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Albertina Museum Presents Masterpieces from the Heyday of Austrian Watercolour Painting
Albertina director Klaus Albrecht Schroeder (R) leads the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (C) and Minister Michael Spindelegger (L) during the exhibition 'Jakob and Rudolf von Alt. At his Majesty's Service' at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, Austria, 08 April 2010. The exhibition runs until 24 May 2010. EPA/HERBERT NEUBAUER.

VIENNA.- With its exhibition Jakob and Rudolf von Alt. At His Majesty’s Service, on view through 24 May 2010, the Albertina is presenting masterpieces from the heyday of Austrian watercolour painting. The townscapes and landscapes on display were meant to reveal to Ferdinand I the beauties of the Austrian Empire and some of its adjacent lands. This is the first time that an overview of this series, which consists of large-sized and highly finished watercolours and was made by order of His Majesty, is offered on such a comprehensive scale.

It was the best and most renowned watercolourists that Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria commissioned with the compilation of a “picture book” of the most beautiful regions and most prominent spots across the Austrian monarchy and its neighbouring countries. Eduard Gurk was the first to be entrusted with the project, which was presumably launched in 1830. Soon Jakob Alt, who worked in a team with his son Rudolf, also came to be involved in the commission, and several years later, the artists were joined by the history painter Leander Russ. The last watercolours date from 1849, one year after Emperor Ferdinand’s abdication during the Revolutions of 1848. The Albertina preserves 227 out of these altogether three hundred impressive and highly decorative works. Further examples are accommodated in the Austrian National Library’s picture archives and at Konopiště Castle near Prague. That the series was created over a lengthy period of time is also reflected in the large spectrum of themes addressed in the pictures. The scope of subject matter ranges from depictions of prominent buildings and panoramic views of towns to exceptionally beautiful scenery and renderings of social life in rural and urban environments. If the focus was initially primarily on vedute, the thematic variety widened noticeably when Ferdinand ascended the throne in 1835. No longer did the imperial family function merely as a patron, but its members also appeared on the scene as protagonists: depictions of coronation ceremonies or documentations of travels undertaken by the emperor and his entourage were meant to demonstrate the imperial family’s presence, even in remote territories of the monarchy.

The most splendid contributions to this topographical panorama from the pinnacle of Austrian watercolour painting were made by Jakob and Rudolf von Alt.

Townscape and Landscape
The Viennese veduta, highly valued as a topographical genre around 1800, served as the artistic starting point for Emperor Ferdinand’s peepbox series. The term veduta refers to the depiction of a town, a part of a town, or some scenery done directly from nature. As the “realistic” rending of a landscape, it is opposed to the subjectively conceived “ideal landscape”.

The addition of intimate renderings of townscapes to bird’s-eye and panoramic views proved to be essential for the development of the Viennese veduta. In the eighteenth century, close-up views of the Viennese townscape began to become the subject of engravings, for whose colourization borrowings from contemporary Viennese landscape painting were made. For vedute, this gradual approximation between landscape painting and veduta art meant the combination of painterly qualities and topographical realities within a pictorial unity.

The striving for a truthful rendering of reality and the tradition of the Viennese veduta were the prerequisites for a group of artists who pursued a new form of landscape art outside of the Vienna Academy, which was then committed to the ideal landscape approach. The first efforts by Jakob Alt in the genre of veduta painting were inspired from the works by this generation of artists. As early as 1817, with his View of Vienna from the Spinner at the Cross, Jakob Alt succeeded in producing a vista that depicted all the details of the town and simultaneously described its atmospheric qualities. His son Rudolf von Alt was subsequently able to start from these creative principles and by developing them further, he had surpassed his father’s artistic accomplishments by the mid-1830s.

The “Peepbox Paintings” of Emperor Ferdinand I
It was the leading watercolourists that Archduke Ferdinand (as from 1835, Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria) entrusted with the compilation of a “picture book” of the most beautiful and outstanding spots of the Austrian monarchy and its adjacent lands. The first assignments went to Eduard Gurk, presumably starting around 1830, and soon also involved Jakob Alt, who worked in a team with his son Rudolf. Later on they were joined by the history painter Leander Russ. The last watercolours date from 1849, one year after Ferdinand’s abdication during the Revolutions of 1848. The Albertina preserves 227 out of these more than 300 large-sized and highly finished watercolours; further examples are accommodated in the Austrian National Library and at Konopiště Castle near Prague. The lengthy period during which these works were executed goes hand in hand with a broad thematic scope, ranging from prominent buildings, panoramic views of towns, and scenic beauties to renderings of urban and rural social life.

