Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches is, essentially, the legacy of the avid collecting of the Habsburgs. The result is one of the finest collections in the world, with a particularly outstanding selection of Old Masters.
The collection is housed in a suitably impressive building in Italian Renaissance style, which is not, perhaps, quite as old as it initially appears, having opened only in 1891. It has an identical twin immediately opposite across Maria-Theresien-Platz in the shape of the Natural History Museum.
There is a huge trove of paintings, but much else besides. The numismatic collection alone has more than 700,000 coins and notes from all parts of the world, covering three millennia. Greek and Roman antiquities, another Habsburg obsession, are also abundant, but perhaps the most interesting of the non-paintings is the Egyptian collection, a truly huge mass of treasures. The most charming piece is surely the rather lugubrious blue hippo, whose flanks are decorated with scenes of its surroundings and reminding us that Egypt was once a much more fertile land than it is now.
The paintings are ordered by place and date largely form the 16th and 17th centuries. The Venetian Renaissance features prominently, with Titian, Veronese, Canaletto and Tintoretto to the fore. Venetian artists tended to be valued a great deal more outside their homeland; it’s quite difficult, for example, to even find a Canaletto painting in Venice.
The Flemish collection’s highlight is Rubens’ The Fur, an intimate portrait of his wife. The picture is in classical style, the artist’s wife posing as Venus. The gallery also features a generous helping of works by van Dyck.
Not surprisingly, there is a considerable German collection, with many works by Dürer and a fine selection of portraits by Holbein. Dürer painted many Madonnas and one of the most famous resides in Vienna, a depiction of Mary with a child holding a pear.
A Rembrandt self-portrait stands out among the Dutch collection. It is one of his later works and depicts the artist looking just a little down-at-heel, but defiantly staring front-on to the world.
A personal favourite among the Dutch works is The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, painted by Pieter Bruegel in 1559. It is a wonderfully eventful painting – there is just so much happening. By a happy and strange coincidence, a detail from the painting graces the Penguin edition of the cover of another personal favourite, the Rabelais masterpiece, Gargantua and Pantagruel. There is a substantial collection of Bruegel’s works – the largest in the world – at the museum.
The Kunsthistorisches has a catalogue that reads like a history of art: Rubens, Rembrandt, Dürer, Titian, Tintoretto, Canaletto, Vermeer, Raphael, Velazquez and a host of others. Set aside a few hours; you can punctuate the visit with a break (or two) for a leisurely cup of coffee and perhaps even a little slice of cake at the museum’s decorative and appealing café. Coffee, like art, should never be rushed.
Footnote: the museum has an excellent website at http://www.khm.at/en/