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On its 300th birthday, the Belvedere reflects on a remarkably complicated past

27 February 2023

From the March 2023 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

In 1719, as part of a series of diplomatic exchanges between the recently warring Habsburg and Ottoman empires, the Turkish ambassador Ibrahim Pasha was received at the baroque palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy, just south of Vienna itself. There, it was reported in the local paper, he saw the great general’s ‘stately buildings, the rare plants and animals, the pools and water wonders’, before being ‘regaled with confections, fruits, coffee and lemonade’. That this sprawling and splendid complex, its two main buildings divided by a vast Versailles-style garden, was designed for Prince Eugene as a summer residence is not lost on the winter visitor to the Belvedere (as the palace became known) – who can only survey the empty flowerbeds and dormant fountains, nurse her Rindsuppe mit Griessnockerl in the Schlosscafé and dream wistfully of warmer months. Delightful though the palace evidently was already by the time of that ambassadorial visit, it would be another four years until the whole thing was complete, in 1723 – making this year the Belvedere’s 300th anniversary.

For the museum, whose collection focuses mainly on Austrian art from the medieval to the contemporary, but is perhaps best known for its holdings of paintings by Gustav Klimt – The Kiss above all – the anniversary presented ‘a good opportunity for us to look into the history and development of this institution’, says chief curator Luisa Ziaja. We meet in the Lower Belvedere – home to an ambitious temporary-exhibition programme (the upper palace houses the permanent collection) – where she and her colleagues have put together a year-long display setting out that history. Staged as it is in the former Orangery, ‘300 Years a Venue for Art’ (until 7 January 2024) is necessarily compact – but what a lot it has to pack in. Appropriately for its location in the birth-city of psychoanalysis, the Belvedere has suffered many an identity crisis over its three centuries – reflecting, perhaps more than its fellow cultural institutions in Vienna, the vicissitudes of Austria’s past.

The man who began it all is here in a portrait by Johann Gottfried Auerbach, painted in c. 1725–30 and acquired by the Belvedere in 2016. Posing as the successful military leader he was, Prince Eugene’s posture is modelled on Hyacinthe Rigaud’s state portrait of Louis XIV. Perhaps there was an element of revenge at play in this artistic decision: born in Paris the youngest son of the Comte de Soissons and Olympia Mancini (a rumoured mistress of the Sun King), Eugene had been refused entry to the French army by Louis. His response was to leave France and offer his services to the Habsburg emperor, Leopold I. His usefulness was put to the test almost immediately at the Siege of Vienna in 1683, and he was soon promoted up the ranks, acquiring both fame and fortune as he went. While he led victories in the War of the Spanish Succession and another Austro-Turkish War, his summer palace was being constructed on a raised stretch of land south of Vienna’s centre, under the supervision of Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt, an architect and military engineer who had participated in three Piedmontese campaigns under Eugene’s command.

Prince Eugene of Savoy as a military commander (c. 1725–30) Johann Gottfried Auerbach. Belvedere, Vienna.

The palace at the northern edge of the site – the Lower Belvedere – nearer the city itself, was built between 1712 and 1717. This was to serve as Eugene’s residence proper. Its Marble Gallery (not to be confused with the Marble Hall, where the trompe-l’oeil paintings and plaster decorations are positively eye-popping) was probably designed specifically for a gift from the Duke of Elbeuf that demonstrates Eugene’s great standing in Europe: the so-called Herculaneum Women, three full-size Roman marbles that had just been unearthed by workmen digging a well in Resina, southern Italy, and which prompted the subsequent excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii. (Along with nearly everything else from his collection the sculptures were sold after Eugene’s death, since when they have been a highlight of Dresden’s antiquities collection.)

The Upper Belvedere, built between 1717 and 1723 at the southern end of the estate, is larger and grander, and was intended as a more formal reception palace. (Perhaps Klimt’s gold period was inspired as much by Vienna’s gilded palaces as by Byzantine art.) Beyond the central, double-storey hall, a gallery and picture cabinet were dedicated to the display of the prince’s paintings – Italian masters including Guido Reni, Francesco Albani and Bartolomeo Schedoni in the former, and smaller-format works from the Flemish and Dutch schools in the latter. Next door, his library’s tens of thousands of volumes later helped furnish Vienna’s Nationalbibliothek – though to what extent Eugene himself made use of them is unclear.

