Neoclassicism originated in Italy and French painting provided impetus that pointed the way ahead. Artists deliberately turned away from the dramatic movement and opulence of the Baroque style and aspired to calm expression and clarity of outline.
In addition to works by the leading masters of Neoclassicism Jacques-Louis David and François Gérard, the Belvedere owns paintings by other key artists, such as Josef Rebell, Jakob Philipp Hackert, Angelica Kauffmann, and Friedrich Heinrich Füger.
Subjects from history and literature were particularly popular in the era of Neoclassicism and so history painting enjoyed the greatest prestige. Yet current events also made an appearance. These first emerged in French painting to serve Napoleon’s propagandist ambitions, of which the equestrian painting showing Napoleon on the Great St. Bernhard Pass by Jacques-Louis David (1801) is a striking example.
At approximately the same time, the French artist François Gérard painted the family portrait The Imperial Count Moritz Christian von Fries with his Wife Maria Theresia Josepha and their Son Moritz (c. 1804). This large-scale painting reveals clear, bold colors and precise lines in contrast to the British painting tradition that is characterized by spirited brushwork and an execution that tended more to suggestion than description. Angelica Kauffmann, who lived in England for many years, conveys an impression of this painting style in her portrait of John Simpson (1773), one of her most superb portrayals.
The most versatile Austrian artist in the period around 1800 was Friedrich Heinrich Füger. He was the Director of the Vienna Art Academy and was later in charge of the Imperial Picture Gallery at the Belvedere. Among his contemporaries he was renowned for his history painting but posterity has remembered him most for his portraits. The painting of his wife, the actress Josefa Hortensia Füger (c. 1797), draws out the personality of his sitter with great sensitivity while at the same time adopting the current mode of Western European portraiture in his own personal idiom.
The move toward a true-to-life depiction of the visible world in the late eighteenth century is most evident in landscape painting. Jakob Philipp Hackert, who frequently traveled in Italy, is a case in point. Even early on, he aimed to depict a recognizable scene, as demonstrated by his work Waterfalls at Tivoli (1790). A few years later, Josef Rebell captured sun-drenched views from around Naples in brilliant daylight, anticipating the realistic landscapes of the so-called Biedermeier era.
The Romantic movement in the early nineteenth century is represented at the Belvedere by a number of important works. The superbly painted landscapes by Caspar David Friedrich, a leading figure in Romanticism, are not confined to a mere representation of the world around but try to fathom the relationship between humanity and nature. The sandstone columns in his Rocky Landscape in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains of 1822–23, tower upward, dramatic and sublime, making the area in the foreground appear dangerous and practically impassable.
By contrast, the Tyrolean artist Josef Anton Koch aimed to capture divine creation in his images of nature, as shown in his painting Bernese Oberland (1815). By transforming the classical ideal landscape into the heroic mountainous scene he aspired, as he himself stated, to give a total impression of the essence of the Alps.
The philosophy of a group of young artists, the Nazarenes, pointed in another direction. In 1809 they had formed the Brotherhood of St. Luke (Lukasbund) in Vienna as a reaction against academic principles. They refused to draw from antique models and rejected Baroque colorism. Instead, the group returned to medieval ideals, they were dedicated to Early Renaissance Italian painting, and emulated artists such as Albrecht Dürer and Raphael. Their members strove for serenity both in the compositions and spirit of their works. They concentrated on religious subjects and tried to give tangible expression to their faith. In 1810 they embarked for Rome. One member of the group was the Viennese artist Johann Evangelist Scheffer von Leonhardshoff, who died so prematurely and whose Dead Saint Cecilia is a masterpiece of the Austrian Nazarenes.
Josef von Führich, Leopold Kupelwieser, Ludwig Ferdinand Schnorr von Carolsfeld, and Moritz von Schwind were all artists who worked on the cusp between religious Romanticism and history painting. Aiming to secure the status of the Austrian Empire, which had been founded in 1804, they selected subjects from the history of the Habsburgs that revealed a close connection between the imperial family and the Catholic Church. The founder of the dynasty Rudolf of Habsburg and Emperor Maximilian I were frequently depicted.
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