There’s plenty to see in Degas’ Les Danseuses Bleues at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris. Not only the dancers themselves, stretching and practising before a performance, but also the city. Painted around 1890 at the height of the Belle Epoque, this is an image of Paris as it sees itself, and as the world has come to understand it: elegant, refined, joyous.
If you really want to understand a city, head for the art gallery. This is just one of a series of artworks in cities across Europe that offer a special insight into their location. These six beautiful pieces are not just works of art but cultural signposts too.
The Descent from the Cross, Rubens—Antwerp Cathedral
It’s appropriate that Antwerp’s defining artwork is found in its cathedral since religion has played a central role in the city’s history. Antwerp was the cockpit of a 16th-century struggle between Protestantism and Catholicism, and the painting was created just 30 years after Protestant merchants were forced to quit the city following military defeat. Painted in lush Baroque style by native genius Peter Paul Rubens, it’s emblematic of this sophisticated, complex trading city, which is culturally somewhere halfway between southern and northern Europe.
Potsdamer Platz, Kirchner—Nationalgalerie
Few European cities exist in such a state of cultural schizophrenia as Berlin, which is both the capital of buttoned-up Prussia and a louche, decadent space dreamt of by starry-eyed youngsters around the world. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner captures this contradiction—and foretells Berlin’s 20th century—in Potsdamer Platz, painted in 1914. His Expressionist depiction of prostitutes in the city’s most iconic square is a disorientating and dark image: a clock in the background reads 12 midnight.
The May Queen, Mackintosh—Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
Glasgow’s reputation as a tough, rain-lashed place is well-earned, but it’s not the whole story. Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh’s wonderful May Queen speaks of a different city—an artistic, culturally aspirational place. A former student at the city’s famous School of Art, Mackintosh was married to Charles Rennie Mackintosh and it was for one of his commissions—the Ingram Street Tea Room—that The May Queen was created, on three panels. It’s both elegant and other-worldly, with a studied modernism that reflects the city’s self-confidence both then and now.
Fighting Temeraire, Turner—National Gallery
If it’s hard to sum up a city as diverse and huge as London, then Turner’s most famous painting captures one of its key features. Even today, in its revived role as the cultural centre of Europe, there’s a sense that London—a post-imperial city stuffed with imperial buildings and monuments—spends a little too much time looking back. That’s what Turner is doing here with his beautifully-composed, melancholic image of a Trafalgar-era warship being tugged away to be broken up. An era has passed, it says, and things are not getting better.
Les Danseuses Bleues, Degas—Musée D’Orsay
Some cities create such a successful image of themselves that they struggle to escape it. Paris is like that; no matter how it evolves, people will always come looking for glamour, romance and rich food. It was an image created during the Belle Epoque, a period between the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1871) and the start of the First World War (1914). Les Danseuses Bleues, with its elegant portrayal of young ballet dancers limbering up at the Opera and its rich depiction of colour and movement, seems to exemplify this joyous era—joyous, at least, for some. There’s a darkness, too, that hints at the other side of the city.
Composition VI, Kandinsky—Hermitage Museum
Russia is famously Europe’s most unfathomable nation: “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” according to Winston Churchill. St Petersburg, with its baroque and neoclassical architecture, is its bridge to western Europe—so it’s appropriate that this is where you’ll find Kandinsky’s Composition VI. A Russian artist, he spent much of his life abroad. Composition VI is energetic, complex and abstract: nothing is clear, but the overall composition packs a punch.