Seattle Travel

Seattle Art Museum – Top Ten Exhibits

Post last updated March 8, 2023

Over the holidays, many people will travel to Seattle to visit family, and to explore the various festivities our fine city has to offer. However, during these winter months good weather is hard to come by. It’s either the rainy season, or if you’re lucky and the sun is shining brightly, you may see crystal clear views of Mt. Rainier, Baker, and the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges stretching across the eastern and western horizons, respectively. The only problem is you might still feel like you’re walking on top of those cold mountains. Granted it’s not freezing Midwest winters filled with -1 degree highs, but this year’s December days have reached biting lows of 22 degrees. So, in the spirit of this warm holiday season, we thought we’d discuss one of Seattle’s greatest indoor attractions—the Seattle Art Museum.

SAM's famous hammering man
SAM's famous hammering man

I visited the museum this past Sunday afternoon, and although parking was an absolute pain at 11am during shopping season, I managed to finally find an open spot after a good 20 minutes of turning down one-way streets! This was the perfect time to stop into one of Downtown’s many festive coffee shops for a cup of dark coffee, hot chocolate, or an eggnog latte.

Some quick facts about SAM:

  • Located at east corner of 1st and University
  • Suggested donation is $15
  • Hours – Wednesday through Sunday, 10am to 5pm; open until 9pm on Thursday and Friday
  • Closed Monday and Tuesday
  • No pens or cameras allowed!
  • First floor TASTE Restaurant and SAM SHOP
  • 1st Thursday of each month is free
  • Check SAM website for after hour tours and events
SAM lobby 'car-art'
SAM lobby 'car-art'

When I visited, and through the 2009-2010 winter season, the featured exhibits were: Michelangelo Public and Private; and Alexander Calder: A Balancing Act. Michelangelo’s exhibit was especially awesome. Among the amazing art were preliminary sketches from his painted scenes of The Last Judgment, Expulsion from Paradise, and hand-written correspondences between him and aspiring artists of the age. Calder was the American artist who invented the mobile, and his exhibit features large and small, perfectly balanced mobiles he made with metal, brass, wire and paint.

Yet there was so much great art! Below is a collection of the pieces I enjoyed most from my SAM experience. UNFORTUNATELY, pictures aren’t allowed so I ended up just taking pictures of a few of the pamphlet hand-outs which I share below.

1. Some/One, Do-Ho Suh, 2001.

Some/One, made with thousands of stainless steel dog-tags.
Some/One, by Do-Ho Suh, Korea. Made with thousands of stainless steel dog-tags.

This warrior’s gown is made with rows of linked and shiny, stainless steel dog-tags and it spreads out in all directions across the floor. In person it looks to be fit for a 3-foot wide, 9-foot tall Goliath. This piece stands in the center of the Burden of History exhibit which showcases how artists have succeeded in creating something exciting and new in the present, while feeling challenged by an already extensive collection of art through the ages.

2. Esperanza, Freeing the Figure exhibit. I liked this painting because it was very soft and feminine. It’s a no-face nude woman lying on her side. The thick, impressionistic strokes of beige made me feel like I was at a beach.

3. Imogen Cunningham photography; Everything Under the Sun exhibit, and other photographs. These collections were really great because they were all very touching and sentimental. Two photographs that stuck out for me were one of a 90-year-old man holding his walking stick and staring at the camera, and another black and white self-portrait of Imogen Cunningham lying nude on her stomach in a field of wildflowers.

4. Sea Change by Jackson Pollock, This painting is supposedly based off of Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest. It was very exciting with a variety of color drips and splashes, and if you look closely you can see all of the different textures, layers, and dried blobs.

5. Fishing Boats at Etretat, Monet, 1885. This peaceful impressionist painting is of colorful and large wooden rowboats resting safely ashore, while a teal green sea foams in the background.

6. Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast, Bierstadt, 1870.

Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast by Bierstadt
Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast by Bierstadt

Believe it or not, this piece was painted before Bierstadt had ever set foot in the Pacific Northwest; he painted by word of mouth. Yet still he captures the majestic beauty of the haystack rocks, a glorious sun breaking through the clouds, and an untamed wilderness spilling out over seaside cliffs.

7. Wati Kutjara (Two Brothers Dreaming), Tjapangngka, 2004.

Wati Kutjara (Two Brothers Dreaming). By Tjumpo Tjapangngka, Australian Aborigine.
Wati Kutjara (Two Brothers Dreaming). By Tjumpo Tjapangngka, Australian Aborigine.

Can’t you see it? They’re hunting, pitching a tent, and sleeping!? This particular exhibit was great because many of the pieces told stories using dots, lines and designs. Still there were other less abstract, intricate pieces, like Regina Willon’s, Sun Mat, which brings colorful weaving patterns to a painted surface.

8. A Celebration by Georgia O’Keefe. The blue and white clouds and spirals in this painting is said to capture the feeling of rapture, and may have been painted after Georgia’s marriage to Alfred Stieglity, who was known for his photographic cloud studies.

9. Michelangelo

Study of a man's face for the Flood in the Sistine ceiling, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)
Study of a man's face for the Flood in the Sistine ceiling, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)

This was a great exhibit, which really gives viewers an insight into Michelangelo’s private life and practice. I also saw how he was truly a master of the human figure and movement, as all of his sketches even show ligaments and muscles.

Along the walls there were a few personal quotes. Here are a couple of them:

“The money spent on preliminary drawings pays off a hundred to one.”

“I’ve finished that chapel I was painting. The pope is quite satisfied.” Letter to father regarding Sistine Chapel.

This was from a different part of the museum but also from him: “A man paints with his brains and not with his hands.”

Supposedly, Michelangelo considered himself divinely inspired and his talent God-given. Yet finding his preliminary rough sketches (most he burnt) shows how much work Michelangelo actually put into all of his pieces as well. You can learn more on the SAM website as their art historian gives a small lecture on the exhibit and an informative tour.

My favorite parts of this exhibit were: models of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and The Last Judgment paintings; his many rough sketches; and a very stern and sensitive, life-size print of The David.

10. Adoration of the Shepherds; and The Last Supper, Light in the Darkness exhibit. In the spirit of Christmas and all, these paintings were cool to look at.

That’s it for my Top 10! Vist SAM to check out these great paintings and more. Maybe your favorites will be the porcelain plate room, the Native American totem pole collection, or costume designs made from thrift-store sweaters!

Ashleigh on ferry Island hopping.

Hi, I'm Ashleigh! Welcome to Seattle Travel, my little piece of beautiful PNW. This is home and I'm here to share all my experiences so visitors and locals alike can find the best experiences this part of the country has to offer. I started Seattle Travel in 2012 as a way to journal my experiences and over the years have been encouraged by family and friends to open up my adventures to everyone. I actively seek out the best food, activities, and day trips and give you a local perspective.  The Pacific Northwest is one of the most beautiful areas in the world and my goal is to let you explore it to the fullest. 

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