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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin

What is Alte Nationalgalerie?

Alte Nationalgalerie, which translates to “Old National Gallery”, is Germany’s most important collection of 19th-century painting and sculpture, exhibited in a grand Neoclassical building on Museum Island in Berlin.

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Alte Nationalgalerie Collection

Step back into the 19th century by visiting Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie. This is Germany’s most important collection of 19th-century painting and sculpture, housed in imposing Neoclassical surrounds. Here, you’ll find the awesome landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, Germany’s most celebrated Romantic painter; you’ll be entertained by Adolph Menzel’s acute observations of 19th-century German society; you’ll even meet the French Impressionists, in treasured works by Manet, Monet, Renoir and Rodin. As you climb the interior staircase, look out for Otto Geyer’s wonderful plaster frieze that depicts the cultural achievements of Germany from prehistoric times right up to the 19th century.

Alte Nationalgalerie History

Berlin’s Nationalgalerie dates from 1861, when the banker Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Wagener bequeathed his collection of 262 contemporary paintings to the Prussian state. From this beginning the collection has expanded to encompass art from the 19th to the 21st centuries, and is so enormous, in fact, that it’s now divided between six separate museums around the city! Wagener’s generous gift included Friedrich’s deeply evocative The Solitary Tree and a number of intricate landscapes by the Düsseldorf School. The initial bequest, though, came with one stipulation: the paintings must be publicly displayed.

And so, plans for a national gallery of contemporary art were drawn up by the architect Friedrich August Stüler. A student of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Stüler was one of Germany’s most prominent architects in the Neogothic and Neoclassical styles. The building, which was completed in 1876 by another of Schinkel’s student’s Johann Heinrich Strack (following Stüler’s death in the previous decade), was based on a sketch by the late King Frederick William IV of Prussia. The king had long dreamt of creating what he called ‘a sanctuary for art and science’ on this small island on the River Spree. For the Nationalgalerie, he envisaged a temple-like structure raised grandly on a plinth decorated with motifs from antiquity. Although he never lived to see his dream realised, the king has been immortalised in the majestic bronze equestrian statue standing proudly on the gallery steps.

Alte Nationalgalerie

The impressive Nationalgalerie building was a monument to a newly emerging sense of pride and patriotism. In the years between Wagener’s bequest and the gallery’s opening, a huge political change had taken place. Berlin was no longer the Prussian capital, but the capital of the new nation of Germany. The gallery opened to the public in March 1876, as the Nationalgalerie. The word Alte (meaning ‘old’) was only added to its name after the Neue (or ‘new’) Nationalgalerie was opened in 1968, now holding the Nationalgalerie collection of 20th-century art.

In 1896 the gallery’s second director, Hugo von Tschudi, acquired two works of French Impressionism: Manet’s In the Conservatory and Monet’s View of Vétheuil. This made the Nationalgalerie the first museum in the world to recognise the importance of Impressionist art. The purchase transformed the predominantly German collection into the most important museum for modern French art at the turn of the century. No longer actively acquiring works, the Alte Nationalgalerie is a unique time-capsule, a testament to the grandiose patriotism of 19th-century Germany.

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