A different order of princely collection certainly captured his attention. In another example of keeping up with Louis at Versailles, Eugene had a menagerie built in front of the upper palace (it was probably laid out, like the rest of the garden, by Dominique Girard, who had worked at Versailles as fontainier du roi). The Meisterwork of this collection, and Eugene’s special pet, was a lion, said to have mourned his owner’s death by abstaining from food and drink. This bestiary found its way into the Upper Belvedere’s interiors, with painted fauna appearing throughout the palace on overdoors, chimneypieces and within frames. Eugene commissioned two artists in particular, Philipp Ferdinand de Hamilton and Franz Werner Tamm, to record animals from his menagerie – portraits, essentially. De Hamilton’s Four Vultures of Different Species (1723), which once hung in the state bedroom, and Tamm’s Domestic Fowl and Rabbits (c. 1706) are rare remnants here from Eugene’s art collection – much of which can now be found at the Sabauda Gallery in Turin.

On Prince Eugene’s death in 1736 his property went to his niece, Vittoria, who in 1752 sold the Belvedere to Empress Maria Theresa. Though she never lived there, the Habsburg ruler lavished money on its upkeep, and it was a venue for festivities, the most splendid of which must have been a masked ball in 1770 to celebrate her daughter Marie Antoinette’s marriage to the future Louis XVI.

In 1776, Maria Theresa changed the course of the Belvedere’s history when she decided to rehouse the Imperial Picture Gallery there. The Stallburg, part of the Hofburg Palace, was no longer deemed fit for purpose – particularly after the recent purchase of two large altar paintings by Rubens. But even before that there had been complaints about the paintings’ conditions in the Stallburg, as an anonymous letter from 1763 reveals: ‘[…] they get cleaned up and ruined; they get mended, made smaller and larger at will; many are damaged: and they are just as poorly arranged. You often see a painting you would not want as a present hanging next to a magnificent Titian.’

In line with Enlightenment thinking, the gallery at the Upper Belvedere would be open to the public, three days a week, at no cost. In 1781, a year after Maria Theresa’s death, her son Emperor Joseph II opened the doors of the new Kaiserliche Gemäldegalerie. The first work visitors encounter in the ‘300 Years’ exhibition commemorates the event: Vinzenz Fischer’s Allegory of the Transfer of the Imperial Gallery to the Belvedere (1781) shows Joseph with the goddess Athena, who points to the Upper Belvedere while putti hold up paintings from the collection, apparently ready to provide a removal service.

The opportunity to see the imperial holdings proved popular – too popular for some. ‘On Monday, there is usually a turmoil of pushing and shoving,’ griped the supposedly enlightened writer Johann Pezzl around a decade later. ‘A crowd of citizens from the lower classes, lads from the trades who have Monday off and even lowly servant girls, with children on their arms, visit the picture gallery […] Children are dangerous in the gallery: they sometimes touch the finest works with their dirty fingers. Just what is the point of the gallery for children? […] a collection of paintings of this kind is quite simply not a puppet show […].’

‘With the new gallery,’ Ziaja explains, ‘came the beginning of the discipline of art history, and the idea of ordering paintings into different schools. Christian von Mechel, a publisher from Basel, did the rehang, and he published an accompanying catalogue and the room plans. This was a model that was then picked up throughout Europe – for instance at the Musée Napoléon – and of course it’s one that still exists today.’

It was that planned museum at the Louvre – and the Napoleonic Wars more broadly – that caused problems for the Belvedere collection in the early 19th century. On more than one occasion artworks were packed into crates and sent along the Danube for safekeeping in Hungary. In 1809 after the French victory at Deutsch-Wagram, Napoleon’s delegates selected around 400 works from what remained at the Belvedere for his Paris museum (Tamm’s Domestic Fowl and Rabbits among them). The Congress of Vienna in 1815 saw most of them returned.

Despite the challenges of these external forces, however, the first half of the 19th century saw the Belvedere laying the foundations for a museum interested in the art of its own age – and particularly of its own place. This was in part motivated, and facilitated, by the high reputation of Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. Both Emperor Francis II and his successor Ferdinand I acquired works – often from Academy exhibitions – with a view to building up an overview of contemporary artists working in Austria. As a result, this ‘modern school’ of mostly realist works from the Biedermeier period and beyond makes up the largest and most cohesive area of the Belvedere’s collection.

