleaming white marble comes from the same quarries as the 5th century temple.
But the Carnegie Museum of Art isn't just about its Parthenon-related gems. And the museum is much larger than you might suspect. There are many wings and dozens of galleries. The wide ranging galleries are devoted to art from ancient times to cutting edge contemporary works.
Since its inception in 1895, Carnegie wanted the museum to reflect "tomorrow's old masters," not just ancient works. As a result, CMOA is considered the first museum of modern art in the United States. Some of Carnegie's first acquisitions were contemporary works by emerging American artists Winslow Homer, James McNeill Whistler, and Edward Hopper.
The Heinz Gallery houses temporary exhibitions, with room after room of high ceilings. When I last visited, it featured an exhibition of politically charged photographs by An-Me Le, called On Contested Terrain.
Launched in 1974, the Scaife Galleries are CMOA's crown jewel. Sarah Mellon Scaife was a sister of Pittsburgh tycoon Richard Mellon. She gifted the massive Beaux Art galleries and a slew of important works to CMOA, nearly doubling its space.
CMOA now has everything from paintings, prints, sculpture, photographs, decorative arts, and digital and video imagery. The ground floor of the CMOA is dedicated to the Hall of Sculpture and the Hall of Architecture. There's also a small first floor gallery, the Forum Gallery, dedicated to temporary exhibitions of contemporary works. Most of the art is housed on the second floor.
Highlights and Must See Art Work in the Carnegie Museum
Let's take a tour of some of the best art work at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
1. Hall of Sculpture
The design of the Hall of Sculpture is modeled after the heavily columned inner sanctuary of the Parthenon in Athens. It's constructed of brilliant white marble, from the same quarries used to build the 5th century BC Parthenon.
The original purpose of the room was to house the museum's collection of reproductions of Greek, Roman, and Eastern sculptures. Most of those have been moved into the Hall of Architecture. But there are still statues decorating the second floor balcony. Directly below the skylight is a carved frieze, replicating the decorative band that once decorated the Parthenon.
Today, the Hall of Sculpture is used for site specific performances, installations, and exhibitions.
2. Crossroads Now, Art From 1945 to Present
You'll likely start your visit in the Scaife Galleries' contemporary art section. Pittsburgh native Andy Warhol, who has his own eponymous museum in Pittsburgh, once said "Art is what you can get away with."
Right now, CMOA has assembled and displayed 130 of its diverse holdings of modern and contemporary art pieces. The works on display reinvent traditional mediums and reflect pressing social and political issues. They include works from the genres of Pop Art, Abstract Art, Minimalism, Abstract Expressionism, and cinema.
There are classics by world renowned artists on display -- Keith Haring's graffiti-inspired Untitled, Andy Warhol's Self Portrait, Willem de Kooning's Woman VI, Alberto Giacommeti's Walking Man I, Mark Rothko's Yellow and Blue, and Piet Mondrian's Trees.
But there are also more cutting edge works Anton Rooskens, Ellsworth Kelly, Sol Le Witt, and Rafael Ferrer. There are also conceptual and performative videos and collage films.
My favorite piece in this section of the museum was an eerie installation by French artist Louise Bourgeois, Cell II, from 1991 (shown above). It's part of a series focusing on the dark recesses of the psyche.
3. Scaife Galleries, 19th Century Art
The 19th century galleries are the most popular area of the museum, with works from 1850 to the present in 12 rooms, including Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and late 19th century art.
Scaife began collecting Impressionism in 1962, with the help of a CMOA director. Her taste was mostly classic, but with some adventurous choices.
Over the years, she and her family purchased and donated 28 major paintings and pastels by Paris artists. The Impressionist works on display include pieces by top shelf names like Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Renoir, Degas, and Matisse.
Pride of place belongs to Claude Monet's Water Lilies. It's one of six large panels that Monet painted between 1915 and 1926. It's nearly 20 feet long and 6 feet wide. It's not quite as luminous as Monet's water lilies on display in Paris' Musee Marmottan Monet or the Musee de l'Orangerie. But still a relative rarity to see one in the United States.
There are also three pieces by the ever popular Vincent Van Gogh -- a beautiful drawing, a painting of wheat fields created just days before his death, and a painting of Le Moulin de la Galette in Paris.
You'll also find several Renoirs, some first rate Degas paintings and sculptures, and some beautiful John Singer Sargent paintings. There are also quite a few sculptures by the indomitable French artist Auguste Rodin, the greatest sculptor of the 20th century.
My favorite pieces in the collection were Wheat Fields After the Rain by Vincent Van Gogh, Girl Under Apple Tree by Edvard Munch, a bust of Dorothy Heseltine by Aime-James Dalou, Venetian Interior by John Singer Sargent, The Bath by Degas, and Hand of God by Auguste Rodin.
4. Decorative Arts & Design | Ailsa Mellon Bruce Galleries
This area of CMOA houses over 34,000 object, arranged chronologically and featuring a broad spectrum of visual art. You'll find glass works, porcelain, ceramics, wood carvings, china, etc. The collection celebrates the extraordinary in every day objects.
