1886 - 1887

The Burgtheater Cycle of Paintings


Discover the fantastic ceiling panels of Burgtheater's state staircase Volksgartenseite in detail and zoom in the paintings by Gustav and Ernst Klimt and Franz Matsch.

Entrance of Burgtheater’s state staircase Volksgartenseite with the ceiling panels by Gustav and Ernst Klimt and Franz Matsch. Welcome to discover!

The Hofburgtheater, finally inaugurated in October 1888 after a prolonged construction period, marked the completion of the mammoth Ringstraße building project. After Gottfried Semper’s departure from Vienna in 1876 Carl Hasenauer bore the sole responsibility for the construction work. He alone was in charge of the details of the building’s outward appearance and of its interior decoration. As overall coordinator he was also responsible for the choice of artists. The highlights of the theatre’s artistic decoration are the panels from 1886/1887 painted on the ceilings of the two state staircases flanking the main building. The main panels, which are spread out along the central axis of the ceiling, have theatre history as their subject. They are early works by brothers Gustav and Ernst Klimt, and by Franz Matsch. In terms of prestige the commission was practically without parallel at the time: after all, the work had been commissioned by the Emperor himself. The theatre, a meeting place for the upper reaches of society, was also an institution bathed in the limelight of public attention. It is therefore not surprising that the work made the young artists known to a wider public almost overnight. It was their first great state commission and a turning point in their careers.
The State Staircase Volksgartenseite
Altogether there are ten autonomous paintings, one in each of the tympana that adorn the state staircases and five in each of the two wings.   While the cycle of paintings in the right staircase represents the evolution of the theatre and three classical playwrights, the left-hand side focuses on the themes of music, dance, medieval mystery plays and the ex-tempore stage.   All the scenes depict actors together with their audiences. In keeping with the spirit of the times the artists strove for historical accuracy, which manifests itself in such details as clothing, etc.  In the staircase on the right, starting from the entrance and with the painting in the tympanum, there is the "Altar of Dionysos", "Thespis' Cart" (both by Gustav Klimt), "Ancient Theatre Scene" (Franz Matsch), "Shakespeare's Globe Theatre" (Gustav Klimt), and "Scene from Molière" (Ernst Klimt).
The State Staircase Landtmannseite
The cycle in the left-hand staircase consists of the "Altar of Apollo", "Ancient Ex-Tempore Actor" (Franz Matsch), "The Theatre at Taormina" (Gustav Klimt), “Medieval Mystery Play” (Franz Matsch) and "Clown on a Fairground Stage" (Ernst Klimt).
The Altar of Dionysos (Gustav Klimt)
The expanded segmental arch was filled by Gustav Klimt with a comparatively condensed composition centring on a temple staircase, which is seen in steep perspective from below; as is conveyed to us by its topmost coping, which is only just visible, the temple is imagined as a triptych-like structure along the lines of the Pergamon Altar. In the middle there is the archaic head of the bearded god in gilt bronze; beside it, a small, grey figurine of a kouros presumably carved from stone. Flowers and ivy tendrils cascade down on either side of them.

On the left a maenad kneels. She leans slightly forward in an enthusiastic posture, clutching the sacrificial offering for the god, a gilt statue of Pallas Athena, in her left hand.

The second maenad in detail

Little child and signature of Gustav Klimt

The Cart of Thespis (Gustav Klimt)
The painting’s subject draws on the legendary beginnings of Greek theatre, when, as Horace would have us believe, Thespis journeyed round Attica with a cart doubling as a stage on which to perform his plays. The performance takes place in the right-hand half of the painting.

Thespis, wearing a long chiton, is already in full action on his cart; his face is heavily plastered with make-up to resemble a tragic mask. His eyes appear to be closed and his arms are spread in a grand gesture.

By far the most space is taken up by the spectators, by women with children in the first row and men at the back.

The groups of women and children have been composed with a view to variation.

Ancient Theatre Scene (Franz Matsch)
The central panel is a scene from Sophocles’ Antigone performed in Athens’ Theatre of Dionysos.

Three actors with masks perform on the stage, on the proscenium there is the chorus reacting in pathetic excitement, accompagnied by a flute player.

In the empty orchestra stands the sacrificial altar of Dionsysos with tripod vessel and laural wreath.

The upright woman in profile is a portrait of the acclaimed Burgtheater actress Charlotte Wolter (1834-1897).

Statue of Sophocles

Shakespeares's Globe Theatre (Gustav Klimt)
From antiquity we now move to the golden age of the theatre in Elizabethan England. As spectators in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre we witness the scene in the Capulets’ tomb in which a suicidal  Romeo has collapsed beside Juliet, whom he believes to be dead.

“Romeo and Juliet”

Seated in the wings of the stage, the noblest members of the audience are following the action from close by. The female figure may very well be the Virgin Queen herself.

The pit is densely crowded with people from all walks of life, as would really have been the case in the Globe.

The gentleman whose handsome bearded face rests on a precious ruff collar deserves our special interest, as we are here face to face with Gustav Klimt’s only painted self-portrait. The young man behind him in the red doublet is Ernst, and the elegant man with a rimless hat standing between the two artist brothers is Franz Matsch.

Scene from Molière (Ernst Klimt)
The next scene takes us to the court of Louis XIV, where Molière himself plays the imaginary invalid.

On the stage the hypochondriac Argan sits in a golden dressing gown to the right of doctor Diaforius. The woman on the left dressed in white is Argan’s daughter Angélique. Klimts sister Hermine acted as model to Ernst.

Grisaille Paintings by Carl Joseph Geiger (1822-1905)
The paintings sideward the main panels were executed by Carl Joseph Geiger in the so called “Grisaille” technique - entirely in shades of grey in imitation of sculpture - surrounded by an eye-catching simulated golden mosaic.


The Triumph of Bacchus by Edmund Hofmann von Aspernburg (1847-1930)
The figures in front of the tympanum at the end of the state staircase depicting Bacchus’ triumphal procession accompagnied by Ariadne and a quadriga of panthers were sculptured by Edmund Hofmann von Aspernburg.

Burgtheater Trailer

Burgtheater Wien
Credits: Story


Gustav Klimt, Franz Matsch und Ernst Klimt im Burgtheater. Otmar Rychlik. Hrsg. Klaus Bachler. Edition Kunstagentur, Wien, 2007

Credits: All media
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