The core holdings of the Belvedere’s Modern Gallery, opened in 1903, were acquired in order to provide a comprehensive
showcase for contemporary Austrian art and to place it in an international context, positioning it within the framework of
the major art movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The first substantial additions to the Modern Gallery’s
collection came from exhibitions organized by the Secession. They form the foundation of the Belvedere’s collection – with
art from the fin de siècle and Gustav Klimt’s Golden Period as the centrepiece. In addition to the largest number of paintings
by Gustav Klimt in the world, the collection brings together masterpieces by such artists as Hans Makart, Anton Romako, Arnold
Böcklin, Jean-François Millet, Emil Jakob Schindler, Carl Schuch, Auguste Rodin, Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet,
Edgar Degas, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
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.