Vienna's location at the crossroads of the Germanic, Mediterranean, and eastern Europe worlds contributed to a rich and varied artistic heritage.
Vienna is best known for the splendor of its baroque and rococo palaces and churches. It also contains a wealth of internationally renowned Gothic and modern architecture.
Early Ecclesiastical Art -- Most art in the early medieval period was church art. From the Carolingian period, the only survivors are a handful of illuminated manuscripts, now in Vienna's National Library. The most famous is the Cutbercht Evangeliar from around 800, a richly illuminated copy of the four gospels.
The Romanesque period reached its peak between 1000 and 1190. Notable from this time is the Admont Great Bible, crafted around 1140, one of the prized treasures of Vienna's National Library. In 1181, the famous goldsmith Nicolas de Verdun produced one of the finest enamel works in Europe for the pulpit at Klosterneuburg Abbey. Verdun's 51 small panels, crafted from enamel and gold, depict scenes from the religious tracts of the Augustinians. After a fire in the 1300s, the panels were repositioned onto an altarpiece known as the Verdun Altar at Klosterneuburg, where they can be seen today.
The Gothic Age -- The Gothic Age in Austria is better remembered for its architecture than its painting and sculpture. Early Gothic sculpture was influenced by the Zachbruchiger Stil (zigzag style), identified by vivid angular outlines of forms against contrasting backgrounds. The era's greatest surviving sculptures date from around 1320 and include The Enthroned Madonna of Klosterneuburg and The Servant's Madonna, showcased in Vienna's St. Stephan's Cathedral.
By the late 1300s, Austrian sculpture was strongly influenced by Bohemia. The human form became elongated, exaggerated, and idealized, often set in graceful but unnatural S curves. Wood became increasingly popular as an artistic medium and was often painted in vivid colors. A superb example of Gothic sculpture is The Servant's Madonna in St. Stephan's Cathedral. Carved around 1320, it depicts Mary enthroned and holding a standing Christ child.
From the Renaissance to the 18th Century -- During most of the Renaissance, Vienna was too preoccupied with fending off invasions, sieges, and plagues to produce the kind of painting and sculpture that flowered in other parts of Europe. As a result, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Vienna struggled to keep up with cities like Salzburg, Munich, and Innsbruck.
Most painting and sculpture during the baroque period was for the enhancement of the grandiose churches and spectacular palaces that sprang up across Vienna. Artists were imported from Italy; one, Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709), produced the masterpiece The Apotheosis of Hercules that appears on the ceilings of Vienna's Liechtenstein Palace. Baroque painting emphasized symmetry and unity, and trompe l'oeil was used to give extra dimension to a building's sculptural and architectural motifs.
The first noteworthy Austrian-born baroque painter was Johann Rottmayr (1654-1730), the preferred decorator of the two most influential architects of the age, von Hildebrandt and Fischer von Erlach. Rottmayr's works adorn some of the ceilings of Vienna's Schönbrunn Palace and Peterskirche. Countless other artists contributed to the Viennese baroque style. Notable are the frescoes of Daniel Gran (1694-1754), who decorated the Hofbibliothek. He also has an altarpiece in the Karlskirche.
Vienna, as it emerged from a base of muddy fields into a majestic fantasy of baroque architecture, was captured on the canvas in the landscapes of Bernardo Bellotto (1720-80), nephew and pupil of the famous Venetian painter Canaletto. Brought to Vienna at the request of Maria Theresa, Bellotto managed to bathe the city in a flat but clear light of arresting detail and pinpoint accuracy. His paintings today are valued as social and historical as well as artistic documents.
Dutch-born, Swedish-trained Martin van Meytens (1695-1770), court painter to Maria Theresa, captured the lavish balls and assemblies of Vienna's aristocracy. His canvases, though awkwardly composed and overburdened with detail, are the best visual record of the Austrian court's balls and receptions. In 1730, van Meytens was appointed director of Vienna's Fine Arts Academy.
Sculptors also made their contribution to the baroque style. Georg Raphael Donner (1693-1741) is best known for the remarkable life-size bronzes of the Fountain of Providence in the Neuer Markt. Balthasar Permoser (1651-1732) is responsible for the equestrian statues of Prince Eugene of Savoy in the courtyard of the Belvedere Palace. The famous double sarcophagus in the Kapuzinerkirche designed for Maria Theresa and her husband, Francis Stephen, is the masterpiece of Balthasar Moll (1717-85).
Equally influential was Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1737-83), the German-trained resident of Vienna who became famous for his portrait busts. His legacy is accurate and evocative representations of Maria Theresa, her son Joseph II, and other luminaries.
The Revolt from "Official Art" -- In rebellion against "official art," a school of Romantic Realist painters emerged, drawing on biblical themes and Austrian folklore. Scenes from popular operas were painted lovingly on the walls of the Vienna State Opera. The 17th-century Dutch masters influenced landscape painting.
Georg Waldmüller (1793-1865), a self-proclaimed enemy of "academic art" and an advocate of realism, created one of the best pictorial descriptions of Viennese Biedermeier society in his Wiener Zimmer (1837). More than 120 of his paintings are on display at the Upper Belvedere museum.
Another realist was Carl Moll (1861-1945), whose graceful and evocative portrayals of everyday scenes are prized today. Joseph Engelhart (1864-1941) was known for his voluptuous renderings of Belle Epoque coquettes flirting with Viennese gentlemen.
The Secessionist Movement -- Young painters, decorators, and architects from Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts founded the Secessionist Movement (Sezessionstil) in 1897. The name captures their retreat (secession) from the Künstlerhaus (Vienna Artists' Association), which they considered pompous, sanctimonious, artificial, mediocre, and mired in the historicism favored by Emperor Franz Joseph. Their artistic statement was similar to that of the Art Nouveau movement in Paris and the Jugendstil movement in Munich.
The Secessionist headquarters, on the Friedrichstrasse at the corner of the Opernring, was inaugurated in 1898 as an exhibition space for avant-garde artists. Foremost among the group was Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), whose work developed rapidly into a highly personal and radically innovative form of decorative painting based on the sinuous curved line of Art Nouveau. His masterpieces include a mammoth frieze, 33m (110 ft.) long, encrusted with gemstones, and dedicated to Beethoven. Executed in 1902, it's one of the artistic focal points of the Secessionist Pavilion. Other pivotal works include Portrait of Adèle Bloch-Bauer (1907), an abstract depiction of a prominent Jewish Viennese socialite. Its gilded geometric form is reminiscent of ancient Byzantine art.
The Modern Age -- Klimt's talented disciple was Egon Schiele (1890-1918). Tormented, overly sensitive, and virtually unknown during his brief lifetime, he is now considered a modernist master whose work can stand alongside that of van Gogh and Modigliani. His works seem to dissolve the boundaries between humankind and the natural world, granting a kind of anthropomorphic humanity to landscape painting. One of his most disturbing paintings is the tormented The Family (1917), originally conceived as decoration for a mausoleum.
Modern sculpture in Vienna is inseparable from the international art trends that dominated the 20th century. Fritz Wotruba (1907-75) introduced a neo-cubist style of sculpture. Many of his sculptural theories were manifested in his Wotruba Church (Church of the Most Holy Trinity), erected toward the end of his life in Vienna's outlying 23rd District. Adorned with his sculptures and representative of his architectural theories in general, the building is an important sightseeing and spiritual attraction.
Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) was one of Vienna's most important contemporary painters. Kokoschka expressed the frenzied psychological confusion of the years before and after World War II. His portraits of such personalities as the artist Carl Moll are bathed in psychological realism and violent emotion.