Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller (1793–1865) is considered the most important Austrian artist of the 19th century. On the one hand, he produced outstanding works in the artistic disciplines prevalent at the time – portraiture, landscape, still life, and genre painting – and, on the other hand, he was always, throughout his life, in search of accomplishment, striding new paths that led the way into the future. On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his death on 23 August, the Upper Belvedere honours this most prominent painter of the Biedermeier with a presentation of masterpieces from the Belvedere’s rich Waldmüller collection starting on 17 July 2015. At first glance, Waldmüller’s genre scenes and pictures of children from the period of Viennese Vormärz give the impression of unperturbed ‘Biedermeier’ bliss. Yet through his advocacy of the study of nature and painting en plein air, he pointed the way into the future. Frequently misunderstood as a painter of Biedermeier idylls, Waldmüller, like most of his Austrian contemporaries, had attended the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts and modelled his painting technique on that of the Old Masters, yet in his later years sharply criticised the Academy’s teaching methods. A member of the Academy himself, he postulated that the education it offered was inefficient and that two-year master courses would suffice to recognise talent and train young artists. The funds thus set free, he thought, should be used to promote young artists and buy their works.
With some of his most fascinating works dating from after 1848, Waldmüller’s career went far beyond the Biedermeier period. If his painting initially still betrayed Neo-Classicist traits, it became increasingly realistic over time. An exponent of ‘Biedermeier Realism’, he was a contemporary of Caspar David Friedrich, but interpreted natural phenomena by no means religiously. As one of the major practitioners of a meticulous description of reality, he focused on light as the central subject of his late work.
By the end of his life, Historicism had overtaken Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller and his art. In 1865, the year of his death, the Ringstraße was opened, with buildings along the boulevard erected in the Historicist style and their interiors decorated accordingly. As a parallel development, a new type of landscape painting emerged, which in Austria was referred to as ‘Atmospheric Impressionism’ or ‘Atmospheric Realism’. After his death, Waldmüller fell into oblivion for several decades. Yet the interest in his art was revived around 1900, when the Secessionists recognised him as a precursor and pioneer of their approach to art, as he had similarly regarded outdoor painting, the ‘rendering of sunlight’, and the advance of artistic expression through the study of nature the primary tasks of painting. In the 1903 catalogue of the Modern Gallery, Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller was described as ‘the greatest painter who had ever emerged from Old Viennese genre’, since he had soon developed into ‘one of the earliest painters of open-air sunlight by virtue of his own volition’. For this, the members of the Secession admired Waldmüller and referred to him as ‘primal Secessionist’. Moreover, they held him in high esteem for his unconventional attitude towards the Academy and his plea to purchase works by young artists. Starting in 1898, works by Waldmüller were regularly acquired for the Modern Gallery at the Lower Belvedere. When the Imperial Picture Gallery and the Austrian State Gallery merged in 1921, twelve pictures by the artist owned by the imperial family were added to the State Gallery’s 39 acquisitions. This illustrates that the world’s largest collection of works by this artist, which is now held by the Belvedere, is the result of the Secessionists’ appreciation of the master.
The Waldmüller Archive at the Belvedere’s Research Centre is based on research conducted by Bruno Grimschitz and Rupert Feuchtmüller. In 1957, Bruno Grimschitz published his Waldmüller monograph, including a catalogue raisonné. Relying on this publication, Rupert Feuchtmüller published his catalogue raisonné of Waldmüller’s works in 1996 and thankfully left his comprehensive archive to the Belvedere.