That mention was made of a peepbox, which according to Ludwig Hevesi, Rudolf von Alt’s biographer, was used to view the works, prompted their being referred to as “peepbox paintings” in art historical literature. The latest research, however, has revealed that the works preserved in Vienna are unlikely to have been viewed with the aid of an “optical apparatus”, contrary to those at Konopiště: the former’s condition and brilliant colours are much too perfect. Initially, the works may have been intended as peepbox paintings. However, in order to experience their effect,
the utilization of an optical device was merely a possibility, but never a necessity, as is impressively demonstrated by this display of works by Jakob and Rudolf von Alt, Eduard Gurk, and Leander Russ, the first comprehensive presentation of a well-protected treasure of Austrian nineteenth-century art.

Emperor Ferdinand I
Ferdinand I was born in Vienna on 19 April 1793, the eldest son of Emperor Francis I and his second wife, Maria Theresa of Naples-Sicily. He suffered from several illnesses, including epilepsy. His physical weakness was in contrast to his intellectual open-mindedness. Ferdinand had many talents and interests: he was musical and had a penchant for the natural sciences, above all botany; moreover, he had a command of five languages.

In 1805, the crown prince was taken to Košice so that he would be safe from Napoleon’s approaching troops; in 1809, he was forced to flee from the French army a second time. In 1815, he travelled through Italy, Switzerland, and France. In 1818, Ferdinand first appeared publicly as the emperor’s official representative, and in 1830 he was crowned King of Hungary. In 1835, Ferdinand succeeded his father as Emperor of Austria; however, still during his lifetime, Francis I had installed a regent’s council that was to run the government on his son’s behalf. Ferdinand’s philanthropic attitude earned him the nickname “The Benign”, which can also be interpreted as a synonym for his political incapability. The unrests of the March Revolution in 1848 prompted Ferdinand to flee to Innsbruck together with the imperial household. He returned to the capital in mid-August, but after the outbreak of the October Revolt, resorted to Olomouc. He abdicated that same year in favour of his nephew, Francis Joseph. Ferdinand and his wife withdrew to Hradčany in Prague, where he died on 29 June 1875.

Eduard Gurk
The Pilgrimage to Mariazell

There are several themes within the group of the peepbox paintings that are treated in more than one sheet. This also holds true for the watercolours dealing with the pilgrimage church of Mariazell, which, in terms of both chronology and subject matter, are closely related to Eduard Gurk’s famous series of watercolours entitled Mahlerische Reise von Wien nach Maria Zell in Steyermark… [Picturesque Journey from Vienna to Mariazell in Styria…]. Thus the selection of the peepbox paintings on display here has been complemented by three examples from the latter, which partly served as direct models for the peepbox watercolours.

The pilgrimage to Mariazell, the Via Sacra, is considered a climax of Marian worship in Central Europe. The sheet depicting a distant view from the Großer Höllstein, a mountain in the Hochschwab range to the southwest of Mariazell, is meant to encourage the spectator to study the morphology of the landscape and rock formations while trying to spot the pilgrimage church announced in the work’s title amidst the widely unpopulated landscape. The interior of the church can finally be admired in a further watercolour of the series. Other vedute show Mariazell from the Bürgeralpe in the northeast and from the west. The artistic achievement of the sheets lies in the visualization of the charming scenery and cultural landscape, as well as in the numerous views of the basilica they offer.

The Vienna Flood Disaster of 1830
These five watercolours by Eduard Gurk deal with a historical incident that entailed dramatic consequences for Vienna: the inundation occurring in late February and early March 1830 because of sudden thaw and which took on catastrophic dimensions, devastating, for example, the suburbs of Roßau and Leopoldstadt, as well as the area near the Augarten. The choice of the subject is singular within the series of the peepbox paintings, although this group is insofar related to other sheets addressing topical historical events as they present members of the imperial family, namely the Archdukes Francis Charles and Ferdinand, who participated in the rescue activities, thereby demonstrating Habsburg charity. Crown Prince Ferdinand gave orders that he be taken to the disaster zone on 1 March 1830. On 2 March he attended to the orphaned eleven-year-old boy Joseph Leykam of Roßau – a scene depicted in two watercolours and subsequently also disseminated by way of prints. The watercolour Leopoldstadt, Jägerzeile, on 2 March 1830 impressively combines topography and a historical event: the course of the Jägerzeile (today’s Praterstraße), directly leading to St Stephen’s Cathedral, is clearly recognizable.

