In a sensual, narrative style, Historicist art establishes a connection to bygone art epochs, with depictions of historical events, staged portraits, and allegories as the predominant subjects. The diversity of the times is reflected in the pictures by the history painter Franz Defregger, the unconventional Anton Romako, and the Orientalist Leopold Carl Müller, as well as the Baroque formal repertoire of Hans Canon. In Vienna, this epoch is also called the Makart era, after its most prominent representative. Many of Makart’s principal works are on display in the Belvedere, which is home to the premier collection of art from the Ringstrasse era.
Born in Salzburg in 1840, Hans Makart had studied with Piloty in Munich before coming to Vienna in 1869 at the emperor’s behest. In 1879 he was appointed professor of history painting at the Academy. His breathtakingly sensual paintings are striking for their technical brilliance, something Makart took pleasure in publicly demonstrating at studio parties. Basically, all of his works – including the superb portraits Magdalena Plach (1870) and Eugenie Scheuffelen (1867) – can be regarded as superb dramatic stagings. The same opulence is apparent in Makart’s allegories of The Five Senses (1872–79) and his monumental painting Bacchus and Ariadne (1873/74), which was originally designed to be the curtain in the Komische Oper (Ringtheater). This work, like The Nile Hunt (1876) and Venice Pays Homage to Caterina Cornaro (1872/73), belongs to the group of sensational pictures. The latter work, which was presented during the Vienna World’s Fair, combines in exemplary fashion historical reality with a fictitious pictorial splendour and a staged image enhancement of the middle class. Hans Canon was another who cultivated the formal language of the Baroque, through his references to Rubens and Rembrandt. One of his finest works, The Lodge of Saint John (1873), which was also shown at the World’s Fair, pictorializes the concept of ideological tolerance. The positive response elicited by this painting allowed Canon to return to Vienna, where he established himself beside Makart as a portrait painter of Vienna’s high society.
Among the artists of the day in Vienna was Anselm Feuerbach, who, like Makart, enjoyed international acclaim. Born the son of an archaeologist in Speyer, he had spent a long time in Italy before being summoned in 1872 to the Academy in Vienna. Feuerbach, like his successor at the Academy, Hans Makart, soon distanced himself from history painting. His subjects are often mythological in nature – as, for example, his Orpheus and Eurydice (1869); his works, in contrast to those of Makart, demonstrate a strict formal structure and a reserved use of colour.
Whereas Makart and Feuerbach abandoned narrative history painting, Anton Romako transformed it by interpreting crucial situations from a psychological point of view. In his picture Tegetthoff in the Naval Battle of Lissa I (1878–1880), instead of depicting a conventional sea battle panorama, he presents the decisive moment in the battle as a drama, clearly evident in the reactions of the participants. Besides the high degree of psychological content, Romako’s portraits – for example, his Italian Fisherboy (c. 1870–75) – also display an application of painting techniques that was unconventional for the time, but which was greatly admired and adopted by the Austrian Expressionists, above all by Kokoschka.
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