From this era come, for instance, several paintings by Josef Danhauser, including Hogarthian works such as The Scholar’s Room (1828) and Comical Scene in the Studio (1829), as well as more sombre themes: The Newspaper Readers (Wagoners Reading the Announcement of the Imperial Royal Ferdinand Northern Railway) gives this genre scene a specific setting of 1842, the year horse-drawn traffic was forced to make way for steam. The two carters will soon be out of work. This is the lowly, individualised version of Turner’s Fighting Temeraire, painted three years earlier. Peter Fendi’s Girl in Front of the Lotto (1829) and Friedrich von Amerling’s Boy with Fishing Rod (1830) are among paintings from this period that make an appearance in miniature form in a delightful exhibit in ‘300 Years’. The Small Belvedere or Mignon Picture Gallery was produced in 1840 by a pedagogical publisher, and comprised an ornately decorated paper model of a picture gallery, with a short guide to the works featured – which young would-be curators could detach from the walls and rearrange.

A conversation room at the Lower Belvedere was remodelled into the Gold Cabinet for the Empress Maria Theresa in around 1765. Photo: © Lucas Schalle

The Belvedere holds more than 70 paintings by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, one of the most important artists of the Biedermeier period (and a favourite of Adolf Hitler). Waldmüller provides a link to the Secession, of which Klimt was a founding member in 1897. The former’s reputation as Austria’s greatest 19th-century artist has been credited in part to the Secessionists’ admiration for him – perhaps as much for his tempestuous relationship with the Academy as for his intense light effects and surface decoration.

A little more than a century after the Belvedere became a public gallery, the doors opened in 1891 to a brand-new building on the city’s recently constructed Ringstrasse: the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Designed by Gottfried Semper, the architect of Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie, this vast, purpose-built museum absorbed the Belvedere’s holdings, seemingly making the latter redundant. Emperor Franz Joseph’s nephew and heir apparent, Franz Ferdinand, moved into the upper palace with his family (where they stayed until his fateful assassination in Sarajevo in 1914), as did the composer Anton Bruckner, for the last year of his life.

It’s striking that it was only six years after this emphatically 19th-century institution was inaugurated that the Secession was founded, heralding a period in which Vienna became, for a while, the most excitingly avant-garde city in Europe. The Belvedere had a part to play in this. The Secessionists had advocated for ‘the rapid acquisition of principle works by those masters who personify the art of modern-day Europe’. They fulfilled this ambition to a large extent themselves, buying from artists whose work they exhibited at the temple-like Secession building. But a space was needed for the Moderne Galerie they had in mind, and the Lower Belvedere provided that space. Works in the collection bought under these circumstances include Still Water (1894) by the Belgian Symbolist Fernand Khnopff, which was shown at the Secession’s inaugural exhibition and made a great impression on Klimt and Carl Moll, among others; Monet’s The Cook (1882); and By the Water (1880) by Eva Gonzalès. The first work by Klimt to enter the collection, After the Rain (1898), was also acquired at the Secession, two years after it was painted.

A good start to the new century, then – but that was soon to change. The number of times works were shuttled back and forth between the Belvedere and other collections – the Kunsthistorisches Museum especially – in the first half of the 20th century makes the head spin. This was especially true of the 1920s, when the recent collapse of the Habsburg monarchy had prompted both a reorganisation of Vienna’s cultural institutions and a scramble for a new national identity. The answer for the Belvedere was in fact to look back to a more glorious past, specifically the 18th century, which now became a particular focus. Similar motivations were at work after the Second World War, with the addition of a Museum of Medieval Austrian Art. Of the 300-odd medieval works in the collection today – split between the Upper Belvedere and the former Palace Stables of the Lower Belvedere – only four were present when the palace was opened to the public in 1781.

The curators of ‘300 Years’ have risen to the challenge of unravelling the knotty history of the museum in the 20th century. Ziaja points to the fact that the Upper Belvedere was the venue for the signing of the State Treaty in 1955, which marked the end of the Allied occupation and the re-establishment of Austrian sovereignty; the palace was, she says, ‘an important anchor for national identity’. But the Nazi era and its aftermath is given appropriate attention here, with exhibits of acquisitions during that period revealing the close ties between the museum’s directorship of the time and National Socialist policies. ‘So we also have these holdings in the collection that are quite problematic,’ Ziaja says, ‘and one needs to deal with it, but it’s complicated.’

