Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 21, 2016
Monica Kurzel-Runtscheiner, ed. Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna's Imperial Collections at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Exh. cat. Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2015. 272 pp.; 185 color ills.; 10 b/w ills. Paper $60.00 (9780300210866)
Exhibition schedule: Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, February 15–May 10, 2015; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, June 14–September 13, 2015; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, October 18, 2015–January 17, 2016
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Attributed to Balthasar Moll. Carousel Sleigh (ca. 1740/50) Gilded wood, metal, velvet, braids. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The exhibition Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collections at the Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM) is the result of collaboration among the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and the KHM in Vienna. The show contained nearly one hundred paintings and artifacts that illustrated the development of courtly patronage and representation over the course of more than half a millennium. Curated by Monica Kurzel-Runtscheiner, the exhibition took a broad multidisciplinary approach that focuses on the history of the imperial family and the range of visual and figural media used to embody and express the political status of the Habsburg dynasty. In addition to portraiture and other visual arts, the exhibition showcased decorative objects, late medieval armor, ceremonial carriages, and nineteenth-century official attire. This allowed museum visitors to experience the changes in dynastic self-representation as well as courtly ceremonies and protocol, ranging from fifteenth-century knightly culture to highly ornate baroque fetes and nineteenth-century official attire.

The Habsburgs first acquired political prominence during the thirteenth century, when Rudolf I was crowned King of the Romans and secured control over Austria and Styria. The dynasty’s power expanded considerably in the late fifteenth century. In fewer than fifty years, a series of remarkably successful marriage arrangements steadily expanded Habsburg rule to include Bohemia, Hungary, the Low Countries, and Spain with all its overseas possessions. Thus, by 1526 Charles V and his brother Ferdinand I controlled a truly global empire that stretched as far as Mexico City and Manila. Rather than establishing a single empire, however, the brothers established the Spanish and Austrian branches of the dynasty. Despite losing the Iberian Empire early in the eighteenth century, the Habsburgs successfully consolidated their power in Central Europe, where they remained the leading dynasty until 1918. Over these five centuries, members of the imperial family commissioned and collected a wide range of artworks that communicated the dynasty’s status and prestige throughout the continent.

The exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art was organized chronologically into three parts. The first section covered the “dawn of the dynasty” in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the opening rooms this segment accentuated especially the courtly and artistic patronage of Emperor Maximilian I. The dominant features were an arrangement of two jousting knight and the emperor’s own armor made by Lorenz Helmschmid around 1492. This display and the surrounding paintings evoked the ruler’s support of tournaments and the knightly culture that facilitated the demonstration of his princely power, which earned him the reputation as “the last knight.” Accompanying this centerpiece was Albrecht Dürer’s eleven-and-a-half-foot-tall Triumphal Arch (1515). It is one of the largest woodcuts ever created, and its iconographic program glorifies the emperor and his dynasty. The central feature of the image is the presentation of Maximilian’s ancestry connecting him to medieval and ancient emperors as well as mythical heroes. Interwoven into the genealogy are scenes from the emperor’s life, personifications of his virtues, and depictions of battles. This piece was the culmination of Maximilian’s exploitation of the new print medium to fashion and disseminate his image as a knightly hero and the highest-ranking Christian monarch.

Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Charles V also sought to promote his military prowess and political achievements. Yet rather than using knightly culture to promote himself, the new emperor used tapestries and portraits to convey his status and triumphs. Along with his aunt and sister, Charles commissioned several series of tapestries including his Conquest of Tunis (1546–50) and his Coat of Arms (ca. 1540). The emperor’s numerous portraits were represented by Leone Leoni’s famous bust that portrays the emperor in a breastplate evoking his military victory over Protestant princes at Mühlberg in 1547. The base of the bust depicts the imperial eagle and two nude figures, possibly Mars and Minerva, further emphasizing the emperor’s maiestas and imperial heritage.

In addition to the eras of Maximilian I and Charles V, the remaining portion of this section concentrated on the emergence of Kunstkammer and Wunderkammern in the sixteenth century. The exhibition contained examples from the collections of Archduke Ferdinand II and Emperor Rudolf II. During his life, Ferdinand accumulated a large collection of arms and armor, works of art, and books at his residence at Ambras Castle in Tyrol. On display in the show were a coral saber, suits of armor, and several items from the archduke’s Kunstkammer, including a pitcher made of sea coconut believed to have special medicinal properties. Following Ferdinand’s death, Emperor Rudolf II acquired the entire collection, but the conditions of the purchase prevented him from incorporating it into his own Kunstkammer in Prague. Although Rudolf’s collection was extensive and diverse, it was primarily represented in the exhibition by paintings inspired by mythological and biblical themes, including Titian’s Danae (1554–65) and Correggio’s Jupiter and Io (ca. 1530/32), the latter portraying the god as a gray cloud embracing and kissing the sitting nymph.

