‘Biedermeier’ A Double Life

18th Century Austrian Design; Elegance Without Ornament, Royalty Without the Paparazzi

On The Town | Mladen Kovacevic, Dardis McNamee | April 2007

Most of the major artistic movements of recent centuries show pan-Western similarities. Biedermeier, however, as the period between the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the revolutions that ripped across the continent in 1848 is referred to, has a quintessentially central European feel about it, and as such, visiting the Biedermeier exhibition currently being held at Vienna’s Albertina gives you the chance to see how the industrial era was ushered in stylistically by Austria and its closest neighbours.

"Biedermeier led a double life," wrote Goethe, a contemporary, referring to the combination of a reverence for antiquity and a love of nature evident in the art of the period. And at the heart of this synthesis is simplicity.

Elegance without ornament, royalty without the paparazzi, in one painting by Leopold Fertbauer, the Emperor Franz I and his family appear casual and content, rather than trussed up in a finery designed to impress rather than to be lived in.

Many of the paintings selected are from the collection of Archduke Ezrherzog Karl, who, according to the placard on the wall, engaged a young carpenter in 1822 to redecorate his palace in the ‘modern’ way, while at the same time refraining from becoming too bourgeois.

Because of their simplicity, Biedermeier furnishings were relatively cheap to produce, which helped spread the images and ideas quickly through the middle classes and beyond. Cost efficiency became the by-word in what was to become the first era of mass production. Biedermeier was thus a reflection of the new, capitalist values creeping into society.

Some of the glassware on show demonstrated the more frivolous side of Bedermeier life. Glasses with motives of animals, mostly butterflies and fish, were the Biedermeier era idea of a practical joke: People would pour a drink for their visitor who, while drinking, would notice an insect or fish painted on the glass. Their equivalent of the fly in the ice-cube.

Chairs honored the ideal of simplicity; less ornate than the French furniture of the same period, craftsmen focused on line and material, and the marrying of form and function. Considered inter-active, cushions could be changed or switched. Furniture was produced much smaller, and could be moved around at the owner’s whim.

Wood was also processed in a way as to emphasize the grain, this becoming a form of decoration in its own right.

But returning to the painting of the period and the Archduke’s collection, another theme recurrent is landscape, represented here by works by Thomas Ender – paintings the Archduke considered a visual record of favorite places, precursor to photography rather than interpretive art. In contrast to the romantic period it replaced, some element of human activity was always present; a house, a hut or a farmer with a wagon.

Moritz Michael Daffinger’s work is also represented at the exhibition. A pioneer of artists, his subject of choice dead nature. Originally a great portrait painter, the death of his daughter changed the nature of his work, reflecting his belief that as everything is God’s creation it should be painted as it is in reality without decorations, because even if it may appear ugly to us, it is still beautiful as it is the work of the Lord. The degree of detail in his reproductions is astonishing, plants jumping out as if they are right before your eyes.

The walls of other rooms of the exhibition are filled with paintings of interiors as well as exteriors. Landscapes by Jakob Alt, Edward Gurk and Franz Eybl are absolutely phenomenal, but interiors by Johann Erdmann Hummel and L.C. Hofmeister, are also interesting. Although unusual for their time, some of them are wonderfully painted. Despite this, they tend not to attract that much attention.

According to the curator, that was not exactly their purpose: At one point in time it became fashionable too have private, domestic interiors made, to be given away to friends and family. The motive was basically ostentatious: Everybody desired a fashionably decorated living space, and once attained it was to be displayed.

This craze for interior design even prompted a frenzy for British style windows, which being larger enabled more light to enter a room and made it look bigger than it actually was.

Also on display were the more mundane articles of daily life. On the second floor of the exhibition, a few pieces of clothes were presented, dresses and hats along with some tools of the time, for example, a machine used to determine the angle of diamonds, etc.

It was obvious that the exhibition was a hit with the crowd of visitors; people took the time to read the placards and spent long moments studying  it very much.

The only criticism that could be leveled is the fact that some rooms were be too small and cramped, which in a way encouraged you to spend less time perusing the exhibits than you otherwise would.


Biedermeier: Erfindung der Einfachheit


1.,Albertina Platz 1

Through May 13

Tel: 01 534 830

Daily 10-18:00, except Wed. 10- 21:00


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