CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Rubens in Wien

Rubens in Vienna Exhibition: 5 December 2004 - 27 February 2005


Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
Vienna, Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste

From the museum website

As the home of the collections of the Picture Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and the Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna offers a unique and comprehensive survey of the work of Peter Paul Rubens. No other city in the world offers visitors the chance to see and experience such a wealth of first-class paintings from all the different artistic periods of the Flemish master.

Archduke Leopold William, whose collection forms the core of the collection of paintings now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and Johann Adam Andreas I of Liechtenstein, who commissioned the family’s magnificent summer palace in Vienna, are among the most important seventeenth century collectors of Rubens. They were rivals when it came to acquiring works by the Flemish painter. Unlike the Archduke and the Prince, Count Lamberg, whose collection entered the picture gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts, was a private collector who preferred the spontaneous handling characteristic of small-scale paintings – the oil-sketches.

From December 5, 2004, the picture galleries of the Liechtenstein Museum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and the Academy of Fine Arts, will present their combined treasures to the public. Rubens’ works in the three museums will be newly installed and augmented by additional loans in order to showcase the magnificent oeuvre of this outstanding Flemish painter.

The aim of this joint exhibition is to draw the public’s attention to the fact that the return to Vienna of the magnificent collections of the reigning Prince of Liechtenstein has re-united all these glorious paintings in the Austrian capital for the first time since 1938, and to celebrate the Year of Rubens in 2005.


The opening of the Liechtenstein Museum not only marks the return of the most significant private collection to its hereditary place. Due to this return, Vienna will now be at the centre of attention of all art lovers enthusiastic about Rubens. With more than 30 paintings by the Flemish master, the Princely Collections’ holdings are impressive just on account of the number of works which will now be made accessible to the public again after more than sixty years.

The basis of the Rubens collection

The Assumption of the Virgin, Rubens’s last and most monumental interpretation of the subject, was the Flemish master’s first painting in the possession of the Princely Collections. The spontaneous and flowing stroke bears evidence of Rubens’s impressive confidence in his old age. The overall boldness in terms of painting suggests that all its parts have been executed by the master himself.

The painting, which dates from around 1635, was already mentioned as being in the possession of Prince Karl Eusebius of Liechtenstein (1611–1684) in 1643. Some time later, it adorned the high altar of the parish church in Feldsberg/Valtice, until it was replaced with a copy by Joseph Wenzel von Liechtenstein’s gallery inspector and painter Vincenzo Fanti in 1764. Finally, the original was moved from the parish church to the gallery building in the Rossau where it was one of the major attractions. Now, it has found a prominent place in the Grand Gallery.

The Prince Karl Eusebius of Liechtenstein’s son, Johann Adam Andreas I (1662–1712), was also very fond of Peter Paul Rubens. Towards the end of the 17th century, many of the master’s pictures were still on the market, competed for by art lovers. Especially three collectors were eager not to lose any time and had got involved in a veritable fight for these works: Elector Johann Wilhelm von der Pfalz, Elector Max Emanuel von Bayern, and Prince Johann Adam Andreas I of Liechtenstein.

The Decius Mus Cycle

After negotiations that had already begun in 1692, Johann Adam Andreas I succeeded in acquiring the monumental Decius Mus Cycle in 1693. The series was an essential extension of the foundation for the House of Liechtenstein’s Rubens collection which was to grow steadily in the years to come. The eight pictures of the cycle served as designs for tapestries. As regards the person who commissioned the work, we have only the information provided by Rubens himself who mentioned a Genoese nobleman. The contract between the weavers Jan Raes and Frans Sweerts in Brussels and the Genoese merchant Franco Cattaneo, which dates from 9 November 1616, has survived. The first two weavings of the Decius Mus Cycle in the older Jan Raes’s factory in Brussels were obviously so successful that the 17th century saw the production of about 20 further series in different studios and different styles. Several tapestries in the possession of the Princely Collections since the 19th century probably come from one of the two ‘editiones principes’ executed by Jan Raes.

Soon after its acquisition, a separate gallery was furnished for this cycle of pictures in the new Liechtenstein Palace in Vienna’s first district. Giovanni Giuliani was entrusted with providing the frames and the magnificently carved gilt cartouches. From 1807, when the Garden Palace in the Rossau opened the doors of its gallery to the public, until 1938, the monumental cycle formed the heart of the presentation. Now, the series can be admired in its original place again.

The monumental character of the nearly life-size figures involves the viewer in a perfectly natural manner and literally makes them an integral part of the dramatic events. Finding themselves surrounded by the entire cycle presented in a compact fashion in the Grand Gallery, i.e. in just one room, the visitor enjoys a Baroque ‘all-round experience’ that is unique not only for Vienna.

Venus in front of the Mirror

Rubens’s penchant for ancient history and mythology is also evidenced by his Venus in front of the Mirror, whom he depicted as an allegory of beauty. The picture, which dates from ca. 1613/14, shows the goddess of love from behind. Looking into a mirror, which frames her face in a portrait-like manner, she regards the viewer. The painter focused on the sensuous reproduction of her skin and the silky shimmer of her hair, which, being set off against the servant’s dark skin, becomes even more alive. The reflection of Venus that reveals the beauty of her face to the viewer turns into a symbol of painting competing with nature as an image aimed to be as real as possible.

Children’s portraits

One of the artist’s most famous portraits, the Portrait of Clara Serena Rubens, was originally part of the collection of paintings in the possession of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm (1614–1662) in Brussels, which today constitutes the core of the former Imperial Collections of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Prince Johann Adam Andreas I of Liechtenstein swapped it for one of his famous horses bred in Eisgrub/Lednice. The small work dating from about 1616 shows Rubens’s daughter from the artist’s marriage to Isabella Brant at the age of five. The disarming directness with which the child regards the viewer bespeaks the character of the relationship between father and daughter. The healthy red cheeks and the highlights on nose and forehead convey an impression of exuberance.

Rubens also depicted his sons Albert and Nicholas in a double portrait he painted around 1626/27. Like the Portrait of Clara Serena Rubens, this picture bears the seal of 1733, when the collection of Prince Johann Adam Andreas I of Liechtenstein was transferred into the family entail years after his death in 1712 and thus became part of the inalienable possessions of the House of Liechtenstein.


A catalogue accompanying the exhibition will be available in German as well as in English at the museum shops.

Related events from the co-organizers,

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The Kunsthistorisches Museum possesses around 40 paintings by Rubens, representing one of the most important collections outside the artist`s home city of Antwerp. Encompassing works from all phases of the Flemish Baroque painter`s life, it also demonstrates the huge variety of his oeuvre: large imposing altarpieces, religious and mythological history paintings, portraits, landscapes and small-scale studies. The exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum also includes 6 paintings loaned by the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

Gemäldegalerie der Akedemie – Der Bildenden Künste

The main focus of the Rubens exhibition at the Gemäldegalerie der Akademie on Schillerplatz is the collection of small-scale oil sketches which Rubens dashed off as the initial ideas for his often huge colour compositions. The sketches for the Jesuit Church in Antwerp display the painterly virtuosity of Rubens` uniquely personal style in its purest form. Highlights of the Rubens collection in the Gemäldegalerie include spectacular mythological subjects such as Boreas abducting Oreithyia.