Jakob and Rudolf von Alt
The Journeys to Italy

In 1828, a journey to the Alpine lands took Jakob and Rudolf Alt to Upper Italy. Their first extensive journey to Italy, during which they visited Verona, Vicenza, Padua, and Venice, followed in 1833. In those days, however, the destination proper of travellers to Italy was Rome, with its ancient sites and “classical” landscape surroundings. Father and son Alt were only to reach this city two years later, when they primarily sought out those monuments and spots that were considered worth depicting according to a canon that had been established in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In fact, the sights of Rome and Tivoli – antique edifices, sacred places, and squares and buildings in great natural surroundings – had been the subject of many thousands of views since the fifteenth century. Naples, the Sorrentine Peninsula, and Capri were the southernmost points of Italy that Jakob and Rudolf reached.

Today Rudolf and Jakob Alt are mainly valued as watercolourists who studied their motifs in situ. However, there was no such appreciation for studies at the beginning of their careers. They undertook their travels primarily in order to produce sketches of new motifs. Many of these studies served as designs for the peepbox paintings, which they frequently only completed years later in their studio in Vienna. In the case of these large-sized and highly finished sheets, it is particularly difficult to distinguish between the two artists’ hands, and only the protocol of 1892, in which Rudolf claimed his authorship for some works signed “J. Alt”, has made it possible to attribute them with certitude.

The yield from these journeys to Italy proved to be enormous, with both father and son experiencing a “high”: Rudolf produced the best works of his early period, and Jakob arrived at the pinnacle of his career.

In 1840, Jakob and Rudolf von Alt travelled along the Dalmatian Coast. They went there separately and only met in Zadar (Zara), with Rudolf having come by way of Trieste, while Jakob probably chose the route via Slovenia. Jakob only seems to have reached Dubrovnik (Ragusa), whereas Rudolf travelled on to Kotor (Cattaro). Their undertaking had not only been prompted by the peepbox project, but also and primarily by an assignment from the Viennese publisher Heinrich Friedrich Müller, for whose topographical compilation Picturesque Austria, published between 1840 and 1846, they produced numerous vedute.

Dalmatia had only been part of the monarchy since 1815 and was being developed for commerce and transport following the foundation of the Austrian Lloyd’s in Trieste in 1833. However, the region was no new discovery for the arts, for it had been well documented since Venetian times.

Zadar (Zara), Sibenik (Sebenico), Trogir (Traù), Split (Spalato), Dubrovnik (Ragusa), and Kotor (Cattaro) numbered among the main destinations on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. The compilation of Dalmatian motifs turned out to be particularly comprehensive and systematic, and the imposing rigour and coarseness of both nature and architecture, in their contrast to the Mediterranean flair of the coast, are impressively conveyed by the watercolours made during that journey.

The sheets from the journey to Dalmatia constitute the last homogeneous group Rudolf contributed to the series of the peepbox paintings. His marriage to Hermine Oswald in 1841 and the couple’s move to their own living quarters seem to have loosened the collaboration between father and son, which had once been so close.

From Biedermeier to the Vienna Secession
Rudolf von Alt lived to be 93 years old, but his creativity did not decline even in old age. The works dating from the last years of his life still display a high degree of expressiveness and monumentality, as well as an unconventional treatment of the motifs he tackled. From the 1870s onwards, he was interested in the manifestations of nature in changing light conditions and the rendering of atmospheric impressions, similar to the French Impressionists. His late works were highly valued by the avant-garde surrounding Gustav Klimt and exhibited at the Vienna Secession, whose honorary president he was.

The high points he experienced from the 1860s onwards had been preceded by a profound crisis. The artist was demoralized by his enormous workload and downhearted because he felt that he was not receiving the recognition that would have been his due. Moreover, he was obliged to maintain a large family. All of these burdens were reflected in his artistic expression. The remedy was found in a change of scenery: he travelled to the Crimea. Thanks to the unfamiliar landscape and the unusual light atmospheres, he arrived at a generous rendering of what he perceived. Further travels – first and foremost to Italy – followed, which resulted in large-sized works studied directly from nature. Rudolf von Alt spent the last two decades of his life primarily in Vienna and in the summer resorts of Bad Gastein and Bad Goisern. His imagery comprised motifs from his immediate surroundings: the view of the Kitschelt iron foundry from his apartment in Skodagasse or the scenic beauties observed from his living quarters when he was on holiday.

With his oeuvre, Rudolf von Alt made a substantial contribution to Austrian art, his life and work spanning from the Biedermeier period to the Vienna Secession.

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