Exhibition | Europe in Vienna: The Congress of Vienna 1814/15

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on February 23, 2015


Johann Nepomuk Höchle, Redoute paré during the Congress of Vienna, ca. 1815
(Vienna: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek)

◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊

Press release for the exhibition:

Europe in Vienna: The Congress of Vienna 1814/15
Europa in Wien: Der Wiener Kongress 1814/15
Lower Belvedere and the Orangery, Vienna, 20 February — 21 June 2015

Curated by Sabine Grabner and Werner Telesko

The Congress of Vienna is one of the most important international mega events in European history. Two hundred years ago, Vienna became Europe’s political, cultural, and social hub for a period of several months. The Congress was hosted by Emperor Francis I of Austria. All of the major European powers sent their delegates in order to confer together about how to reorganise the continent, which had lost its stability during the Napoleonic Wars. Austria was represented by the Prince of Metternich, who also functioned as the president of the Congress. Its declared goal was to achieve peace in Europe and secure order on a long-term basis. The diplomatic negotiations were accompanied by a number of social events and various entertainments, the enormous splendour of which has been captured in numerous written and pictorial documents. Vienna was flourishing as a centre of cultural life, with many artists coming to the imperial capital and inspiring all genres of domestic art production.

Exhibition view "Europe in Vienna: The Congress of Vienna 1814/15". Photo by Eva Würdinger.

Exhibition view Europe in Vienna: The Congress of Vienna 1814/15. Photo by Eva Würdinger.

Europe in Vienna: The Congress of Vienna 1814/15 will highlight both the political and social aspects of this extraordinary event, which kept all Europe on tenterhooks over several months. There is hardly another political, diplomatic and social event of the nineteenth century that was documented by such a great diversity of materials like the Congress of Vienna, which turned the metropolis on the River Danube into the hotspot of Europe for a brief period of time. When preparing the objects for the exhibition, the curators Sabine Grabner and Werner Telesko were confronted with the challenge of how to vividly present a diplomatic and historical process that was mainly perceived as a social event. The exhibits, which come from numerous different countries, range from reportage prints and caricatures to history paintings and portraits in various dimensions and media—from miniature to sculpture and life-sized oil paintings. The scope of the Congress of Vienna as a phenomenon of social and artistic ramifications will primarily be displayed in the form of artistic masterpieces from all genres. The thematic spectrum will take into account both the exciting chronology of events—from the European Wars of Liberation and the occupation of Vienna in 1805 and 1809 to the Battle of Leipzig of 1813—and an adequate representation of their protagonists, who came from the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie alike.

François Pascal Simon Gérard, The Imperial Count Moritz Christian Fries with His Wife Maria Theresia Josepha von Fries (née Princess of Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Schillingsfurst) and Their Son Moritz, ca. 1805 (Vienna: Belvedere)

François Pascal Simon Gérard, The Imperial Count Moritz Christian Fries with His Wife Maria Theresia Josepha von Fries (née Princess of Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Schillingsfurst) and Their Son Moritz, ca. 1805 (Vienna: Belvedere)

“For the Belvedere it was particularly important to illustrate the epochal event of the Congress of Vienna as comprehensively as possible, both as to its historical and political and its social and cultural implications,” says Agnes Husslein-Arco, Director of the Belvedere and 21er Haus. “It was seemed essential to us to vividly capture the cultural impact of the Congress and the atmosphere that prevailed in those days through private loans, which we mostly found in the surroundings of direct descendants of the diplomats and aristocrats involved. Besides such personal souvenirs as medals and snuffboxes, we will also present the portrait of Princess Dorothea of Courland, the Duchess of Dino, Talleyrand-Périgord and Sagan, by François Gérard and the portrait of Prince Charles Philip of Schwarzenberg I by Johann Peter Krafft. I am particularly delighted that we succeeded in receiving Ludwig van Beethoven’s score for his Eroica symphony from the archives of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien, as well as the elaborately designed final act of the Congress of Vienna, which will naturally be the exhibition’s centrepiece,” Agnes Husslein-Arco adds.

Among the exhibition’s further highlights will be the portrait of Prince Clement Wenceslas Lothar von Metternich, then foreign minister of the Austrian Empire and its future chancellor, by the period’s leading English painter Sir Thomas Lawrence, as well as the more-than-lifesized portrait of Emperor Alexander I of Russia by François Gérard from the Château de Malmaison near Paris, which is hardly ever allowed to travel abroad.

The Congress of Vienna as a Junction of Politics and Culture

Johann Nepomuk Schaller, Bust of Empress Maria Ludovica Beatrix, 3rd wife of Emperor Franz I of Austria, 1814 (Vienna: Belvedere)

Johann Nepomuk Schaller, Bust of Empress Maria Ludovica Beatrix, 3rd wife of Emperor Franz I of Austria, 1814 (Vienna: Belvedere)

The Congress of Vienna as a historic diplomatic event whose consequences affected Europe as a whole was generally perceived by the public as a social spectacle. Yet those in charge and the organisers at the Viennese court were well aware from the very outset that there was a close connection between its political and diplomatic dimension on the one hand and its abundance of diverse court festivities (fireworks, dances, masked balls, carousels, tournaments, ethnic festivals, hunts, sleigh rides, theatre performances, etc.) and private fêtes on the other, which boils down to the fact that it was easier to arrive at relevant political results with the protagonists discussing unsettled or delicate issues in a relaxed atmosphere behind the scenes.

“The special challenge about the Congress of Vienna as a theme lies in the interdependence between history and event culture. What makes it even more difficult is that then there was no sense of documentation as it exists today, which means that many events have come done to us in the form of narrative but cannot be visualised in the form of images,” says curator Sabine Grabner.

