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The World’s Second Greatest Private Art Collection

The princely art treasures of Liechtenstein have finally gone on show, for the first time since they were hidden away when the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938. Containing masterpieces by Hals, Raphael, Rembrandt and Van Dyck, the collection was built up over four centuries and comprises 1,600 paintings, sculpture, and other works of art. The Liechtenstein princely family has spent €23 million ($27.4 million) on turning one of their Viennese palaces into a gallery, and the result is a triumph.

Speaking to The Art Newspaper at the opening, Prince Hans-Adam II said: “It has always been a tradition of the family to show our art to the public. World War II forced my father to put it into storage. It is a great pleasure for me, and for the whole family, to show it again in our Garden Palace.” Thanks to a deal between the Liechtenstein princely family and the Austrian government, the row which developed after the paintings were smuggled out of Nazi Germany to Switzerland and then Liechtenstein in 1945, was resolved in 2001, paving the way for the new museum (The Art Newspaper, No.143, January 2004, p.16).

 

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Portrait of Princess Karoline of Liechtenstein as Iris, 1793

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, “Portrait of Princess Karoline of Liechtenstein as Iris,” 1793.

 

The museum opened in March, when the prince chartered a special train to bring most of his country’s art lovers to Vienna (Liechtenstein’s population is just 33,000). A day later, the gates of his newly restored baroque summer palace were thrown open to the public.

No attempt has been made to furnish the building as it would have been when it was a princely palace, and it is very much a museum for displaying art treasures which had until the 19th century been dispersed among dozens of properties across central Europe. Altogether, the Garden Palace now houses nearly 200 paintings dating from the Renaissance to the 19th century.
In one wing of the ground floor are the gentlemen’s quarters, with a neo-Classical-style library. Its shelves, lined with leather-bound volumes and reaching up to the frescoed ceiling, look as if they have always been there, but the interior was originally designed for another palace and was only installed here in 1914. The ladies’ quarters, in the other wing on the ground floor, have been converted into three substantial rooms for temporary exhibitions. The inaugural display (until November 7) is of neo-Classical and Biedermeier art. This will be followed by Rubens (December 5-February 27, 2005).

 

Friedrich Oelenhainz, Portrait of the future Prince Alois I of Liechtenstein, 1776

Friedrich Oelenhainz, “Portrait of the future Prince Alois I of Liechtenstein,” 1776.

 

The grandest rooms are on the piano nobile. Most dramatic of all is the enormous Hercules Hall, with a ceiling fresco by Andrea Pozzo giving a glimpse of the Olympic abode of the gods. Behind this lies the Grand Gallery, running the full width of the main section of the palace and overlooking the English-style garden. This gallery houses the family’s greatest set of paintings, eight immense pictures by Rubens that served as designs for tapestries depicting the heroic self-sacrifice of the Roman consul Decius Mus.

The two wings on the upper floor each have three large galleries for paintings. One wing houses early Italian pictures, early portraiture and Italian baroque art; the other is centered around Rubens, Van Dyck and other Dutch artists. These galleries also contain sculpture and furniture. Among the best objects are bronzes by Giambologna and Mantegna, pietra dura tables and an ornate 17th-century ivory tankard.

What is unusual for an aristocratic collection is that Prince Hans-Adam is still buying art on a massive scale, reversing the policy of his father, who sold off dozens of masterpieces after 1945. It has been reported that the prince spends around €15 million ($17.8 million) a year on art.

When asked how he chooses what to buy, Prince Hans-Adam answered that it has to be “a good piece of art from the 15th to 19th centuries, whoever the artist.” They could be pictures which were once in the collection and left–”something that we sold, gave away or was confiscated.” For instance, two works that were sold in the 1950s were recently reacquired, a Huysum flower still life and a Zagnelli portrait. Alternatively, acquisitions may replace something that was lost, perhaps by the same artist or school.

 

Francesco di Cristofano, gen. Franciabigio, Portrait of a man, 1517

Francesco di Cristofano, gen. Franciabigio, “Portrait of a man,” 1517.