My favorite pieces were Gerrit Thomas Rietved's Zig-Zag Chair, Louis Comfort Tiffany's stained glass windows and lamps, and some stunning Arts and Crafts era pottery and furniture. You'll recognize the designs of Gustav Stickley, the Roycrofters, and Charles Rene Mackintosh.
A seminal piece is the Tennyson Vase, a four foot high hammered silver vase. It was created as an ode to Alfred Lord Tennyson's poems about Arthurian legends. It was a symbol of British strength in the 9th century.
The Bruce Galleries also highlight contemporary design and crafts in glass, wood, ceramic, and metal. A beautiful vignette is a display of 20th century glass art set in front of large windows facing Forbes Avenue.
5. Heinz Architectural Center
Established in 1990, the Heinz Architectural Center is a permanent gallery that houses changing exhibits of world architecture. It's dedicated to the collection, study, and exhibition of architectural drawings and models. But boasts nearly 6,000 objects, including photographs, artifacts, casts, drawings, etc.
An onsite library houses 7,000 books And there is 4,000 square feet of exhibition space.
6. Hall of Architecture
The Hall of Architecture is part of the Heinz Architectural Center and, I think, the highlight. It's incredibly unique. I've never seen anything like it in thousands of museum outings.
As part of his effort to "bring the world to Pittsburgh," Carnegie commissioned plaster copies of some of the world's most iconic buildings and sculptures. They were created by master craftsmen. If the citizens of Pittsburgh couldn't get to Europe, they could at least see what they were missing.
Architectural cast collections were incredibly popular in the late Victoria era. Their popularity subsequent waned. Hence, there are now very few collections in the world. CMOA's only rivals are the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Musee National des Monuments Francais in Paris.
The Hall of Architecture is filled with plaster casts of outstanding classical, ancient, and medieval works. You can see copies of Venus de Milo and Winged Victory of Samothrace from the Louvre.
You can admire the Florence's Baptistery doors created by Lorenzo Ghiberti, including what Michelangelo dubbed the "Doors of Paradise." You can see Nicola Pisano's pulpit from Siena Cathedral, considered one of the first works of Renaissance art.
As for the Parthenon, there's lots of goodies. There's a miniature model of the Parthenon. And life size sculptures from the Parthenon's frieze. The actual sculptures are the subject of dispute, and housed in both the British Museum in London and in the Acropolis Museum in Athens.
The largest recreation is the entire west facade of the Gothic Abbey Church of Saint-Giles in France. It's a one of kind marble, and may be the largest architectural cast ever made.
7. Crowning of Labor Mural and Grand Staircase
The museum's three story Grand Staircase is the centerpiece of CMOA's 1907 addition. The marble staircase is lovely. But what really catches your eye is the mural covering almost 5,000 square feet of wall space, The Crowning of Labor. It was created by Pittsburgh native John White Alexander between 1906-08.
Alexander had full artistic license. He produced a depiction of the turn of the century ideas of uplift and progress achieved through hard work. The mural has a dark to light plan that's bathed in light from the center skylight. The mural was renovated in 1995 and its colors sparkle.
8. Outdoor Sculpture Court
The sculpture court was also a Scaife donation. In 1974, when CMOA expanded to create more gallery space, it also created an outdoor sculpture court where you can simultaneously enjoy art, architecture, and landscape. It's the perfect place for a cup of coffee or picnic lunch.
The courtyard is a triangulated angular space with multiple terraced levels and faced with glass and granite walls. Within the court are 16 sculptures varying from intuitive design to gridded modernism.
David Smith's Cubist-inspired Cubi XXIV was one of the the first modern sculptures to be installed in the courtyard. It also serves as a frame for Andy Warhol's large silk screen prints of Andrew Carnegie in CMOA's cafe area.
I particularly liked Aristide Maillol's poignant Night. You can also see 11 neon sculptures from Tavares Strachan's Encyclopedia of Invisibility, which ribbon the building's exterior.
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting the Carnegie Museum of Art
Address: 4400 Forbes Avenue Pittsburgh PA
Hours: Closed Tuesdays. Open Mon & Wed-Sun from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. On Thursday night, the museum is open late until 8:00 pm. The best time to go? Thursday after 3:00 pm with a discount (see below).
Entry fee: Adults $19.95, children 3-18 $11.95, under 2 free. If you buy online, use AFTER3 to get a 50% discount if you visit on weekdays after 3:00 pm.
Admission also gives you access to CMOA's sister museum, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. But doing both museums in one day could definitely result in museum fatigue. There's a lot to see and digest.
How Long should you spend at the Carnegie? I'd budget 2-3 hours minimum.
Online tickets: Click here to buy tickets and reserve a time slot online
Carnegie Cafe: This lovely upscale cafe offers casual dining, with an espresso and wine bar.
Parking: There's a dedicated parking lot for the museum on Craig Steet. The current cost is $7.
Virtual Tour: You can take a virtual tour of CMOA by visiting their collections here.
Interested in other United States destinations? You may enjoy these guides:
If you'd like to visit Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art, pin it for later.