The History of the Viennese Picture Gallery in the early 20th century. From the Imperial Collection to the Modern Museum, by Wencke Deiters

Hanging by Glück, Gallery I, Picture Gallery, Kunsthistorisches Museum, photograph from 1913, copyright: KHM-Museumsverband.

In the early 20th century the Viennese picture gallery of the Kunsthistorisches Museum undergoes a radical change – from the imperial collection to a modern museum. In 1911 the first art historian, Gustav Glück, takes over the leadership of the picture gallery, a position previously reserved for painters – and carries the title of director from 1913 onwards. Glück introduces new highlights from his very beginnings and guides the establishment into modernism: he starts to change the appearance of the old imperial collection with scientific claim – by means of a modern new presentation of the pictures and targeted collecting. Additionally, changes are made in the gallery through “new entries” from the existing holdings: numerous paintings from the depots were rediscovered thanks to restoration and x-ray examination. The picture gallery transforms into a scientific institution and is keeping up with its time. 1


During the monarchy the Oberstkämmereramt 2 (treasury office) is responsible for the imperial collections. In the 19th century at the time of Glück’s predecessor, the painter August Schaeffer, there was little growth in the Old Masters area. Mainly contemporary Austrian art was bought. In Glück’s era (until 1931), a little over 160 works enter the collection 3 – a number unimaginable by today’s standards.

Let alone in the three years leading up to the First World War, thirty-five works are added to the collection. The situation on the art market is convenient. Glück closes gaps and expands the gallery’s holdings systematically, whose emphasis lies in the holdings of Old Masters from the 16th and 17th century – the high renaissance and baroque periods – of the Italian, Flemish and German schools. Schools and epochs, that are up until then not at all or only hardly present, find their entry into the collection: Austrian gothic and baroque art, English art – not yet present at all – Dutch art of the 15th and 16th centuries as well as Italian, Austrian and German art of the 18th century. Works from Michael Pacher, Juan de Flandes, Thomas Gainsborough and Francesco Guardi are bought, among others.4 For Glück his “[…] Sammeltätigkeit […] [scheint] fast unbegrenzt […].” 5

During the First World War acquisitions grind to a halt due to increasing prices and low budgets. Thanks to donations, Glück manages to raise his annual budget thirteen fold. This allows him, even during the war years, to “(…) einzelne Schulen (…)” of the Old Masters “(…) vortrefflich (…) ergänzen”. 6 Eight works enter the collection during the four war years – among them Jan van Steen, Jan Brueghel the Elder, Hans Holbein the Elder and two Venetian vedute by Giovanni Antonio Canal (known as Canaletto). Particularly the latter were in very high demand on the international art market. Despite the war, Glück follows the trend of his time. 7

The discovery of a fragment of the famous and thought-to-be-lost Pala di San Cassiano by Antonello da Messina – a key piece of Italian painting from the 15th century – also forms part of the additions to the collection from during World War I. Two further fragments were discovered at the end of the 1920s in a depot and the panels were partially reconstructed. 8

With the founding of the First Republic of Austria, the collections of the imperial court devolve into public administration. The responsibility for museums now lies with the federal ministry for education. Austria’s cultural legacy is being administered in escrow by a reparation’s commission appointed by the allied forces. Post-war inflation limits the financial resources. Only one single painting is bought in 1920. The intention to fill in the gaps in the collection is pushed into the background. In 1921 a new and controversial chapter of the acquisition history starts, even if this allows for high quality works to enter the collection: Glück acquires works through exchange.9


Under the influence of national and international developments, Glück starts with the first rehanging in 1912. Glück’s predecessor Schaeffer – together with the art historian Hermann Dollmayr, who was appointed to his side – had already taken into consideration art historical criteria, but had nevertheless hung in multiple rows as was the tradition of the 19th century. An encyclopaedic overview was essential to him. Around a main axis with large formats, smaller pictures are grouped as a pendant in a so called baroque hanging. The framing was uniform (Ill. 1) with classicistic frames from the Belvedere, the former location of the picture gallery. 10

Glück, however, compares the overcrowded walls with a “Briefmarkensammlung”.11 He thus reduces the exhibited works from 1.700 to 1.000 pieces, concentrates on the main works and grants the single works their individual effect thanks to a looser hanging (Ill. 2). Glück is aware of his responsibility in the consequent rehanging of a historically grown collection, with all its strengths and weaknesses. He insists on a “kunstgeschichtliche Adaptierung”, all while clearing himself some space: in order to highlight the individual traits of character of the collection, he dedicated single galleries to the Habsburg collectors of the imperial household.12

The foundation of the Secession in 1897 marked a turning point in the presentation and hanging of (modern) art on a national level. On an international level, the director of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum (Bode-Museum today), Wilhelm von Bode, who Glück knew ever since his studies in Germany, had complied with the requirements of a museological reformation program (Denkschrift 1880) in the museum’s restructuring in 1904, that included, among others, a reduction of the exhibited works.13


Hanging by Glück, Gallery I, Picture Gallery, Kunsthistorisches Museum, photograph from 1913, copyright: KHM-Museumsverband.
Hanging by Glück, Gallery I, Picture Gallery, Kunsthistorisches Museum, photograph from 1913, copyright: KHM-Museumsverband.
Hanging by Schaeffer, Gallery II, Picture Gallery, Kunsthistorisches Museum, photograph from 1912, copyright: KHM-Museumsverband.
Hanging by Schaeffer, Gallery II, Picture Gallery, Kunsthistorisches Museum, photograph from 1912, copyright: KHM-Museumsverband.










Gradually Glück replaces the uniform frames by stylistically more fitting ones and demands wall spaces to be designed. Occasionally wall coverings in diverse colours are being used – that had all been blueish-green up to this point. Glück finds the galleries’ ceilings too high and he would have preferred “[…] für die Präsentation einen anderen Bau […]”, that “[…] schlicht und mit weniger und bescheidenem zurücktretendem Schmuck hätte verziert werden müssen […].” 14 He structures the wall space with horizontal wooden lath and creates a distance to the ornate ceiling. Glück orientates himself among others by Hugo von Tschudi, who had assisted Wilhelm von Bode and who was the first one internationally, with the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, to have rehung a collection according to modern concepts. A sketch of ideas from Tschudi from 1909 reveals – as will be the case in Vienna later on too – a loose, two-row hanging with a low pedestal zone and a (cut-in) cornice zone. 15

All reforms introduced by Glück regarding his new presentation of the picture gallery are being criticized by the artists, who had joined forces in a commission, and are denying scientists the capability of judging art.16 Nevertheless Glück asserts himself and his idea of an exhibition practice in line with international criteria is still valid today.