Creation and collection of art has been part of the history of the Czech lands for centuries. In the Middle Ages works of art were almost exclusively associated with religion. Exquisite images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, saints, angels and scenes from the Bible were commissioned by sovereigns, aristocrats and church dignitaries and placed in churches and chapels. Painters and sculptors were seen primarily as servants of God and of their masters; their names have mostly remained unknown. The Renaissance, with its increased emphasis on the human being, broadened the scope of genres. Portraits, landscapes and still lifes began to adorn royal and aristocratic residences and later also houses of wealthy burghers. Artists stepped out of anonymity and openly presented their creative prowess and skills, and prominent members of society invested money and effort into collecting art. Emperor Rudolf II assembled numerous magnificent paintings and sculptures at Prague Castle and fine art collections were built up by several noble families and other private collectors residing in the Czech lands. Some of these treasures were later moved out of the country as a result of family arrangements, sales transactions or armed conflicts but many precious works of art can still be admired in Prague.
First Public Exhibitions
Charles IV had the castle built initially as a country residence, but subsequently decided to convert it into a shrine for the treasure of the Holy Roman Emperors – the Imperial Insignia and holy relics associated with the Passion of Jesus C 1796 art lovers founded a Society of Patriotic Friends of the Arts – the predecessor of today’s National Gallery of Prague. Works of art that used to be confined to the private residences of their owners began to be displayed to the public. The National Gallery of Prague continues this tradition, offering viewers several permanent collections as well as a number of temporary exhibitions.
Medieval art from the Czech lands and Central Europe can be seen in the Convent of St. Agnes of Bohemia – one of the oldest Gothic buildings of Prague, founded in the 1230s by Princess Agnes of the Přemyslid dynasty who has been worshipped as one of the patron saints of the Czech nation. The exhibition includes masterpieces testifying to the wealth of art creation in the Czech lands in the 14th and 15th centuries. The elaborate artistic program of Emperor Charles IV and his court is represented e.g. by six original paintings by Master Theodoric from Karlštejn Castle or by the famous votive painting commissioned by Archbishop Jan Očko of Vlašim. Delicate Madonnas and three panels from the splendid Třeboň Altarpiece are fine examples of the International Gothic whose Czech version is also known as the Beautiful Style.
Renaissance and Baroque Masterpieces
16th – 18th centuries. The Old Masters collection is presented in the Schwarzenberg Palace where fine paintings on the ceilings remind us of the time when the palace was built in the mid-16th century (Old Masters) and in the magnificent Baroque Sternberg Palace (Old Masters II). Some of the displayed works of art were created in the inspiring environment of the court of Emperor Rudolf II or brought to Prague to be included in the imperial collection – Albrecht Dürer’s Feast of the Rose Garlands stands out among the latter. The other illustrious names represented in this collection include Lucas Cranach the Elder, El Greco or Peter Paul Rubens. The only work by Rembrandt in the Czech Republic – A Scholar in His Study – can be seen in the Schwarzenberg Palace. Next to works by these European masters, we find paintings by Karel Škréta, Petr Brandl, Jan Kupecký and other leading Czech artists of the Baroque period.
19th & 20th Centuries: New Epochs, New Trends
The National Gallery of Prague possesses also impressive collections of modern art. Two permanent exhibitions featuring works from the 19th and 20th centuries welcome visitors in the Trade Fair Palace – a gem of Czech Functionalist architecture from the 1920s. Art from the period starting with the founding of the Society of Patriotic Friends of the Arts (1796) and ending with the outbreak of World War I in 1914 is presented under the title 1796-1914: Art of the Long Century. With more than 450 works – paintings as well as sculptures – by 150 artists, the exhibition offers interesting comparisons of diverse approaches to art as they were embodied in the oeuvre of Czech and European artists of several generations – paintings by Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Edvard Munch and Pablo Picasso can be seen together with those by Josef Mánes or František Kupka. The vibrant art scene of the first Czechoslovak state is portrayed at the exhibition entitled 1918-1938: The First Czechoslovak Republic which introduces prominent art galleries and institutions of that period. The highlights include paintings by great Czech artists such as Toyen, Jindřich Štyrský, Josef Čapek or Václav Špála and artists from other parts of the former Czechoslovakia – Slovakia and Carpathian Ruthenia, as well as masterpieces from the National Gallery’s French 20th century collection by Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Henri Rousseau or Vincent van Gogh.
Cooperation with leading galleries and museums of the world has often made it possible to bring to Prague some real treasures from international art collections for special short-term displays – the list of the National Gallery’s ongoing temporary exhibitions will tell you more about the current program.
In the National Gallery of Prague, great works of art and the expertise of the gallery’s curators and conservators have come together to offer visiting art lovers a choice of truly unique experiences.
The author is a graduate of Charles University, Prague, where she majored in English and German languages, with a focus on interpreting and translation. She served as a personal interpreter and translator to President Václav Havel during his presidency. In addition, she has had years of experience as a tour guide, working both at Karlštejn Castle and at other historic monuments associated with the life and reign of Charles IV (the City of Prague, Prague Castle, etc.). She works in the same role also for the National Gallery of Prague in the gallery’s permanent exhibitions of medieval art, as well as on special projects, such as the Emperor Charles IV exhibition held on the occasion of the Emperor’s 700th birthday in 2016. Alexandra offers private tours in English, German and Czech. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (+420) 603 306 705.