The Belvedere Museum is another favourite of mine, and so right after lockdown I visited the new exhibition at the Upper Belvedere, at a time when there were very few people so that I had rather privileged views of the exhibitions and also of the beautiful architecture. This place is very crowded when tourists are in town, so, although the museums does need the tourists back, it was rather special for us Viennese visitors.
Hardly any words in the dictionary of art history are as strongly associated with Vienna as the painter Waldmüller and Biedermeier, his epoch. The Belvedere museum has a large collection of works from that epoch and currently has an exhibition on the Viennese Biedermeier in art. Better Times? Waldmüller and Biedermeier Vienna. The epoch begins with the Vienna Congress in 1814-15 and ends with the February revolution of 1848.
The French Revolution had left a huge impact by tearing down the French monarchy, and the citizenry was taking on new roles. In the Biedermeier epoch, family values and a homey feeling were for the first time emphasized as highly desirable values and found expression in art. The middle class was attaining a new self-awareness with a strong focus on the family and “domestic happiness”. That concept became idealised in the arts. It is interesting that today´s fashionable term “cocooning” is also sometimes referred to as a neo-Biedermeier, a desire for “hominess”.
The wealthy middle classes began to have their portraits painting, leading to a heyday of portraiture in this epoch, with many elements taken over from the portraits of the aristocracy from earlier times. Waldmüller was one of the important portrait painters, though he also painted romantic landscapes and genre scenes. Those were the important themes of the time. The artists wanted to touch viewers´ hearts, stir emotions with their paintings. Loving families, “home sweet home” scenes, but also scenes that elicit the viewer´s pity.
In genre scenes rural life and life of peasants and country people became a topic, often depicted in a romanticised way.
The exhibition´s title of course begs the question – were the good old days really good? It depends for whom. There was stark poverty, and the poorest of the poor were those without property and without their own trade shop, in other words, the working classes who depended on employment opportunities for their livelihoods. Artists did pick up on these social inequalities and depicted the situation of the poor as well as the wealthy.
There was no social security at the time, the poor depended on charity and meagre earnings from day to day labour. So the Biedermeier was not just beautiful and idyllic, the first half of the 19th century in Vienna had two sides.
Another type of painting that became popular was the romantic landscape painting. The upswing of that genre was unprecedented in the 19th century throughout Europe and beyond.
The exhibition is divided into seven parts, each focusing on different themes. Light and shadow, for example, home sweet home, the family, beloved country, etc. It is at once a mirror of its time and an idealised view of the world.
As for better times, throughout history, as people have got older and more sentimental, they have always longed for “the old days” when life was supposedly better than now. Maybe it was. But me, I like my time, I like the social progress and the move towards greater tolerance of diverse societies that we have experienced in my lifetime, at least in the region I live in. I realise, I am very privileged. I can live in peace, I have access to art, Vienna is a city with a great quality of life. I don´t think it was like that back in the Biedermeier days for the bulk of the population.
Curated by Rolf H. Johannsen, shows works by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Friedrich von Amerling, Rosalia Amon, Josef Danhauser, Thomas Ender, Peter Fendi, Pauline Koudelka-Schmerling, Carl Schindler, Franz Steinfeld, Adalbert Stifter, and others. It is on view until 27 February 2022. I will probably visit again.