Guide to Visiting the Belvedere Palace: On The Art Trail in Vienna
What could be better than outstanding art displayed and enjoyed in outstanding architecture? Here's my guide to visiting the Belvedere Palace in Vienna Austria.
The Belvedere Palace is one of Vienna's most visited tourist spots and an important UNESCO site for its showy architectural ensemble. The Belvedere is also one of Europe's most important museums. It's definitely the best museum in Vienna. So if you'll only make one "art stop," this is the place to choose.
The Belvedere's a haven of Baroque and Austrian art from the 19th and 20th centuries. Its main claim to fame is the world's largest collection of Gustav Klimt paintings, including the world famous The Kiss. It also boasts masterworks by Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, two important Expressionist painters.
I adore this period of art history -- the late 19th and early 20th century. It was the beginning of Modernism, an exciting time when fresh ideas were embraced and established old master traditions thrown off. When painting's subjects, techniques, and colors grew radical, infused by emotionality.
If you love this period of modern art, or just want to cross The Kiss off your bucket list, the Belvedere is a must see site in Vienna. And you'll also have a sweeping view of the beautiful Baroque city.
History and Different Sections of the Belvedere Museum
The Belvedere Palace was built in 1712-23 by Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt, a master Baroque architect. It was the swishy summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy, a legendary military leader of his time. It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.
The palace first opened as a museum in 1781. The imperial collection was moved to the Upper Belvedere. Its Picture Gallery was one of the world's first public museums.
The Lower Belvedere opened in 1903. Shortly after, the Ministry of Culture went on a spending spree, purchasing, among other things, Klimt's The Kiss in 1908.
In 1992, the two palaces underwent extensive renovation. The collection was restructured and rebranded. In 2002, the 20er Pavilion was created for the world fair. It was later renamed Belvedere 21. Now, the museum has three locations: the Upper Belvedere, Lower Belvedere, and Belvedere 21.
1. Upper Belvedere
The Upper Belvedere was Prince Eugene's ceremonial offices. Today, the vast majority of the museum's important art is stashed in the sumptuous Upper Belvedere.
In particular, it features 24 luscious paintings by Klimt. It also holds masterpieces by Austria's other favorite sons, Schiele and Kokoschka, works of French Impressionism, and works from the Vienna Biedermeier.
2. Lower Belvedere
Although the Upper Belvedere has the Klimt fame, the Lower Belvedere also has some high quality art and architecture. It was built between 1712-16. The Upper and Lower Belvedere are connected by a formal French gardens that run downhill between the two palaces.
While the Upper Belvedere was "for show" -- announcing Prince Eugene was rich and powerful -- the Lower Belvedere served as the residential palace. And why not build two grand palaces, under the theory that more is more. Check out the Hall of Grotesques, the Marble Gallery, and the Golden Room.
Adjacent to the Lower Belvedere was the Winter Palace, or Orangery, and the Royal Stables. The Orangery, as its name portends, used to house orange trees because the prince loved oranges.
Now, its home to a collection of sacred medieval art. If you buy a combo pass, you can inspect the building. It also sometimes hosts exhibitions.
4. Belvedere 21
Located in a modern post-war glass and steel building close to the Military Museum, the Belvedere 21 is a powerhouse of contemporary art.
It's a venue for temporary exhibitions, performance art, film screenings, themed lectures, concerts, and artists lectures. It's a hip place, dominated by the local art scene.
5. Palace Gardens
The Palace Gardens were planned by the Bavarian garden designer Dominique Girard. From the Lower Belvedere, the Baroque gardens ascend to the Upper Belvedere in a strictly symmetrical design.
It's based on formal French gardens, like Versailles, with precisely arranged trees, hedges, and fountains. It's captivating, but a little severe. You feel as if you're in a period movie.
Highlights of the Upper Belvedere Museum
I'm going to focus on the elegant Upper Belvedere, the most visited part of the Belvedere palace complex with the best art. Before you begin ogling the Klimts, take a moment to admire the building itself.
Here's what you can't miss at the Belvedere Palace:
What To See at the Belvedere Palace
1. The Kiss, Gustav Klimt, 1907
The Belvedere's most iconic paintings is undoubtedly Klimt's glittering The Kiss. Plastered on fridge magnets and mouse pads, we've grown used to the image. But, still, nothing prepares you for a glimpse in real life. It's just so beautiful.
Gustav Klimt was an Austrian Symbolist painter. He was a prominent member of the Vienna Art Nouveau, aka the Vienna Secession.
The Kiss is from Klimt's "Golden Period." That period was inspired by Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna and Venice. It's characterized by the elaborate and opulent use of gold.
For Klimt, all art was erotic, featuring the beauty and danger of women. His portraits are idealized visions of romantic love. The women are typically submissive. His art wasn't appreciated much by the Viennese bourgeoise at the time, but is now beloved.
Set against a black wall, the gorgeous Kiss portrays two lovers in a tight embrace enveloped by golden light. The woman is completely locked in her lover’s arms, almost in a golden cage. The male is a self portrait of Klimt himself.
