ed. by Sabine Grabner and Agnes Husslein-Arco. Hirmer, dist. by University of Chicago Press, October 2017. 312 p. ill. ISBN 9783777427799 (h/c), $55.00.
Reviewed January 2018
Biedermeier is the time period in Austria between 1815 and 1848 marked by relative stability and prosperity for a growing middle class. This beautifully-illustrated exhibition catalog from the Belvedere in Vienna endeavors to reexamine painting from this period, often dismissed as petit-bourgeois and mediocre, and seeks to throw into relief its defining characteristics. Sabine Grabner’s essay “Art for the Bourgeoisie in Imperial Vienna” gives a good introduction to this period and also convincingly illuminates the greater role of the middle class in taste-making and the art market of this period. Subsequent essays expand the purview of Biedermeier to Austrian crownlands like Bohemia and Hungary, where it had varying degrees of influence, and the final essays examine how the rising middle class in England, France, Denmark, and Germany similarly shaped public taste away from history painting and toward more genre and portrait painting and a new kind of realism. Direct connections between artists in those countries and in Austria are also investigated, though most are too tenuous to have resulted in direct influence by Austrian artists. It should be noted that while some analyses of Biedermeier art focus on political aspects of this repressive period, this catalog mostly focuses on aesthetics and bourgeois sensibilities.
The scope and tone of the essays range from accessible overviews to dense analyses that require more than just casual knowledge of the aesthetics of the period (it is a translation from German, and was written with an Austrian audience in mind, where Biedermeier art is much more familiar). The catalog sometimes suffers from its efforts to exhaustively investigate every aspect of art of the Biedermeier era, particularly inclusion of furniture which, though exquisite, isn’t quite convincingly linked to the painting of the period in an opaque essay by Christian Witt-Döring. In the end, the definition of what Biedermeier is remains elusive, particularly as Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller and Friedrich von Amerling, the two most famous practitioners of the period, prove to have created paintings that defy easy categorization. However, the reader leaves with a delightful overview of an era of painting that is much more fascinating than one would guess based on its meager reputation. This catalog would be a great addition to any academic or museum library that collects titles in art history, particularly because there are so few English-language works that examine this period in Austrian art.