The Art Gallery of Ontario, or AGO, is celebrated both for its extensive collection of Canadian art and its excellent temporary exhibitions. In 2008 it was feted after a thorough revamp in which the architect Frank Gehry (perhaps most famous for Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum) transformed its appearance with a startling glass-and-wood north facade on Dundas Street, and a four-storey titanium-and-glass wing overlooking Grange Park to the south. The end result can be a little confusing, however, and it takes a little time to get oriented. There are six floors: the Concourse Level holds a theatre and learning centre (you may be lucky and catch an exquisite collection of intricate ship models if they’re on view here); Level 1 is largely devoted to European art; Level 2 holds a wonderful collection of Canadian paintings as well as a battery of Henry Moore sculptures; Level 3 offers the Galleria Italia, a soaring, airy, gallery-linking wood-and-glass hall which hosts sculpture exhibits (and an espresso bar, too); Level 4 has a regularly rotated selection of contemporary art, as does Level 5. There is a café, a restaurant, a large gift- and bookshop, and a first-rate programme of guided tours free with admission.

Level 1: the European collection

The AGO possesses an eclectic sample of European fine and applied art, including ivory and alabaster pieces, illuminated manuscripts, exquisite cameos and fine porcelain, much of it the gift of the newspaper tycoon Kenneth Thomson, aka Lord Thomson of Fleet (1923–2006). Early paintings include some rather pedestrian Italian altarpieces, Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s fine Moses Breaking Pharaoh’s Crown, and a strong showing for Dutch painters of the Golden Age, including Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Frans Hals and Jan Van Goyen. Look out also for Rubens’ exquisite Massacre of the Innocents, a typically stirring canvas from the middle of his career, populated with writhing, muscular figures.

Level 2: Canadian eighteenth- and nineteenth-century painting

Distributed among forty numbered galleries on Level 2, the AGO has the finest collection of Canadian paintings in the world, but it’s not always been shown to best advantage. A recently begun long-term reinstallation initiative should change that, and a plan to incorporate museum loans and pop-up showings by local and Inuit artists should make the gallery a bit more inviting as well. From the eighteenth century, one particular highlight is a curiously unflattering Portrait of Joseph Brant by William Berczy. A Mohawk chief, Brant is shown in a mix of European and native gear, an apt reflection of his twin loyalties. From the early to mid-nineteenth century comes the cheery Passenger Pigeon Hunt by Antoine Plamondon and the bright and breezy The Ocean Bride leaving Halifax Harbour by John O’Brien, who specialized in maritime scenes. Equally enjoyable is the work of the prolific Cornelius Krieghoff. The AGO owns a large sample of Krieghoff’s paintings, including characteristic winter scenes like his The Portage Aux Titres. Look out also for the canvases of one of the era’s most fascinating figures, Paul Kane, notably his Landscape in the Foothills with Buffalo Resting and At Buffalo Pound, where bison are pictured in what looks more like a placid German valley than a North American prairie.

Folksy and/or romanticized country scenes and landscapes ruled the Canadian artistic roost from the 1850s to the early twentieth century. By and large this was pretty routine stuff, but Homer Watson’s glossy Ontario landscapes, with their vigorous paintwork and dynamic compositions, made him a popular and much acclaimed artist – Queen Victoria even purchased one of his paintings, and Oscar Wilde dubbed him “the Canadian Constable”. The AGO possesses several Watson paintings, including the handsome and well-composed canvas The Old Mill, but his Death of Elaine – inspired by a Tennyson poem – is a bizarrely unsuccessful venture into ancient legend, the eponymous maiden looking something like a stick insect.

Level 2: Canada’s Group of Seven

A seminal work, the AGO’s West Wind by Tom Thomson is an iconic rendering of the northern wilderness that is perhaps the most famous of all Canadian paintings. Thomson was the first to approach the wilderness with the determination of an explorer and a sense that it could encapsulate a specifically Canadian identity. A substantial sample of his less familiar (but no less powerful) works are also part of the AGO collection, including the moody A Northern Lake, Maple Saplings, October and the Cubist-influenced Autumn Foliage 1915. There is also a whole battery of preparatory sketches of lakes and canyons, waterfalls and forests, each small panel displaying the vibrant blotches of colour that characterize Thomson’s work.

One of the most distinctive artists of the Group of Seven was Lawren Harris, whose 1924 Above Lake Superior is also a pivotal work, its clarity of conception, with bare birch stumps framing a dark mountain beneath Art Deco clouds, quite exceptional. Equally stirring is his surreal Lake Superior, one of an army of paintings inspired by the wild, cold landscapes of the lake’s north shore. Harris was also partial to urban street scenes and the AGO has several – including two of Toronto – each painted in a careful pointillist style very different from his wilderness works.

A contemporary of the Group – but not a member – the gifted Emily Carr focused on the Canadian west coast in general, and its dense forests and native villages in particular, as in her dark and haunting Thunderbird and the deep green foliage of both In a Circle and Yellow Moss.

Level 2: the Henry Moore Sculpture Centre

The AGO owns the world’s largest collection of sculptures by Henry Moore (1898–1986), with the emphasis firmly on his plaster casts, alongside a few of his bronzes. Given a whole gallery, the sheer size and volume of Moore’s output is impressive, but it was something of an accident his work ended up here at all. In the 1960s, Moore thought London’s Tate Gallery was going to build a special wing for his work. When the Tate declined, Moore negotiated with the AGO instead, after being persuaded to do so by the gallery’s British representative, Anthony Blunt – the art expert who was famously uncovered as a Soviet spy in 1979.

Levels 4 and 5: contemporary art

Spread over two levels, the AGO’s collection of contemporary art showcases work by European, British and American artists from 1960 onwards. Around two hundred pieces are exhibited and they cover a wide range of media, from painting, sculpture and photography through to film and installation. These displays are changed fairly regularly. Showings of work by American photographer Anne Collier, Canadian painter Stephen Andrews and Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul are a few of the recent temporary exhibitions here.

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