If you want to do a Klimt-themed tour of Vienna, check out my guide.
2. Judith and the Head of Holofernes, Gustav Klimt, 1901
Judith is another of Klimt's "golden" paintings, and by far his most risqué. The last time I saw it was actually at a special Klimt exhibition in Paris. In the Bible, Judith was a young widow who seduced and beheaded the Assyrian commander Holofernes. It was a surprisingly popular subject for painters.
Unlike the woman in The Kiss, Judith is frankly sensual. She is portrayed nude, as a seductive and predatory femme fatale. Adele Bloch-Bauer was the model for this painting, and Klimt's frequent muse.
Bloch-Bauer was also captured in a portrait that sold for $135 million in 2006. And one sold by Oprah Winfrey for $150 million in 2016. She's even been called the Austrian Mona Lisa.
At the time, there was gossip that Klimt and Bloch-Bauer were having an illicit affair. Bloch-Bauer appears blissed-out in the Judith painting. And Klimt was a notorious ladies' man. But an affair was never confirmed. And there's no mention of it in Klimt's letters.
3. Portrait of Fritza Riedler, Gustav Klimt, 1906
This is anther painting from Klimt's Golden Period, just not as dramatically gold. It's one of his most famous portraits. Fritza sits, mostly upright, on a peculiar geometric sofa. It's abstract and consists mainly of gold and white eye motifs. Mosaics frame her head, drawing attention to it.
The white ruffled dress and white couch are balanced by a warm orange background and a lavender carpet. The intertwining of bright and bronze colors is a classic Art Nouveau technique.
4. 4 Trees, Egon Sciele, 1917
Egon Schiele was a more expressionistic artist than Klimt. He explored the extremes of human existence and the inner torment of the human soul. Schiele turned up the volume to scream pitch.
He typically painted distorted nudes and children. His humans are awkward, bony, twisted, fragile, and somewhat tortured looking.
4 Trees is a rare landscape from Schiele. Still, the trees are alive and almost human-like. They seem to represent people on the edge, appropriate for a painting created on the edge of WWI. The middle two trees are dying and outer two seem alive.
5. Death of the Maiden, Egon Schiele, 1915-16
Schiele's Death and the Maiden is a truly great work. It may be my favorite painting at the Belvedere.
The tense painting seems snatched from a war zone. The palpable pathos is just so compelling. There are two central figures, clinging desperately to each other and floating above a desolate muddy landscape. They look hopeless, like they'll be spirited away by the arms of death, as the title implies.
The man's eyes are wild and sad. Manic almost. The man represents Schiele himself, portrayed as death, and the woman is his mistress Wally Neuzil. Schiele had to break off the affair with Wally to marry his wife Edith Harms.
6. Egon Schiele, The Embrace (Lovers II), 1917
In this painting, Schiele depicts something more than just nudity. He bares the souls of his subjects. It's another flat perspective painting, a style that presaged American Abstract Expressionism.
The Embrace uses some odd colors for humans, like the touches of bilious green. But that was typical of Schiele. He sought to "paint the light that pours from all the bodies."
In this painting, Schiele is with his wife Edith in a naked embrace seen from above, a perspective he liked. There’s tenderness here. Schiele manages to convey intimacy, rather than the untrammeled eroticism of his early works.
7. Max Klinger, Bronze of Beethoven, 1907
Here, as in his other work, Max Klinger depicted Beethoven as a bare-breasted Olympic deity, legs cut off at the thighs. Klinger modeled this marble torso of Beethoven from his monumental sculpture of the composer, which was shown at the 1902 Vienna Secession exhibition.
The exhibition, dedicated to Beethoven, was one of the movement's most widely attended and popular shows. Klinger's "bathhouse" statue of Beethoven was criticized. Because most people saw Beethoven as a modern father of music, critics found Klinger's interpretation of Beethoven confusing, if not repellant.
And you're interested in seeing Beethoven sites in Vienna, I've written a guide for that too.
8. Auguste Rodin’s 1909 Bust of Gustav Mahler
French sculptor Auguste Rodin brought sculpture into the modern age. Rodin is reknowned for his ability to forgo realism in favor of using texture, surface details, and inner emotion to illuminate a subject.
In this bust, Rodin gives Gustav Mahler an aristocratic look with ascetic, sharp features. Mahler modeled for Rodin over 10 days. The sittings were difficult for the high strung composer to endure. He viewed modeling as "time wasted away from his work," his wife recalled.
9. Edvard Munch, The Painter Paul Hermann and the Doctor Paul Contard, 1897
Like Schiele, Norweigan artist Edvard Munch always focused on the internal, not the external, of a given subject. Though he portrayed others, much of his work was a tortured visual autobiography.
Munch's themes were life and death, love and terror, and the desperate feelings of loneliness and despair. He wanted to "paint living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love."
This is a double portrait of two friends. Neither of them is screaming like his more famous paintings, The Scream. But there's an intensity to their gaze and to the painting.
10. Vincent Van Gogh, The Plains of Auvers, 1890
Vincent Van Gogh is a beloved Post-Impressionist painter, who we've come to know for his colorful sunflowers, intense portraits, and out-of-kilter landscapes.
