The foundation of the Nationalgalerie is due to an outstanding commitment of bourgeois patronage. The Berlin banker Joachim Heinrich Wilhelm Wagener donated to the Prussian king in 1861 his collection of 262 contemporary paintings by national and international artists – this formed the basis for the later collection of the Nationalgalerie.

Portrait of the banker Joachim Heinrich Wilhelm Wagener (1856) by Julius Friedrich Anton SchraderAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Joachim Heinrich Wilhelm Wagener 

With the opening of the magnificent building of the Nationalgalerie on March 22, 1876 on the Museum Island, Wagener's request for a "suitable location" for his over 40 years collected private collection is met. Behind Wagener's desire to make these works accessible to "artists and art lovers" is the idea of stimulating aesthetic as well as scientific engagement with the collection. After more than 150 years of further development of the collection, today's Nationalgalerie continues this basic idea in its endeavor to make both historical and contemporary art tangible. With the donation of his collection of paintings after his death 1861, the collector and patron of the arts Joachim Heinrich Wilhelm Wagener not only made a profound contribution towards the creation of the Nationalgalerie, but also bequeathed a body of works bearing remarkably broad witness to national and international developments in contemporary art. In Berlin around the middle of the 19th century, only the rival collection by Count Athanasius von Raczynski offered a comparable overview of current trends in painting. Wagener’s collection, however, was larger and more varied and adhered more closely to bourgeois tastes. While Raczynski preferred Nazarene art and idealized gural compositions, Wagener addressed himself primarily—alongside genre and history painting—to landscape. 

Wagener’s appreciation of landscape reflected a development in which the genre was re-evaluated and upgraded vis-à-vis history painting and established itself in a leading position on the basis of a new and modern understanding of nature. With the growing interest in nature since the end of the 18th century came a perception of landscape characterized by a previously unknown intensity. The landscape became a space for subjective experience and reflection, and in some cases a place of freedom. 

Solitary Tree (1822) by Caspar David FriedrichAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In 1822 Wagener commissioned from Caspar David Friedrich two outstanding key paintings, "The Lone Tree" and "Moonrise by the Sea", respectively symbolizing day and night.

Moonrise over the Sea (1822) by Caspar David FriedrichAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In the intellectual cosmos of the Romantics, representations of the times of day and the seasons of the year held a particular significance: ideas and experiences of personal and social evolution and change were associated with the course of time.

Gothic Church on a Rock by the Sea (1815) by Karl Friedrich SchinkelAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Wagener, patriot and member of the bourgeoisie, launched his career as a collector with the acquisition of Schinkel’s "Gothic Church on a Cliff by the Sea", executed in 1815 and indebted to the patriotic spirit of Romanticism. In this work, as so often in Schinkel’s paintings, a work of architecture stands at the centre of the composition. “The charm of the landscape is heightened by allowing the traces of human presence to appear in a clearly prominent fashion”, declared the artist himself. He stood for a vision of landscape painting in which humankind and its creative endeavours exist in harmony with nature.

Gate in the rocks (1818) by Karl Friedrich SchinkelAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Growing collection...

Between 1817 and 1820, further Schinkel landscapes joined Wagener’s gallery with his acquisition of "Gate in the Rocks", "Italian Landscape" and "Castle at the River". A tremendous admirer of Schinkel’s painting, Wagener furthermore commissioned Wilhelm Ahlborn and Friedrich Bonte to make copies of another seven works—probably because the originals were not for sale. By 1823, therefore, he had assembled a considerable body of eleven paintings by and after Schinkel and had thus laid the foundations for what is today the largest collection of Schinkel paintings.

Castle by the River, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, 1820, From the collection of: Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Show lessRead more
View of an Italian landscape, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, 1817, From the collection of: Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Show lessRead more

The Pontine Marshes at sunset (1848) by August KopischAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Berlin artists...