 

Last year was a bumper one for acquisitions. At the entrance to the museum lie two sculptures by Mollinarolo of Minerva and Diana, which had guarded the bridge at the Liechtenstein family’s castle in Ebergassing. These were lost in 1788, but have now been bought back and restored. Other important bronze sculpture acquisitions include Antonio Susini’s Nessus and Deianeira after Giambologna and Massimiliano Soldani Benzi’s Christ on the Mount of Olives.

Among the furniture bought were a south German cabinet of 1580 and an amethyst-topped Genoese table that came up at Sotheby’s. A number of important pieces of Sorgenthal porcelain were acquired from the Bloch-Bauer Collection, which had been seized during the Nazi period and restored to the Bloch-Bauers in 1999. Two pieces of porcelain with floral still lifes by Joseph Nigg were also purchased.

The pictures acquired last year include Bernardino Zaganelli da Cotignola’s 1500 Portrait of a Woman, sold off in 1950, then repurchased from a Swiss collector. Benvenuto Tisi’s dramatic Apotheosis of Hercules was bought from a European princely family. Giovanni Paolo Pannini’s Capriccio came from a French collector, via Sotheby’s. Works by two artists who were close friends were added: Francesco Hayez’s “Vendetta” from a Swiss collector and Friedrich von Amerling’s “Lost in dreams,” from Sotheby’s. Another addition from this period was Ferdinand Waldmüller’s Portrait of the Landlord.

Among the masterpieces is Hals’ Portrait of Man, bought at Sotheby’s for $3 million. This was an apposite purchase, since it had belonged to the Vienna-based von Rothschilds. After being seized by the Nazis in 1938, it was eventually restituted in 1998. Considerably more expensive was Valentin de Boulogne’s Merry Company with Fortune-teller, acquired just a few months ago from the Schönborn collection. This Caravaggesque scene was bought partly to fill the gap left by the earlier sale of an Orazio Gentileschi. The latest acquisition, made just before the museum’s opening, is Frans Snyders’ Recumbent Lioness, providing the Flemish room with a new focus. Thanks to the income from the Liechtenstein bank he owns, Prince Hans-Adam continues to be a major player in the Old Master market.

 

Friedrich von Amerling, Portrait of Princess Marie Franziska of Liechtenstein (1834-1909) at the age of two, 1836

Friedrich von Amerling, “Portrait of Princess Marie Franziska of Liechtenstein (1834-1909) at the age of two,” 1836.

 

THE HISTORY OF THE PRINCELY COLLECTIONS

Relatively little is known about the early period of the collection’s history. Through his marriage to Anna of Ortenburg, the Portrait of Count Ladislaus von Haag by Hans Mielich came into the possession of Hartmann von Liechtenstein (1544–1585), who also brought important and still extant holdings of books into the family collections.

The collection experienced its first heyday at the turn of the sixteenth to the seventeenth century. Surviving correspondence dating to 1597 between Emperor Rudolf II and Karl I von Liechtenstein (1569–1627), the first of the princes to be seized by a true passion for collecting, indicates that the latter possessed a remarkable collection of paintings and Kunstkammer pieces in his Prague residence. The existence of a silver chamber with more than 900 different items is documented at Feldsberg/Valtice. Inventories indicate that the prince kept tapestries and carpets, precious items of furniture, objects of silver and gold, vessels carved out of semi-precious stone as well as paintings in his Guardaroba, which may be regarded as the original ‘germ cell’ of the Princely Collections. Karl I collected not only existing works but also commissioned major pieces for his collections. It was at his request that Adrian de Fries executed the life-sized bronze of Christ in Distress in 1607, and shortly afterwards the figure of St Sebastian (1613/15).

Like his father, Karl Eusebius I von Liechtenstein (1611–1684) was also driven by a passion for collecting and was the first of the family to make systematic use of the international art trade to acquire particular works of art. He wrote theoretical treatises, including a work on the education of princes and a tractate on architecture which also had an influence on the nature of the collection.
Karl Eusebius initiated a large number of major building projects, and was the first prince of the House of Liechtenstein to engage architects, masons, stuccateurs and painters on a grand scale. In 1643 he acquired Rubens’ monumental Assumption of the Virgin Mary as the altarpiece for the parish church in Feldsberg that he had commissioned, a work that is today on display at the Liechtenstein summer palace.

To learn more about the collection, visit its Web site: http://www.liechtensteinmuseum.at

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