When Wealth Meets Taste: A Preview of “Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collection”

Danae by Titian and workshop
Danae by Titian and workshop
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

"Sometimes wealth meets taste," Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, told a group of visitors during a Thursday preview of the newly installed “Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collection” exhibit. The 90 works from the historic Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna seen in the exhibit are among the most important pairings of Habsburg wealth with Habsburg taste. 

The Habsburgs spent some 500 years as the rulers of a vast European empire. And, more importantly for Houston this summer, as art collectors. In power from the late Middle Ages to the early 20th century, the family collected an amazing array of Greek and Roman antiquities; paintings by Titian, Velázquez and other masters; sculptures; objets d’art; and tapestries.

The family's fortune rose and fell over the millennia and the various rulers focused on different mediums or styles. It’s that vast array of mediums, eras, styles and artists that makes “Habsburg Splendor” so exciting to see, says David Bomford, interim department head of European art and chairman of the department of conservation. “Everything we see in the exhibit is an exquisite work of art by itself, but to see them all together is stunning.

“The exhibition is about the history of the Habsburgs and the amazing things they collected, of course, but it’s also about history of Europe. The battles, the church, the struggles and the accomplishments of Habsburg Europe are all seen in different ways through the exhibit." 

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During his reign, Archduke Franz Ferdinand added an exquisite marble bust of Julius Caesar from the 1st century to the collection. The Habsburgs, it seems, liked to claim they were the direct descendants of the Roman dictator. (Despite their elaborate family trees they created showing that lineage, they most certainly weren't, in any way, related to Caesar.) 

Emperor Leopold I, said to favor erotic art, acquired The Death of Cleopatra by Guido Cagnacci. The painting shows a dying and partially nude Cleopatra slumped on her throne surrounded by female servants who are also partially unclothed.

Maximilian II commissioned portraitist and painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo to create composite heads representing the four elements, including Fire (seen here). The work is startling. Flames compose the hair, a candle is part of the throat, another is an eye and an oil lamp is the chin. 

Danae (seen above) is credited to Titian and workshop. The painting was a gift from the Roman Cardinal Montalto to Emperor Rudolf II. 

The exhibit, of course,  includes portraits of family members most often at important events such as coronations and marriages. You can see a progressively pronounced chin develop over the generations because of the Habsburgs' habit of marrying relatives. (While other rulers waged war to acquire wealth and land, the Habsburgs married as a way of expanding the empire.) 

Included in the exhibit are some of the family's more practical items. There are carriages (including an elaborate hand-carved sleigh), gowns (one of which boasts a 20-inch waist), guns, goblets, religious items (an ivory crucifix by an unknown master is especially intricate and impressive), and suits of armor (one of which was built to accommodate the owner's large Habsburg chin). 

"I think the staggering thing is that not only do we have suits of armor, which can be seen in many museums," Bomford told us, " but we have the very suit of armor that Maximilian wore and the actual suit of armor that Charles V wore. These are the very ones that they actually wore.”

Also on exhibit is a painting of empress Zita and four-year-old crown prince Otto exiting a carriage at the the coronation Emperor Charles in 1916. The young prince is seen wearing a coat trimmed in gold brocade, ermine, silk and leather. Next to the painting is the coat.  

"Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collection"  opens on Sunday, June 14. Regular viewing hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 12:15 to 7 p.m. Sundays. Through September 13. 1001 Bissonnet. For information, call 713-639-7300 or visit mfah.org. $10 to $18.

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