In 1890, Van Gogh left Arles in Provence for Auvers-sur-Oise, outside Paris. After a year long stay in a psychiatric hospital in southern France, Van Gogh wanted a fresh start, a place to heal his battered psyche. And to be closer to his beloved brother Theo, who was an art dealer in Paris.
Van Gogh was prolific in Auvers, calling the town "gravely beautiful." The Belvedere's Auvers painting is part of a cycle where Van Gogh tried to capture the rural landscapes (fields, roads, haystacks, forests, gardens) as well as natural phenomena (rain, storm, sunset).
11. Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, 1801
French artist Jacques-Louis David was the quintessential Neoclassical painter. He painted famous leaders, captured noble deeds, and loved grand historical events. His traditional works are characterized by linear precision and a minimalistic style, devoid of distracting flourishes.
The Belvedere's painting is one of five copies of the classically rendered, and very famous, equestrian painting created by David. It shows an idealized version of Napoleon, leading his troops across the alps in 1800, in his famous gold tipped bicorn hat.
You can see the hat on display with another version of the painting in Paris' Army Museum at Les Invalides. The Belvedere version is almost identical to the one on display at Versailles.
12. Oskar Kokoschka, The Painter Carl Moll, 1913
Along with Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka was a pioneer of Expressionism in Austria. He's celebrated for his bold portraits and landscapes. His portraits are psychologically riveting. He eschewed typical color schemes, painting a frenetic tempestuous world.
Kokoschka's disturbing works scandalized a prudish Vienna at the time. Kokoshcka was nicknamed "Chief of the Wild Ones." The Belvedere has 12 Kokoshckas.
The half length portrait of Carl Moll is particularly striking with its raw application of paint. Moll was himself a prominent Art Nouveau painter.
13. Oskar Kokoschka, Mother and Child, 1922
The Kokoschka portrait Mother and Child (1922) is almost a Fauvist painting or at least very Cezanne-esque. It's like a brilliant pictorial carpet, comprised of intensely colored, heavily painted patches. The heads and hands are set against an abstract background.
14. Richard Gerstl, Self Portrait Laughing, 1907
Richard Gerstl is another Austrian Expressionist. He may have been bipolar. He died far too young in a grisly suicide, which featured both hanging and stabbing.
At the time, Gerstl was distraught. His affair with Mathilde Schoenberg, wife of his close friend and modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg, had been discovered. Gerstl was cast out from Eden and isolated.
Gerstl conveyed emotionality through color and brushwork. But also used a psychological approach to subject matter. In its dual relationship between observation and expression, his oeuvre is related to Munch's.
His Self Portrait Laughing is one of his stark self-portraits, influenced by Van Gogh. In it, Gerstl looks slightly mad, maniacal with a toothy grin. He appears to be laughing at something, possible his inevitable fate.
15. Edvard Kirchner, The Mountains of Kloster, 1923
Ernst Kirchner was one of the leading figures of German Expressionism. He was the founder of the Die Brücke group, based in Dresden and Berlin before World War I. His expressionistic style was a reaction against Impressionism.
He's represented in the Belvedere with the work The Klosters Mountains. Mountain views inspired and calmed Kirchner. And his bold and unusual colors jump off the paintings. He used blue and red to depict the mountains.
Kirchner's works were later classified as "degenerate art." The Nazis destroyed 600 of his pieces. When the Nazis invaded Austria, Kirchner shot himself to avoid capture.
16. Claude Monet, The Chef, Portrait of Père Paul, 1882
Claude Monet is perhaps the most famous French Impressionist. In the Belvedere's work, Monet painted a portrait of the chef Paul Antoine Graff, his landlord, wearing his white chef's hat and jacket. The swirling brushstrokes of the beard and face are a contrast to the grayish blue background.
With his painterly style and focus on natural light, Monet influenced the Austrian Secession era painters. Some borrowed his brush rhythm and motifs. Others adopted Monet's concept of a repetitive theme, like Monet's water lilies series that was 30 years in the making.
I hope you've enjoyed this guide to visiting the Belvedere Palace in Vienna. Art and architecture lovers should't miss this beautiful, Klimt-filled UNESCO museum. You'll want to kiss The Kiss. Or at least buy a fridge magnet or mouse pad.
Virtual Tour of the Belvedere Palace
If this guide wasn't enough for you, you can take a virtual tour of the Belvedere Palace. The Belvedere Palace is on Google Arts & Culture. You can see close ups of The Kiss and examine 51 items from its permanent collection.
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting the Belvedere Palace and Museum in Vienna
Upper Belvedere: Prinz-Eugen-Strasse 27, 1030 Vienna
Lower Belvedere: Rennweg 6, 1030 Vienna
Belvedere 21: Arsenalstraße 1, 1030 Vienna
Pro tips: Hour long guided tours in English are available and there is an English audioguide. The Belvedere is with walking distance of the city center. Or you can take the U-Bahn to Sudtirolerplatz or the S-Bahn Station to Quartier Belvedere.
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