Alongside the Munich artists, a major proportion of Wagener’s gallery was devoted above all to the works of Berlin landscape painters such as Wilhelm Ahlborn, Eduard Biermann, Gustav Boenisch, Karl Hampe, August Kopisch, Wilhelm Krause and Ferdinand Schirmer. One of the unusually bold compositions within the collection is August Kopisch’s "View of the Pontine marshes at sunset": in dramatically heightened shades of red, the artist offers a view of the marshy landscape on the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea, “into which the solar disc is about to sink; the purple sirocco sky is reflected by  floodwaters”, as Kopisch himself described the canvas in a letter to Wagener.

Pomeranian coast (1828) by Wilhelm August KrauseAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

By contrast, Wilhelm Krause’s Pomeranian Coast seems less dramatic in mood, even if sky and sea are announcing the arrival of stormy weather. Krause was the first Berlin marine painter. While living in Dresden he vainly sought tuition from Caspar David Friedrich. Under the influence of his model Friedrich and of Johan Christian Dahl, he produced numerous coastal landscapes.

Ritterburg (1828) by Carl Friedrich LessingAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Düsseldorf artists...

Wagener’s  first important purchase of a Düsseldorf picture was Carl Friedrich Lessing’s "Ritterburg", a large-format landscape completed in 1828. Rising within a mountainous setting lit by the evening sun is a steep-sided rock, surrounded by water, its summit crowned by a castle. A knight is approaching the rock in a small boat; on a terrace high above, the master of the castle awaits his guest. Lessing drew upon the novel "The Abbot" by Sir Walter Scott as his literary source. Both the Düsseldorf artists and Wagener were great admirers of Scott’s novels.

Silesian landscape (1841) by Carl Friedrich LessingAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Wagener continued to purchase further landscapes from Lessing for his collection, including "The forest Chapel" and, in 1841, "Silesian Landscape". The lonely Silesian floodplain with its backwaters and scrubby vegetation was probably inspired by memories from the painter’s youth in his native Wroclaw. Lessing renounces narrative motifs. A solitary figure is walking along the road; far in the distance we can make out the towers of a town. Writing enthusiastically about this atmospheric, panoramic landscape, the Berlin critic Ludwig Pietsch proclaimed that he had “never seen this evening gold, this afterglow in the sky above the western horizon, their subtle gleam on the dark vegetation and the imperceptible transition towards the top into the cool tones in which this gentle glow gradually dies away [...] reproduced by a painter with such perfection as in this wonderful work by Lessing”.

Sagittarius in the bottleneck (1851) by Carl Friedrich LessingAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


One of the pictures that Wagener was very anxious to obtain, and for which he had to wait a very long time, was Lessing’s "Sagittarius in the bottleneck", a mountainscape and a history painting at the same time. The collector commissioned the composition, dedicated to the Thirty Years’ War, as early as 1836, but would only take delivery of the  finished work 15 years later, in 1851. Wagener paid 4,000 thalers for the painting—the most he had ever spent on a painting. “A picture of enormous allure, one that
is generally admired,” wrote Friedrich Eggers in the Deutsches Kunstblatt art journal. “We are indebted for the exhibition of this painting to Consul Wagener, [...] whose collection, kindly opened to the public, probably none who pass through Berlin leave unvisited, and who selflessly shares the enjoyment of a magnificent art treasure with this entire stream of travellers and his fellow citizens.” 

Lessing has depicted a mountain pass which is being defended against soldiers by a group of riflemen on a rocky outcrop. “It is the concrete image of revolt,” as Eggers writes; “it is a scene that surely always has been and always will be seen where insurrection raises its lawless, cursed head.” The mountains as a place of freedom, as the topos of a national and patriotic consciousness, become in this work the stage on which rebels are fighting for freedom. In this “double” portrayal of freedom, Lessing once again lent expression to his anti-authoritarian stance. And Wagener, the “indefatigable and liberal patron of the arts”, probably sympathized with this attitude. Lessing’s "Sagittarius in the bottleneck" was to become “the loveliest pearl” in his collection.

Portrait of the banker Joachim Heinrich Wilhelm Wagener (1856) by Julius Friedrich Anton SchraderAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Credits: Story

Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Concept / Text: Dr. Birgit Verwiebe

Editing / Realisation: Malith C. Krishnaratne

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Alte Nationalgalerie

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Google apps