WINONA, Minn. (WCCO) — Minnesotans often think they need to travel to major cities to see famous artwork.

But in reality, you do not have to travel far to see original works by the likes of Van Gogh and Picasso.

The Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona has all of those.

“We look for art, great art, inspired by water,” curator Jon Swanson said.

The Mississippi River is right next door, but the scenery inside this museum can be equally inspiring.

“We have art in here that you have to travel to Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, London, Frankfurt, Paris to see. We have it all here,” Swanson said.

The museum opened 10 years ago in Winona. It was the idea of local business owners and art enthusiasts to feature seascapes, waterways, boats and ships.

And with that came some of the most influential and authentic art of all time — including Vincent Van Gogh’s first oil painting.

“He was so pleased at the results of this that the average person wouldn’t know this was his first attempt at an oil painting,” Swanson said.

Even people who are not art enthusiasts will recognize names like Picasso and Claude Monet. There are six galleries, including one that features landscapes.

A landscape done by Alfred Bricher in 1868 shows the Mississippi River, and was painted just a few miles south of where the museum stands today. The addition of trees and a highway have changed the look just a bit.

“There’s no place in the world this painting belongs except here in Winona, Minnesota,” Swanson said.

And that is what makes this museum so intriguing. Because here in southeastern Minnesota, there is now a piece of art that pretty much every American will recognize.

“It’s part of popular culture. It’s on the back of coins, on stamps, books. It even made ‘The Simpsons,'” Swanson said.

German artist Emanuel Leutze painted three versions of the famous “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” One was destroyed during World War II. The other two can be found at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City — and at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum.

“I get goosebumps. I literally get goosebumps to think that we have it here in Winona,” docent Arlene Compton said.

The painting was on loan to the White House since Reagan was in office, and had been on display in the West Wing.

But it was owned by a Detroit art collector. He sold it to two local collectors last year, who moved it from the White House to Winona.

“If you were to make a short list of the most iconic, recognizable art, this would be in the top three,” Swanson said.

At one point, while countries like France and Germany were critical of their governments but fearful of speaking out, this revolutionary-inspired American tribute was the most popular painting in Europe.

“It was in all the newspapers,” Swanson said. “It was a blockbuster before the term was ever invented.”

It is now part of a different kind of blockbuster. Attendance has grown ever year at the museum. More than 25,000 people visited last year.

People come to see the classics, but also the work done by local artists. Some of the exhibits rotate in and out, but many of the famous pieces now call this museum home.

“To see people when they walk in the door and have their jaw drop when they realize what they’ve just walked into, that’s pretty neat,” Compton said. “They want to know if it’s real, and the answer is yes.”

The museum has anywhere from 10 to 12 rotating exhibits ever year. For more information on hours and prices, click here.

John Lauritsen

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