National Geographic : 1950 Jun
The Vienna Treasures and Their Collectors By JOHN WALKER Chief Curator, National Gallery of Art ONE of the most precious shipments of art to cross the ocean at one time is touring America. It consists of paint ings, sculpture, armor, tapestries, and jewels accumulated during four centuries by the Aus trian Hapsburgs, and now the property of the Austrian Government. These works of art have already been shown in many of the capitals of Europe and in Washington and New York (page 739). Be fore their return to Austria, they will also be seen in San Francisco this summer and Chicago in the fall. Their itinerary is the final stage in an art migration which began during the last war, when the contents of European museums were moved to salt mines, monasteries, bank vaults, and country houses, narrowly escaping war's destruction. Peace brought out these buried master pieces; but in many cases, like displaced per sons, they returned to ruined homes. Such was the fate of the Austrian treasures. As a result, they are being enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of Americans, and 23 of the greatest paintings are reproduced in color with this article.* Wars disseminate as well as destroy art. Centuries ago a comparable cargo crossed the ocean, traveling in the opposite direction. It was dispatched by Cortes after the conquest of Mexico. "Fairer to See than Marvels" This earliest of transatlantic art shipments journeyed to Europe in an armed galleon, a part of the Spanish fleet, then the most power ful afloat. Four centuries later the Hapsburg collections traveled to the New World in an air-conditioned refrigerator ship, a part of the United States Navy. Between 1520 and 1521, Albrecht Diirer, the German painter, happened to be in the Netherlands when Montezuma's treasure ar rived at the court of Charles V. Thus he saw history's first European exhibition of Ameri can art. He noted in his diary that these examples of pre-Columbian craft were "fairer to see than marvels. I have never seen in all my days what so rejoiced my heart." Four hundred years later, we might say the same of the first American exhibition of these treasures of European art once owned by Charles V and the Austrian Hapsburgs. What makes the Austrian show so fascinat- ing is that, though it comes from a public museum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, it is really an exhibition of the great est of private collections. It reflects the acquisitive instincts of one family during a score of generations. The pictures decorated the walls of their palaces, the statues are their effigies, the rock crystals held the wine and water they drank. As recently as 1916, for ex ample, the Burgundian court goblet now on display was used in the coronation of Emperor Charles as King of Hungary. The collection has a character different from that of the usual agglomeration of museum objects. It suggests kingship rather than curatorship, and mirrors the disintegration of a dynasty but the survival of its taste. Diirer Depicts Christian Martyrdom The painting section opens with a work by Albrecht Diirer, who owed so much to Haps burg patronage. It is a picture of the slaugh ter of 10,000 Christians (pages 760-761). Once on panel but later transferred to canvas, Diirer's painting is the exhibition's sole representative of the great collection of early Flemish, German, and Austrian pictures in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Most of those works were painted on wood, which contracts and expands under varying conditions of temperature and humidity. Therefore panel paintings are most fragile and difficult to transport. Omitting them meant the omission of the unique Viennese collection of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, the saddest gap in the show. Still, the exhibition, by concentrating on the High Renaissance and the 17th century, by focusing attention on the summits of Western painting, reflects the essential taste of the Hapsburg collectors, who themselves consid ered earlier art more interesting historically than stimulating esthetically. For these monarchs the pillars of painting were Titian, Velazquez, and Rubens. As a result of their patronage, the collections of the Prado in Madrid, formed by the Spanish Hapsburgs, and of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, formed by the Austrian Hapsburgs, have an unparalleled series of ex amples of the work of those three artists. * For reproductions of German-owned paintings which similarly escaped the war and toured America, see "Masterpieces on Tour," by Harry A. McBride, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, December, 1948.