Art History Museum in Vienna

The Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM) is a major art museum that was built starting in 1891 near the Imperial Palace in Vienna to display the extensive art collections of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph and his family.

Among many other famous art works, this museum has fourteen paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569), comprising the largest collection of his paintings in the world. The painting in my first photo is his Hunters in the Snow from the year 1565. (This is a pre-Covid photo, by the way.)

L’Œuvre au Noir

All you loyal readers of my post Death in Münster might recall that part of the painting Hunters in the Snow was used for the cover of the French paperback edition of the novel L’Œuvre au Noir by Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987). This is not because the novel has anything to do with hunters or snow — it doesn’t — but because Breughel is well-known as a Flemish painter.

The painting, or at least the excerpt on the book cover, captures the mood (though not the topography) of Flanders in the 1560s, which is where the second half of the novel takes place. Zénon, the protagonist, is wanted by the Inquisition for his irreligious philosophical writings. To avoid capture, he hits on the audacious plan of returning to his home town of Bruges (aka Brugge) and practicing medicine there under an assumed name, on the theory that no one would think of looking for him there, of all places.

Actually, only about a third of the painting was used for the book cover, taken from the upper left-hand corner of the painting. The excerpt includes three of the six trees and one of the three hunters — and one of the crows perched up in a tree, since crows in Dutch tradition were often associated with the Devil.

None of the soaring birds from the painting are included in the book cover, also none of the people playing on the frozen ponds down in the valley and none of the mountains that Bruegel had found so impressive on his way back from Italy to Flanders. Overall, the excerpt on the book cover makes a much more ominous impression than the painting as a whole.

Zénon, in the novel, and Bruegel, the painter, both died in the same year, 1569.

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Another Bruegel painting in the KHM museum in Vienna is The Tower of Babel, dating from around 1563. Since Bruegel was a Catholic and lived in a Catholic region, he presumably did not read about the Tower of Babel in the Bible (Genesis 11:1-9), but rather in the Missal (in French Missel) for some year. Reading the Bible was a sign of Protestantism, and as such was forbidden in Catholic areas. In extreme cases, it could result in death by hanging (for men) or being buried alive (for women).

In L’Œuvre au Noir, Zénon’s return to Bruges was delayed slightly when his stagecoach was stalled in Tournai because a crowd was walking to the central square “to witness the hanging of a certain tailor named Adrian, who had been convicted of Calvinism. His wife was also guilty, but since it would be indecent to have a creature of her sex hanging in the open air with her skirts dangling above the heads of the passers-by, it was decided to follow the age-old custom and bury her alive. This brutal foolishness horrified Zénon, who concealed his distaste behind a straight face, having made it a rule never to express any sentiment about anything touching on the quarrels between the Missal and the Bible.” (Pages 191-192.)

The suicide of Cleopatra by Guido Cagnacci

In this painting by Guido Cagnacci (1601-1663), on display in the Art History Museum in Vienna (KHM), a quite young-looking Cleopatra (she was actually 39 at the time) lets herself be bitten by a poisonous snake on August 12 of the year 30 BC, to avoid being taken prisoner and paraded through the streets of Rome.

All you loyal readers of my post on the Alte Pinakothek in Munich might recall that another 17th century painter, Johann Liss, also painted the same scene (three decades before Cagnacci), in a similar format but with a different and much darker background.

Aside from the 1963 film with Elizabeth Taylor, I know Cleopatra mainly from the opera Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt) by Georg Friedrich Händel, which I saw once at the Garnier Opera in Paris with Jane Archibald and several times in Frankfurt with Brenda Rae as Cleopatra.

Hans von Aachen, Tarquinius and Lucretia

This painting by Hans von Aachen (1552-1615), shows a story that happened in ancient Rome in the year 509 B.C., told for instance by Ovid and Livy, and later re-told by Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare, among others. In the 20th century, this story formed the basis of the opera “The Rape of Lucretia” by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I saw a moving production of this opera in 2008 in the Bockenheimer Depot, the alternative venue of the Frankfurt Opera. The stage director was the American baritone Dale Duesing, who as a young singer many years before had sung the role of Prince Tarquinius under the direction of Benjamin Britten himself.

Art History Museum (KHM) in Vienna, from the outside

My photos in this post are from 2016. I revised the text in 2021.

See more posts on Vienna, Austria.
See also: Paintings on opera themes in Bordeaux, France.

14 thoughts on “Art History Museum in Vienna”

  1. I’ve never yet been inside this museum, despite several visits to Vienna/Wien. Very interesting background to the paintings you saw there. I hadn’t known that reading the Bible was regarded as a sign of Protestantism!

  2. Probably not as “successful” as Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts, but worth recording nonetheless.

    The Hunter in the Snow
    William Carlos Williams

    The over-all picture is winter
    icy mountains
    in the background the return

    from the hunt it is toward evening
    from the left
    sturdy hunters lead in

    their pack the inn-sign
    hanging from a
    broken hinge is a stag a crucifix

    between his antlers the cold
    inn yard is
    deserted but for a huge bonfire

    that flares wind-driven tended by
    women who cluster
    about it to the right beyond

    the hill is a pattern of skaters
    Brueghel the painter
    concerned with it all has chosen

    a winter-struck bush for his
    foreground to
    complete the picture

  3. I found this very interesting – my daughter has just stated her Master Degree in Art Curating and would understand a lot more than I can. Is there a copyright problem with using such a famous painting as the cover on a novel?

    1. Thanks for your visit and comment. I don’t know what the copyright situation is, but I do know that lots of novels (and opera programs) use famous paintings on their covers.

  4. One of my favourite places! I spent a lot of time in there when I was lucky enough to be living and working in Vienna.

  5. I can’t remember where I first saw a Bruegel painting – it must have been in Europe in 1950 although they do have one at Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore.

    1. I didn’t know there was one in Baltimore — but I was surprised to find so many in Vienna, since Breughel lived and worked mainly in Flanders.

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