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Old Masters from the Hermitage: Masterpieces from Botticelli to Van Dyck


On 5 June 2018, the exhibition “Old Masters from the Hermitage: Masterpieces from Botticelli to Van Dyck” was formally opened in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, who was on a working visit to Austria, after completing talks with the Austrian leadership, took part in the opening ceremony together with the Federal President of Austria, Alexander Van der Bellen, and the Federal Chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz. Russia and Austria are successfully implementing a programme of collaboration and exchanges in the sphere of culture, education and learning that is mapped out until 2020.

“We are participating in the opening of a unique exhibition of selected masterpieces from two of the world’s leading museums,” Vladimir Putin said. “The joint project between the State Hermitage and the Kunsthistorisches Museum has been realized with the support of Russia’s Gazprom and the Austrian company OMV. It is a sort of gift to mark the jubilee of collaboration between our two countries in the energy sphere. The exhibition has a very interesting, unique concept, an experiment. The Hermitage and the Kunsthistorisches Museum have each contributed fourteen paintings by very famous masters from the 16th and 17th centuries.”

The Russian head of state noted that these pictures are part of collections that belonged to the imperial families of Austria and Russia. “The works by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Rubens and other great artists have been gathered in a rich duet. This could only have been done by two outstanding museums, with sufficient collections to create these pairings,” Vladimir Putin emphasized.

President Putin also expressed confidence that the project implemented by the two museums will arouse great interest among art-lovers. The President of the Russian Federation added that this autumn the exhibition will go on show in St Petersburg and expressed the certainty that this exhibition and other joint projects will be conducive to further collaboration between Russia and Austria. The head of state left a comment in the museum’s distinguished visitors’ book: “The exhibition ‘Old Masters from the Hermitage’ serves as a clear confirmation of the long-standing and traditionally close cultural ties between Russia and Austria and reflects our shared interest in their further development. The works by very famous artists of the 16th and 17th centuries presented from the collections of the imperial families of Russia and Austria will undoubtedly make an impression on all visitors.”

Vladimir Putin also expressed sincere gratitude to the State Hermitage and the Kunsthistorisches Museum and also to the exhibition’s sponsors for the extensive, painstaking work that went into its organization and for a caring attitude to our common cultural and historical heritage.

Participating in the opening ceremony were Vladimir Rostislavovich Medinsky, Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation, Mikhail Borisovich Piotrovsky, General Director of the State Hermitage, Sabine Haag, General Director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; and Stefan Weppelmann, the curator of the exhibition for the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Mikhail Piotrovsky commented in his speech at the press conference: “This unique and truly joint exhibition has proved a model for the combination of complexity, of academic thinking and beauty embodied in the dialogue between masterpieces. This striking cultural event has given a special dimension to an important intergovernmental meeting. The bridges of culture that Vienna and Petersburg embody are functioning, rising above ‘troubled waters’.”

The exhibition presents works by Botticelli, Tintoretto, Rembrandt and Van Dyck that give a general impression of the development of Western European painting from the time of the Renaissance to early Neo-Classicism. The display is based on the juxtaposing of pictures, making up fourteen harmonious pairs. An outstanding group of Old Master works – fourteen gems from the Hermitage collection enter into a dialogue with the pictures from the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Friendly partnership relations were established long ago between the State Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. As far back as October–December 1980, 35 paintings from the Viennese museum were shown in the Hermitage. The exhibition stood out for the very high quality of its composition, which included masterpieces by Titian, Velazquez, Rubens, Rembrandt, Frans Hals and others. In turn, an exhibition of artworks from the Hermitage collection held in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in May–August 1981 featured some 30 paintings.

In 1984 the Hermitage hosted a temporary exhibition of Western European art prepared by the Kunsthistorisches Museum jointly with the MAK – Austrian Museum of Applied Arts. Great interest on that occasion was evoked by the articles made of rock crystal and smoky quartz, and also the glyptic items that came from the collection of Emperor Rudolf II. The Viennese museum provided one more exhibition of Western painting in the Hermitage in December 1988 and January 1989 (pictures by Titian, Lotto, Rubens, Rembrandt and other Western European artists). At the same time the Hermitage was presenting the archaeological exhibition “The Gold of the Scythians” in Vienna.

