There are countless reasons to visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum, known as the "KHM” locally. It’s Vienna’s greatest and grandest museum, inside Vienna’s greatest and grandest building, designed by Gottfried Semper (Emperor Franz Joseph had the German star architect move from Zürich to Vienna for the commission). The museum’s source of pride is the old masters collection, accumulated by two art-loving Habsburgs: Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) and Archduke Leopold Wilhelm (1614-1662), who was governing the Spanish Netherlands.
A visit to the KHM isn’t just about the art. The creaking parquet floors and the blue velvet-upholstered couches – I’ve seen people use them to marvel, to read, to work, to nap – are as much fixtures of the place as is Tintoretto’s Man with a White Beard (the portrait that inspired Thomas Bernhard’s laugh-out-loud bitter novel, Old Masters).
Ascend the main staircase – passing Antonio Canova's knee-bucklingly beautiful marble Theseus at the landing – to reach the painting galleries: Italian and Spanish on your left; Flemish, Netherlandish, and German on your right. In between, under the tall dome, is the museum’s fancy café. Entry to the museum costs €21 per person, but if you’re here for longer, consider purchasing the annual pass for €53. The best investment I've made this year.
Italian & Spanish Painters
Madonna del Prato, by Raphael (1506)
This is your chance to spend private time in an uncluttered room with Raphael, one of the most beloved painters on earth and the person who set the standard for female beauty in Western art for hundreds of years. The painting of Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus and John the Baptist shows Raphael’s famous gift for composition – Mary’s diagonally placed right leg completes the pyramidal structure of the three figures, who are placed in an enchanting pastoral scene, evoking harmony and bliss far into the distance.
The Abduction of Ganymede, by Correggio (1530)
This vertical composition shows the mythological story of the lustful Jupiter, in the form of an eagle, snatching the beautiful boy, Ganymede, to carry him off to Mount Olympus as his dog looks on in surprise (in the Protestant corners of Europe, the homoerotic implication of the tale was replaced with moralized Christian versions). Correggio, the Parma-based Renaissance painter, was a master of rendering movement and the way Ganymede effortlessly floats in air has inspired high-Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo artists in the coming decades and centuries. (Titian once proclaimed that if he weren't Titian, he would want to be Correggio.)
Bow-carving Amor, by Parmigianino (1534-39)
Parmigianino, from the generation after the high renaissance masters, had an exceedingly elegant and graceful "mannerist" technique inspired by Raphael. A good example of what made him popular is this charming depiction of Amor, the god of passionate desire, who innocently looks over his shoulder while carving his bow. He carelessly placed his weapon of erotic love on top of two books to convey its power over learned knowledge. Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) was such a fan, he not only purchased the painting from his cousin, the king of Spain, but also had a copy made of it.
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, by Parmigianino (1524)
This playful object shows off Parmigianino’s technical brilliance and self-confidence. The twenty-year-old painter made his talisman for Pope Clement VII, patron of the arts, when Parmigianino set off from his hometown of Parma to find employment in Papal Rome. He painted his own reflection in a mirror onto a small piece of curved wood. Our attention is drawn to the foreground, to the inflated right hand, as if he were to say, "Hey, watch this, my secret weapon, the source of my genius."
Susanna Bathing, by Tintoretto (1555-56)
The Old Testament story of Susanna – two old men spy on the bathing lady, try to seduce, then falsely accuse her – takes us to the strange world of Jacopo Tintoretto. A star artist of golden-age Venice in the 16th-century (behind Titian, and beside Veronese), Tintoretto painted colossal “mannerist” figures who are always in frantic motion and burst with energy. Susanna is illuminated in radiant light and appears exaggerated compared with the creeps hiding behind the hedge. The bald man is about to fall off the canvas so unbalanced is the composition. The unduly long perspective makes the painting even more disorienting.
The Raising of the Youth of Nain, by Paolo Veronese (1565/70)
Paolo Veronese painted immense, idealized, theatrical scenes of which more than a dozen appear on the walls of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. This one depicts the Biblical story of Jesus raising the dead son of a widow (the boy’s pale figure appears in the lower-left). Take note of the brilliant use of color – the pink and dark blue robes of Jesus; the orange and light-blue of the widow, the lemon yellow of the man beside her. The fashionable widow is dressed in the style of Venetian aristocrats. Paolo Veronese's religious paintings often verged on the unacceptable: he once ran into trouble with the Inquisition for depicting "jesters, drunks, Germans, and midgets" on a Last Supper.