The second part of the show covered the interaction of art and politics during the Baroque era. The central features of these galleries were a mid-eighteenth-century horse-drawn carriage and carousel sleigh used during processions at the court of Empress Maria Theresa. The “Berline” Carriage was made for special guests at the Viennese court. As a result, its panels are devoid of heraldic symbols, but are covered with a red ornamental design on golden background. The canopy and coachman’s bench are decorated with red velvet that was used along with gilded brass clasps on the horses’ harnesses. Complementing the carriage was a carousel sleigh. This piece reflects the culmination of Baroque sleighs with fully gilded and richly carved skids and supports that barely touch the seemingly floating, shell-shaped box. Affixed to the back of the seat is a small cushioned platform designed for the driver, who steered a single horse outfitted with an elaborate harness made of velvet, gold embroidery, and spherical bells. In addition to these two large items, this portion of the exhibition also included a number of paintings of Habsburg monarchs, among them Jan Thomas’s portrait of Emperor Leopold I and several representations of Empress Maria Theresa and her family. Perhaps most renowned among these was Pompeo Batoni’s double portrait of the brothers Emperor Joseph II and Duke Leopold of Tuscany standing in front of a view of Rome. The setting of this piece connects the two young Habsburg rulers to the Roman Empire, thus promoting the family’s dynastic claims in the wake of two military conflicts with Prussia.

The third and final section was dedicated primarily to court uniforms and dresses from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly highlighting the era of Emperor Franz Josef. Rather than devoting himself to collecting art as his predecessors had done, he sought to establish a modern state with a growing body of bureaucratic and military officers, which was reflected in the use of uniforms at the court. The costumes on display included those of the imperial couple and several distinguished members of the Viennese court. The most notable items were Emperor Franz Joseph’s “Hungarian” field marshal uniform and a black velvet evening gown belonging to the Empress Elizabeth, or “Sisi.” This elegant dress has an off-the-shoulder neckline with small puff sleeves, the narrow Viennese wasp waist promoted by the empress, and a long skirt adorned with two bands of ruffles. The aristocratic attire included a uniform of a Bohemian nobleman and two traditional costumes of Hungarian magnates. Each of the latter comprised an embroidered dolman with a belt; an open, fur-lined and embellished coat; and narrow pants with knee-high boots. The last several items included in the exhibition were uniforms belonging to court officials, which consisted of dark-green tailcoats with rich gold embroidery and long trousers with double gold stripes. The overall selection offered a concise overview of the sumptuous attire that epitomized the splendor of the Viennese court and especially of the ruling dynasty.

As is customary, the accompanying catalogue is divided into two sections: five general essays and the ninety-three catalogue entries. The first two essays provide an outline of the history of the Habsburg collections held at the KHM and of the dynasty’s artistic patronage over the course of five centuries. The subsequent three contributions follow the tripartite division of the exhibition and examine the central theme of each section. While the first essay concentrates on the late medieval and Renaissance tournaments, the second one explores Baroque carriages and sleighs, while the final piece considers the evolution of official attire over the course of the nineteenth century. In addition to providing the necessary historical background, these three essays examine the objects’ contribution to the development of the dynasty’s self-representation. Finally, all five essays contain ample references to the items included in the catalogue and supplementary illustrations of other relevant pieces that were not incorporated into the exhibition.

Habsburg Splendor provided a U.S. audience with a unique opportunity to see a selection of works of art from the imperial collections in the KHM. Its chronological scope gave the show and the catalogue the character of a broad survey of the development of artistic forms in the service of dynastic promotion. This approach enabled the organizers to include a number of famed items in the exhibition. Yet this design also made for a somewhat disjointed impression, where the only unifying theme among the three sections of the show was Habsburg patronage. Despite this minor weakness, the exhibition and its catalogue present an illuminating overview of the complex and changing world of early modern and modern dynastic patronage and artistic collections by showcasing some of the remarkable items assembled by Habsburg rulers over the course of five centuries.

Jan Volek
PhD candidate, Department of History, University of Minnesota–Twin Cities

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.