Particularly close ties were established between the State Hermitage and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in the early 2000s. In 2002, as part of the joint programme “connecting museums” together with the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Hermitage showed Anthony van Dyck’s painting The Vision of the Blessed Hermann Joseph from Vienna, comparing it with the Hermitage painting by the same artist Rest on the Flight into Egypt (also known as Madonna with the Partridges). At the same time, Jacopo Tintoretto’s monumental composition The Birth of John the Baptist from St Petersburg went on show in the Austrian capital. Works by Western European artists from the collection of the Viennese museum have been shown in the Hermitage in the “Masterpieces from the World’s Museums” cycle: Rubens’s Head of Medusa in 2007 and Parmigianino’s Conversion of Saul in 2008.

The exhibition “Old Masters from the Hermitage: Masterpieces from Botticelli to Van Dyck” continues and develops the idea of juxtaposing works from the two collections. The display presents 14 works from the Viennese museum and the same number from the stocks of the Hermitage. The exhibition opens with monumental portraits of two empresses who played such an important role in the history of the Russian and Austrian museums. Visitors have the unique opportunity to compare works by the same artists from two collections (Jacopo Tintoretto, Bernardo Strozzi, Peter Paul Rubens, Frans Halls, Jan Steen, Nicolas Poussin). The remaining pictures featured in the exhibition also have points of contact, but they are not so obvious. For example, the Hermitage’s Portrait of a Young Man by Domenico Capriolo, reflecting the influence of Giorgione, is being shown alongside the Portrait of Francesco Maria I della Rovere by that great master himself from the Viennese museum’s collection.
The painters of two other portraits – Giovanni Battista Moroni and Domenico Tintoretto – were also contemporaries who created images of Renaissance intellectuals. The brothers Ambrosius and Hans Holbein, also represented in the exhibition by portraits, both came from the same school – that of their father, who was a painter as well. Bartholomeus Spranger and Hans von Aachen worked at the same time at the court of Emperor Rudolf II. That is why their paintings display a certain stylistic affinity.

Some of the pairings are based more on contrasts. Saint Jerome by the Florentine Sandro Botticelli is emphatically laconic and simple in composition. Albrecht Altdorfer, on the other hand, tells about the martyrdom of Saint Catherine with a host of particulars and describes the executioner and spectators in detail. Two landscapes, by the Englishman Thomas Gainsborough and the German Jacob Philipp Hackert, show fundamentally different approaches to that genre of painting: while in Gainsborough’s work one senses a romantic view of nature, Hackert constructs his composition in accordance with the strict laws of Classicism.

After it closes at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the exhibition “Old Masters from the Hermitage: Masterpieces from Botticelli to Van Dyck” will move to the State Hermitage (5 October 2018 – 13 January 2019). Museum-goers in St Petersburg will be able to see paintings by two great 16th-century masters whose oeuvres are not represented in the Hermitage collection – Albrecht Altdorfer and Hans Holbein. Their younger contemporary Bartholomeus Spranger is also little-known in Russia. Giovanni Battista Moroni, Frans Hals and Thomas Gainsborough are each represented by just one or two works in the Hermitage. So, there can be no doubt that many visitors to the exhibition in the Hermitage can look forward to an encounter with paintings that they have not previously known created by celebrated Old Masters.

The exhibition curator on behalf of the State Hermitage is Maria Pavlovna Garlova, senior researcher in the Department of Western European Fine Art; on behalf of the Kunsthistorisches Museum the curator is Stefan Weppelmann.
The exhibition is accompanied by a scholarly illustrated catalogue with texts by Sergei Androsov, Doctor of Art Studies, head of the State Hermitage’s Department of Western European Fine Arts, and Doctor Stefan Weppelmann, Director of the Picture Gallery at the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

The exhibition “Old Masters from the Hermitage: Masterpieces from Botticelli to Van Dyck” has been organized with the support of the Russian company Gazprom and the Austrian oil and gas concern oil and gas company OMV that in 2018 are marking 50 years of collaboration between the Russian Federation and Austrian in the gas sector. 



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