As to the pictorial representation of the event it is characteristic that the image or images of the Congress of Vienna do not exist—except for the famous engraving based on a work by Jean-Baptiste Isabey (1819), which in our textbooks at school was still used as the illustration of the Congress of Vienna, although it actually visualises a fictitious conference of diplomats.

The Congress of Vienna as a Major Society Event


Exhibition view Europe in Vienna: The Congress of Vienna 1814/15. Photo by Eva Würdinger.

Initially the official entertainment programme of the Congress of Vienna comprised primarily military festivities. Various military parades, military church parades, and manoeuvres were intended to demonstrate to the high-ranking guests the strength and splendour of the imperial army. In addition, however, numerous court festivities were held, including balls and concerts that took place at the imperial palace or in the residences of influential members of the higher aristocracy, such as Rasumofsky or Metternich. The programme also included hunts, fireworks, and sleigh rides. For the huge balls at the Hofburg, which were attended by as many as 10,000 guests, the Winter Riding School was transformed into a gigantic dance floor and connected to the Hofburg’s two ballrooms by an outside staircase. ‘In order to do justice to the essential qualities of the Congress as a historic and diplomatic event on the one hand and as a point of attraction for European society on the other, the exhibition deliberately concentrates on the numerous intersections between art and cultural history,’ guest curator Werner Telesko, Director of the Department of Studies in Art and Music History at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, points out.

The Congress of Vienna as an Epochal Political Event

Exhibition view Europe in Vienna: The Congress of Vienna 1814/15. Photo by Eva Würdinger.

Exhibition view Europe in Vienna: The Congress of Vienna 1814/15. Photo by Eva Würdinger.

As to the significance of the Congress for posterity, one must not neglect the dramatic political developments of the year 1815. For Napoleon’s flight from the island of Elba and the subsequent declaration against him, which was signed by all of the European states on 13 March 1815, seem to have contributed considerably to the pressure of the Congress to succeed. As of this day, the political fate of Napoleon was sealed in the form of this hitherto unprecedented closing of ranks of the major European nations and eventually turned out to be final in the legendary and decisive Battle of Waterloo in June 1815 All in all, the Congress proved a remarkable political success. The borderlines between the individual European powers were redefined on a long-term basis. Especially the power equilibrium that had been achieved in Vienna had a far-reaching impact on the entire continent. The negotiations helped settle a number of conflicting interests and tensions. For almost forty years, no further martial conflicts occurred on a European level, due to the stability that had been brought about. Initially, Russia, Austria, Prussia, and Great Britain had decided that France, Spain, and the lesser powers should not have a voice in the decision processes. Yet the experienced French diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand eventually succeeded in getting France to participate in the deliberations of the major powers, so that he was able to secure the political influence of the ‘Grande Nation’.

On the Conception of the Exhibition and Catalogue

The Belvedere’s exhibition intends to confront visitors with the epochal event of the Congress of Vienna within a comprehensive historical review spanning the period from Napoleon’s appearance on the European stage to the Battle of Waterloo. Works of art serve to present an important historical episode as a narrative marked by a high degree of drama and fascinating personalities. The exhibition concept refrains from treating the individual genres and themes separately but seeks to offer exciting multimedia crossovers. It is only on such a basis that the interdependencies between social life and cultural boom as central aspects of the Congress can be properly experienced and understood. The catalogue and the exhibition complement each other and should therefore be seen as a conceptual unity. The contributions to this opulently designed publication offer essential information about the most important historical and art historical facts and their connections, some of which are difficult or even impossible to convey in the exhibition. The exhibition, on the other hand, is meant as a guide through historical developments alongside which it visualises the highlights of social life and cultural accomplishments. With its thematic approach, Europe in Vienna is the only exhibition that recognises this complex event in its entirety on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the Congress of Vienna in 2014/15.

“You have come in time to see great things happen. Europe is in Vienna.” This is how the French nobleman Charles Joseph de Ligne welcomed Count Auguste de La Garde, one of the famous chroniclers of the Congress. De Ligne’s assessment is not an invention or justification conjured up in retrospect but is confirmed by many contemporary sources. Because of its uniquely telling combination of Europe and Vienna, his wording has given the Belvedere’s exhibition its title.

◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊

Published by Hirmer, the catalogue is distributed by The University of Chicago Press:

Agnes Husslein-Arco, ed., Europe in Vienna: The Congress of Vienna 1814/15 (Munich: Hirmer Publishers, 2015), 448 pages, ISBN: 978-3777423241, $65.

Wiener Kongress_ohne Serifen.inddFrom September 1814 to June 1815, Vienna was the undisputed center of Europe. As the Congress of Vienna convened, the city saw an unprecedented gathering of crowned heads and their ambassadors. Among them were a tsar, an emperor, and no fewer than five kings as the leaders of Europe attempted to remake the continent in the wake of the Napoleonic wars. In total, two hundred European countries came together to discuss the future of the European continent. And while the diplomats worked during the day, in the evening, Viennese society blossomed: there were balls, parties, sleigh rides, receptions, theatrical performances, musical events, and much more. Vienna was suddenly the heart not just of European diplomacy, but of European social life as well.

This book draws on an astonishing trove of documents, including historical photographs and paintings, to re-create the atmosphere of the Congress of Vienna. The incredible images and documents are supported by essays that shed light on the political, cultural, and social aspects of the gathering. The resulting volume not only takes readers to an unforgettable moment in the past, but also highlights the continuing effects of this historic gathering for Europe and the entire world.

Agnes Husslein-Arco is an art historian and director of the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s