The issue of restitution looms large over all of this, even if the wall labels that refer to it are small. The most high-profile restitution case to date – from the Nazi era at least – involved the Belvedere, which, along with the Austrian government, took on a villainous aspect when it fought between 1999 and 2006 to keep five Klimt paintings that had been seized from the home of the wealthy Jewish couple Ferdinand and Adele Bloch Bauer. One of the works, the extraordinary gold-ground portrait of Adele, famously became the most expensive painting ever sold (up to that point) after the group was returned to the couple’s heirs. A subtle acknowledgement of that episode in the Belvedere’s history is represented here by the shimmering, almost pointillist Schloss Kammer on the Attersee III (1908/10), which was proved to have been donated to the gallery by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer in 1936.

The last restitution the Belvedere made was Egon Schiele’s Four Trees (1917) in 2020; so careful has the museum’s provenance research been in recent years, says Ziaja, that, ‘No, there shouldn’t be any surprises.’ An Avenue in Monet’s Garden (1902) by the Impressionist master is being considered for restitution. The Coachmen’s Quarrel (1828), a painting by the Biedermeier shoemaker-cum-painter Michael Neder, has passed restitution prerequisites under the Austrian Art Restitution Act, but heirs of the original owners (one of whom was killed in the Izbica Ghetto in Poland) have yet to be found. How much work museums are required to do to find heirs is one of many grey areas in this complex field. In their capacity as centres of art-historical research, however, they are well placed to spot anomalies and gaps in provenance. Scrolling through the Belvedere’s Instagram account after my visit, I was interested to see the museum had posted a (brilliant) photograph, presumably taken in the 1930s, of a group of well-dressed teenagers playfighting, overlooked by a mock-indignant housemaid. Hanging on the wall, partially obscured by a pair of upturned teenage legs, is a landscape by Carl Moll that the museum thinks, from research done for his catalogue raisonné, went missing when the family fled the Nazi regime. ‘Who knows this artwork?’ the caption asks.

Still Water (1894) Fernand Khnopff. Belvedere, Vienna

In looking back through the museum’s history, especially since the turn of the 20th century, Ziaja has come full-circle. ‘The origin of this institution [the Moderne Galerie] was contemporary, radical and artist-initiated, and I think that’s very important for its identity today.’ That identity has, since 2011, encompassed Belvedere 21, a structure originally designed by Karl Schwanzer as the Austrian Pavilion for the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, after which it was reassembled in the Schweizergarten, just south of the Belvedere. It’s a slick modernist space that very happily accommodates works from the permanent collection – mainly Austrian artists from the last century, from Herbert Bayer and Maria Lassnig to Franz West and Valie Export – amid a temporary exhibition programme. Like the Secession before it, ‘if we do solo shows of artists and they make new work for the exhibition, we try to acquire them,’ Ziaja says. A 15-minute walk from the Upper Belvedere through almost uninterrupted green space, Belvedere 21 will be connected to the two older venues this summer via an outdoor sculpture display featuring work by Kara Walker, Lawrence Weiner and Louise Bourgeois, among others. And Bourgeois’s early paintings will be given their own show at the Lower Belvedere later in the year, indicating that, while most international art displayed here has some kind of Austrian connection, that rule can be bent occasionally. ‘Her work has not been on view much in the local context,’ Ziaja explains, ‘so this is something we felt needed to be done.’

In the grand halls and enfilades of the Upper Belvedere, empty spaces have already appeared ahead of some light renovation work and an anniversary-inspired collection rehang, which will be completed this month. Some of those Secession-bought European works have also been transferred to the Lower Belvedere for the exhibition ‘Klimt: Inspired by Van Gogh, Rodin, Matisse…’ (until 29 May), a collaboration with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. But there’s still more than enough to take in, from the dazzle of the remaining Klimts and the psychological intensity of the Schieles to the smaller, quieter surprises – my favourites being some mesmerisingly spare still lifes from 1754 by the obscure artist Anna Maria Punz and the wonderful expressions of the crowd figures in the Salzburg painter Conrad Laib’s Crucifixion (1449).

Somehow though, despite the Austrian thread running through this collection, as you wander the building – not forgetting to stop by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s extraordinary Character Heads in their circular tower room – a sense of coherence proves elusive. I suspect this has something to do with the magnificence of the palace itself, its writhing baroque plaster figures, its trompe-l’oeil wall paintings and neoclassical ceiling frescos competing for attention. When I think of the challenge the curators have here, I think of Prince Eugene’s animal-keepers, wrestling their charges into their various enclosures, making sure the lion doesn’t eat the deer and the vultures don’t prey on the monkeys. The Belvedere is still something of a menagerie – but a fascinating one at that.

From the March 2023 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.