Brighter than the Dutch: the paintings in the British Fine Art Section, Group 25, at the 1873 Vienna Weltausstellung.

Author:Baird, Christina


This article discusses the British paintings contributed to the Fine Art Court in the 1873 Vienna Weltausstellung [World Exhibition] and the selection of artists whose paintings were chosen to represent British art from the period 1862 to 1873. The objectives of this study are three-fold: first to locate the exhibition within the exhibition site, giving consideration to the taxonomy and appearance of the display. Second, to identify contemporary accounts of this exhibition and trace some of the themes apparent in the display, examining reasons why these particular artists and paintings might have been selected for this display, how they were received, and what they and their achievements were valued for in their own time. Third, the exhibition is discussed in the wider context of other International or World Exhibitions of the time.

The Kunsthalle

The Vienna 1873 Weltausstellung was opened by the Emperor Franz Josef on 1st May.

New Austria was to show to the world how great she had grown through her recently won freedom; the older capitals, London and Paris, were to be made to see what a formidable rival they had in the metamorphosed residence of the Hapsburgs. (1) With such words JM Hart describes the objectives of the 1873 Weltausstellung, the idea for which was broached during a period in which Vienna was enjoying prosperity and expansion. Not long before in 1866 Austria had suffered a defeat in the war with Prussia but, according to Hart, the blow was not as devastating as it may have first have appeared:

Although losing Venice and the hegemony in Germany, she [Vienna] gained in concentration of capital and resources ... Hungary was reinstated in her autonomy, the burdens that had weighed so long upon trade and the acquisition of real estate were lightened one by one, the press was set at liberty, political exiles returned from banishment, liberal, progressive ideas rolled in upon the country ... Austria was undergoing the process of regeneration. (2) Nine days after the exhibition opened the Viennese markets crashed and comments were made upon the negative impact that this had upon the Weltausstellung as far as the visiting public and sales were concerned. These factors were further exacerbated by a cholera outbreak in the city.

The objectives of the 1873 Weltaustellung were primarily trade; exhibitors sent their wares to the exhibition not merely to make a 'fine show' but to 'open new markets'. (3) The Weltausstellung was accommodated in the Prater, a park that was formerly the imperial hunting ground, and a series of buildings were built as temporary constructions to house the displays. There were three main display areas, the Industriepalast [Industrial Hall], the Maschinenhalle [Machine Hall] and the Westliche Agriculturhalle and Oestliche Agriculturhalle [West and East Agricultural Halls]. In addition there were many smaller structures in the exhibition grounds. To the far west of these buildings the Kunsthalle, the Fine Art Court, was built.

The British Fine Art contribution to the 1873 Vienna Weltausstellung was located in the main Kunsthalle. The Fine Art Court comprised three buildings and the two smaller Kunstpavillons are still standing today (Pl 1). The southern building is the best preserved, the northern having suffered damage in 1945. The southern building preserves its original facade and portico with plaster mouldings and still bears the words 'Der Kunst' above the pillared entrance that rises above its sweep of steps. The interior is now made out as artists' studios, the 'Praterateliers'. From inside, the scale of these buildings and the wall space can be fully appreciated. (4) The main hall accommodates two spaces, each lit by a skylight thereby maximising the wall space available. These two buildings were described in 1873 in the newspaper Wiener Kunst-Halle where their dimensions were given as 45m by 205m and the sky-lit entrance hall and window-lit side galleries described briefly. An illustration of one of the pavilions was also shown. (5) Between the pavilions was a garden and central pond: the gardens are now overgrown and there are few indications of the original layout of this area although traces of the pond are still visible beneath the undergrowth. The perimeter wall, supporting a covered walkway around the complex with sculptural pieces displayed under it, has now entirely disappeared.

A map of the Weltausstellung shows the location of these three buildings (Pl 2). The largest, the main Kunsthalle. flanked the western length of the gardens and it was within this building, long since razed, that the British collection was exhibited (Pl 3). The interior of the main Kunsthalle is immediately recognisable in photographs: unlike other sections of the Weltausstellung, it was broken into relatively small spaces (6) with paintings taking up the entirety of the wall space, the larger format pieces higher up and the smaller to the bottom. Free-standing sculptural pieces were also arranged in these galleries.


The British fine art displays

The British Fine Art displays at the Vienna Weltausstellung can be considered as a separate category from the British submissions to the other sections of the exhibition. These paintings, unlike the other displays, were not for sale but on loan and, further, the space used for them was not rented by the metre as with the other sections. (7) The section under discussion, Group Twenty Five, was described as follows: 'Fine Arts of the Present Time, Works Produced since the Second London Exhibition of 1862.' (8) The four sections of this display were 'Paintings', 'Sculpture', 'Architecture' and 'Graphic Arts'. Visitors' reports on the Fine Art exhibition, in comparison to the other sections of the Weltausstellung, were brief and lacking in detail. The Graphic Guide to Vienna gave the British art exhibition only passing mention with the assertion that the paintings exhibited would be familiar to its readers:

A stroll through the British picture galleries shows much empty space, but a fair collection of art works; some seventy oil and about fifty water-colour pictures represent some of our best artists. A rule was laid down by the Commissioners of the Vienna Exhibition that this department should be specially reserved for original works painted since the year 1862. This rule has been broken by us as well as other countries. Take, for example, one of Turner's earlier pictures, "Walton Bridges," besides Frith's "Ramsgate Sands," H. O'Neil's "Eastward Ho!" and Ward's "Last Sleep of Argyll." These alone are sufficient to prove our assertion. The pictures are so well known to most of our readers that there is no necessity to discuss them fully here. (9) This extract is of interest in that it mentions that many of the paintings were not produced between the dates specified in the rules of the exhibit. We know, for example, that Cope's Othello relating his adventures to Brabantio was painted in 1853 and therefore falls somewhat earlier than the remit of the exhibition, as was The Marriage of Griselda (1852), to name but two.

That the author of the above quote assumes in his readers a familiarity with these paintings is also relevant. Searches through the contemporary newspapers...

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