This is where some historical name dropping is called for.
Raffael? Gallery 3. Titian? Gallery 2. Bruegel? Gallery 10. Rubens? Holbein? Van Dyck? Dürer? Yes, we get the point.
The Kunsthistorisches Museum’s picture galleries cover the two wings of the first floor*. One wing focuses on Italian, Spanish and French paintings, the other on Dutch, Flemish and German delights.
As with the Kunstkammer, the collection owes much to the curiosity, interest and wealth of earlier Habsburg collectors, notably Rudolf II in the late 16th / early 17th century and Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in the mid-17th century.
The Archduke in particular had a nose for timely purchases, exploiting the English civil war, for example, to acquire a few masterpieces.
(While today’s European museums worry about visitor numbers and transport insurance, earlier collectors had more important things to trouble them. Rudolf’s collection, for example suffered at the hands of rampaging Swedes in Prague at the end of the Thirty Years War.)
Put your feet up (not literally)
With the exception of two galleries, the paintings all hang in a single horizontal row at eye level. Which makes them easy to view, and the protective rails feature accessible, individual descriptions in both German and English (yay!).
In galleries 4 and 12, the paintings are hung all over the place, mimicking (I think) the way such collections would have been organised at the time of their creation. But observe the clever symmetry in these displays – there is method to the apparent madness.
The main galleries are also nice and roomy. You can sit on lovely upholstered sofas and contemplate whether Caravaggio’s “The Madonna of the Rosary” would fit in your bathroom. (Probably not…unless you have a very big bathroom).
Myriads of masterpieces
I could pretend to know what is and what isn’t a true masterpiece, but it’s perhaps better to take the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s own advice.
There is no single piece that provides the same kind of focal point and attraction as, say, the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. But even a fool like me recognises the iconic “Tower of Babel” (ca. 1563) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in Gallery 10:
(Picture Gallery ©KHM-Museumsverband)
That’s probably my favourite gallery, with its painted depictions of 16th century life. See, for example, Children’s Games from 1560 or The Peasant Wedding from 1568. The best bit about the latter painting is the leg that appears to have no owner: look at the bottom right, below the man in the green hat and red top.
Other highlights for me:
- Arcimboldo’s famous paintings of Winter, Summer, Water and Fire as faces (room 6, which is between galleries 3 and 4).
He “creates” all the anatomical features through the clever placement of themed objects. A pod of peas for the teeth in Summer’s face, an oil lamp for Fire’s lower jawbone…he was a surrealist centuries before that term even had meaning.
- Bernado Bellotto’s paintings of Vienna from the 18th century (Gallery 7).
Mainly because they bring home just how much the city has grown. Schönbrunn Palace, now embedded deep within modern Vienna, really was a summer residence well outside the city.
- “The Miracles of St.Francis Xavier” by Peter Paul Rubens 1618 (Gallery 14).
Next to it is the small Modello, basically the preliminary painting used as a model for the big one. This Modello is entirely Rubens, the painting itself was finished with the help of other artists in his studio. The difference in quality and subtlety is apparent even to idiots like me.
Although the collection more or less ends with the 18th century, you’ll also find works by Klimt from around 1890. But not where you might think to find them.
Gustav Klimt, Ernst Klimt and Franz Matsch painted the areas between and around the arches and columns on the north wall of the main staircase. Look for the Swarovski spotting scope opposite to get a closer view.
If you want to see more of Klimt, try this guide.
*Galleries 1 and 10 were closed when I was there, so I can’t comment on those.