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Exhibition at Upper Belvedere honors Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller on the 150th anniversary of his death
Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, On Corpus Christi Morning, 1857. Oil on wood, 65 x 82 cm. On loan from the Society of Friends of the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere.

VIENNA.- 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. ‘Waldmüller was an innovator and revolutionary of art. He harked back to tradition and simultaneously demanded the abolition of the academies. In this he was similarly radical as the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, who in the 1960s – about 100 years after Waldmüller – demanded the closure of opera houses in order to make room for new developments,’ says Agnes Husslein-Arco, Director of the Belvedere and 21er Haus.

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.

Portraiture and Landscape
Around 1820, Waldmüller had his breakthrough as a portraitist. Especially in his early period and depending on his clients, these portraits still exhibited heavily idealised traits. This, however, coincided with early realist tendencies, such as in the impressive portrait of the 83- year-old Rosina Wieser. The artist received his commissions from the upper middle classes in and around Vienna, as well as from Dresden, Leipzig, and Frankfurt am Main. Moreover, he was also entrusted with portrait commissions by members of the aristocracy.

The ‘truth of nature’ became his artistic credo. Throughout his life, Waldmüller sought to perfect his art, and in all artistic genres strove for an unadulterated reproduction of what he saw. He gained crucial impressions during his journeys to Italy and Paris, while he preferred the Salzkammergut and the surroundings of Vienna to find inspiration for his landscape motifs. Eager to improve his compositions, he elaborated on the contrast between near and far and sought to plausibly render the view of a valley. Around 1830, the landscape genre grew more and more important in Waldmüller’s work. This also manifested itself in his portraiture, where the landscape became an integral part of the composition, such as in his Portrait of the Family Eltz or the portraits of the Apraxin brothers and sisters. But there are also paintings – like those showing maple trees near Ischl or the Large Prater Landscape – in which Waldmüller ‘portrayed’ the nature of his native country as such.

Children and Genre Scenes
Waldmüller had long been known for his genre paintings. However, the joy expressed by children in such paintings as Christmas Morning or Corpus Christi Morning and his amorous encounters in rural settings and country weddings represent just one, albeit important, aspect of Waldmüller’s oeuvre. His crowded compositions also give us a glimpse of how the artist went about his work. Inspired by the tableaux vivants popular at the time, Waldmüller composed his scenes with the aid of models, whom he asked to pose for him in his studio one by one or in groups in order to paint them. By his own account, Waldmüller was not able to work ‘from memory or on the basis of a drawing’. This accounts for the fact that in his Lower Austrian Peasant Wedding individual groups of figures seem to be detachable although they are part of a pictorial whole. He found his subjects in Vienna’s rural surroundings: there are no genre paintings by Waldmüller set in a bourgeois drawing room, like in the art of Josef Danhauser or Friedrich von Amerling. In their appeal, these themes corresponded with the taste of the artist’s time, illustrating placid everyday life or special feasts and celebrations or transporting instructive moral messages.

The pictures of the Vienna Woods, which Waldmüller painted during the 1850s, constitute a very special work group, as they show elements of both genre and landscape painting. ‘In their concentration of the colour scheme on a limited number of blue, green, and brown hues, they mark the culmination of Waldmüller’s efforts to depict atmosphere and fill his pictures with light and air. But unlike the Impressionists in Paris several years later, he avoided the dissolution of form by individual brushstrokes,’ exhibition curator Rolf Johannsen points out. It is these paintings that make Waldmüller reach out far beyond his epoch.

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