Europe is rich in important picture galleries. But how did their fame spread in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? The exhibition Princely Splendour – The Power of Pomp in Prince Eugene’s Winterpalais reveals how superb collections became widely known via lavishly illustrated publications, so-called Galeriewerke or “gallery albums”. With the aid of numerous loans from all over Europe, the show traces the history of this type of publication and demonstrates how it contributed to successively making important private collections accessible to the public.
Originally conceived as diplomatic gifts, the gallery albums on display may be considered forerunners of modern art and exhibition catalogues. The show presents splendid publications, portraits of princely patrons, from the French Sun King Louis XIV to the Austrian Reformist Emperor Joseph II, as well as first-rate paintings from exquisite collections. Thanks to the reconstruction of a “Baroque hanging”, which also serves as an atmospheric introduction to the exhibition theme, Prince Eugene’s Winterpalais becomes an exhibit itself. The installation of the paintings is modelled on what was common practice in the picture galleries of aristocrats, abbeys, and monasteries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as well as in the first museums in today’s sense.
Since the range of gallery pictures was limited, it was only through their dissemination in printed form that it became possible to take advantage of the rich propagandistic potential of picture galleries. As one of many highlights, the exhibition presents a lavishly illustrated work from 1660, the Theatrum Pictorium (Picture Theatre) by the Brussels court painter David Teniers.
Under August III, elector of Saxony and king of Poland, the genre of the gallery album or Galeriewerk had another heyday. The Dresden Galeriewerk outdid everything that had appeared to date in terms of splendour, elegance, and painstaking prepress preparation. Also, art historical texts and aesthetic explanations increasingly gained importance. The period under review stretches from 1600 to the Age of Enlightenment around 1800, with its pioneering opening of Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery initiated by the great reformer Joseph II of Austria. The small publication compiled on this occasion offers insights into the concept and organisation of the new hanging, which when compared to those of other European galleries, presented itself in a completely revised and programmatic order. Entirely in line with the spirit of the Enlightenment, the opening of aristocratic collections to a new, wider public went hand in hand with the evolution of such gallery catalogues.
Princely Splendour – The Power of Pomp devotes itself to the history of gallery catalogues from a pan-European perspective and takes us from Paris, Brussels, England, and Florence to Dresden and across Germany, as far as the court of the Russian Empress Catherine II.