Jacopo Strada, by Titian (1567-68)
One of the GOATs, Titian excelled at both mythological and religious themes, but portrait was his real forte. He knew how to flatter his patrons – conveying their social status through elegant clothing – but also revealed their personality traits unlike anyone before and until Rembrandt. Twentytwo Titian paintings hang in the Kunsthistorisches and this Jacopo Strada portrait is the last one he did. Strada, Titian’s art dealer, was immensely wealthy as shown by his gold chain (with a medallion of Habsburg Emperor Maximilian II), fur cloak, and glinting sword. Titian’s brilliance: Strada’s mysterious sideway glance. People have long speculated whether this refined man perhaps harbored a bit of malice, too.
Nymph and Shepherd, by Titian (1570/75)
In the 1570s, when Titian was past eighty, he used a more expressive painterly style known for its loose and sketchy brushstrokes and raw energy. The painting above depicts a young shepherd playing his flute to a woman who turns her back to him. The dark subdued colors and the restless pastoral scene evoke the shepherd's troubled state of heart. Inspired by Titian, this rougher style – observe those two incredible red lines indicating the setting sun – was later adopted by both Velázquez and Rembrandt. However, art teachers warned their students against imitation, arguing that in unskilled hands it led to embarrassing failures.
David with Goliath’s Head, by Caravaggio (1600-01)
Caravaggio revolutionized painting in the 1590s, leaving behind the distorted Mannerist style of Parmigianino, Tintoretto and others (see above). His canvases have an intensity and drama achieved through the radical use of light and shadow – brightly lit athletic figures appearring amid the darkness. Caravaggio aimed for a naturalist, relatable style, rendering his Biblical characters completely undignified and everyday-looking (this realistic approach earned him schools of followers across Europe but also unhappy clients). Of the Kunsthistorisches Museum's three Caravaggio paintings, David with Goliath’s Dead is most typical of his mature style.
Infanta Margarita in a Blue Dress, by Diego Velázquez (1659)
It was a long-held tradition between the Spanish and Austrian side of the Habsurgs to marry within the family (a result of this inbreeding is the famous Habsburg jaw). Family portraits would be dispatched from Madrid to Vienna and back to facilitate nuptials. This painting of Margaret Theresa, daughter of the Spanish king Philip IV, shows why the court painter Diego Velázquez is regarded among the greats in history. We can almost feel the weight and texture of Margarita's blue dress despite the broad and loose brushstrokes, while her gaze reveals the individual behind that obligatory royal elegance.
Flemish, Netherlandish, and German Painters
The Crucifixion, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1500/01)
Compared with the refined realism and technical brilliance of his contemporaries – Michelangelo, Dürer, Raphael – the paintings of the German Lucas Cranch the Elder look strangely crude, anatomically flawed, and out-of-date. And yet Cranach’s early works, painted in Vienna around 1500, have an expressive power that’s hard to resist. Just observe the faces at this rendering of Jesus’s crucifixion. Interestingly, Cranach later moved to Wittenberg as painter to the Saxon court, became friends with Martin Luther and, after 1517, a great advocate of the Protestant cause. His large workshop put out hundreds of paintings and woodcuts in support of Luther (Cranach's later, more tamed works are also found at the KHM).
Emperor Maximilian I, by Albrecht Dürer (1519)
Albrecht Dürer, the leading artist of the German Renaissance, was called the “Leonardo of the North” for his manyfold interests and anatomical studies about human proportions. Dürer’s stylistic evolution was shaped by his trips to Renaissance Venice: the solidity of his figures bring Andrea Mantegna, his colors Leonardo, his composition Giovanni Bellini to mind. The portrait above depicts the most brilliant Habsburg and Dürer’s most important patron: Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. The Caesar was so fond of his court painter that, according to an anecdote, he himself once steadied Dürer’s wobbly ladder while the master painted away up high. You’ll find Dürer’s famous signature hidden in the top right of the picture.
