Focus Scientific Research

Austrian Portraiture in the 18th century. The collection of the Elisabethinen convent in Klagenfurt

Eva Kernbauer

Institute for Art History Project partners: Convent “Elisabethinen Klagenfurt”; Institute for Conservation and Restoration, University of Applied Arts, Vienna
The project aims to investigate approximately 135 portraits from the collection of the Elisabethinen convent in Klagenfurt bequeathed by the Austrian archduchess Maria Anna (1738-1789). The convolute consists of oil paintings and pastels showing Habsburg aristocrats and contemporary clerics, including an ancestral gallery as well as a depiction of Maria Theresia and Franz Stephan in carnival costumes. An extraordinary density of children’s portraits further characterizes the collection. Between 2010 and 2012 the works were, for the first time, documented, inventoried and subjected to restoration and conservation measures by the Institute for Conservation and Restoration at the University of Applied Arts. The current project affiliated to the Department of Art History addresses a profound study of the collection’s art-historical and cultural contexts.

The project’s main objectives are a contextualization of the artworks within regional and transregional 18th-century art production and distribution, an attribution to artists and workshops, and a reconstruction of the history of the collection before and after the accession of Maria Anna’s estate by the Elisabethinen convent after her death in 1789. On the one hand, the study attempts to reconstruct the original structure of the collection as well as the provenances of the individual objects, and on the other hand their historical presentation at the Viennese court, respectively at the residency in Klagenfurt, in order to describe the representational and memorial functions of the paintings and pastels.

The role of the archduchess herself will be also considered from a feminist perspective, as she acted not only as collector but also as a well-recognized engraver and painter. From a socio-historical perspective the project attempts to examine the Habsburg environment and to analyze the children’s portraits within the changing notions of childhood in the 18th century.

Finally, the specific qualities of the Klagenfurt collection will be addressed in terms of 18th-century genre conventions: the portraits partially quote large-format family-portraits or sections of full-figure paintings by well-known 18th-century artists. These links to specific conventions and functions questions more conventional conceptions of portraiture as a direct, at most idealized, rendition of physical appearance: depictions that at first sight look authentic, may turn out as iterated and only slightly varied.