The Peasant Wedding, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1567)
Following in the footsteps of Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Breugel the Elder was another brilliant chronicler of Flemish peasants. More mocking than moralizing, Bruegel’s renditions of grotesque and dumb-looking villagers provided plenty of entertainment to his middle-class patrons. Take your time to observe the ignorant faces in his best-known genre painting, the Peasant Wedding, in which a barn is the wedding venue, porridge the wedding meal, and paper crown the bridal jewelry. So mean! With its large figures and sharp diagonal composition, this late-period Bruegel shows the influence of contemporary Venetian Mannerism (see the similarities with Tintoretto’s Susanna above).
The Hunters in the Snow, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1565)
Twelve Pieter Bruegel the Elder paintings hang in the Kunsthistorisches, making it the largest Bruegel collection in the world. Many know the Flemish master for his crowded genre scenes, as with the Peasant Wedding above, but he was also an astonishing landscape painter. The Hunters in the Snow is part of a series depicting life in the countryside during the various seasons. A group of hunters with their dogs returns home after an unsuccessful day; people set up a fire outside their house; ice skaters frolic on a frozen pond. The blueish-gray sky studded with black birds signals trouble ahead. The somber atmosphere and the stunningly beautiful depth of space – bringing Raphel to mind – lend an enduring appeal to this painting.
The Four Continents, by Peter Paul Rubens (1615)
The exuberant paintings of Peter Paul Rubens aren’t easy to admire at first sight – giant canvases of heroic themes teeming with human flesh and floating putti. Things can get overwhelming from all the rhetoric. But Rubens was a Baroque genius and the Kunsthistorisches has one of the biggest and best selections of his paintings in the world (based in Habsburg Antwerp, the tireless Rubens also served the court as its roving diplomat). The picture above, the personification of the four continents and their four major rivers, shows Rubens at his best: muscular Michelangelo-esque figures, rosy-cheeked women, vibrant colors, high-tension, all in motion. Try to take it in and enjoy!
Self-Portrait, by Peter Paul Rubens (1638/40)
A humanist intellectual who came of age at the Ducal Court of Mantua, Peter Paul Rubens was more than just the leading painter of Catholic Europe. He felt as much at home in the classics (a reader would recite poems while he painted) as he did at the royal courts of Madrid, Paris, and London. While managing his enormous workshop in Antwerp, he found time to negotiate peace treaties on behalf of the Spanish Netherlands and to nurture his passion for collecting antiques. It is this dignified and somewhat worn artist-scholar-diplomat who peers down at us from this precious self-portrait (despite his immense output, Rubens painted only four self-portraits during his long career).
Large Self-Portrait, by Rembrandt (1652)
No matter what he painted – history, mythology, landscape, or portrait – Rembrandt was most interested in the individual. Relying on just a few colors and the intense dramaturgy of light, he plumbed the soul like no one before him, seeking “human truth” rather than heroes or idealized beauty. Accordingly, this self-portrait is free of flattery and conventions – just look at that prominent root-vegetable nose of his. His clothes are dissolved by the dark background and we’re immediately drawn to Rembrandt’s illuminated face.
Who do we see? A man who’s tired and hurt and without illusions. But also proud and self-possessed, perhaps not yet done with life. Be careful with his penetrating eyes otherwise they might pierce a hole in our gut.
The Art of Painting, by Johannes Vermeer (1666-68)
This Dutch Golden Age masterpiece is a precious possession of the Kunsthistorisches. Vermeer’s genre paintings, delicate, serene and frozen in time, are often charged with allegorical meaning. Here, behind a drawn curtain, we see the back of an elegantly dressed painter – likely Vermeer himself – working on a portrait of the beautiful model standing before him. She is Clio, the muse of history and the inspiration of artists of the Netherlands, whose map is hanging on the wall. The mask on the table symbolizes imitation and hence the art of painting.
The technical virtuosity of the picture is striking. Observe the creases of the map; the texture of the painter’s clothes; the red of his stocking, the blue of her robe; the black-and-white marble floor; and – a Vermeer signature – the soft light streaming from the left. (Adolf Hitler bought the painting in 1940; after the end of the war, the Allies gifted it to Austria.)