Art Openings

A Many Splendor Thing

The MFAH brings on the opulence with selections from the Habsburg dynasty collection.

By Trey Strange June 19, 2015

Photo Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston recaptures an era of opulence with Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collections. Curated by David Bomford, the head of the museum's European Art Department, the exhibition chronicles the affluent lifestyle of the dynasty through more than 90 pieces of fashion, artifacts and artworks.

Giant, iridescent tapestries hang over viewers like windows into a different world, their remarkable preservation, museum director Gary Tinterow pointed out at a recent media preview, imparting a sense of antiquity to the entire gallery. “We’re introducing tapestry to Houston audiences,” Tinterow said. “Dyes fade, but this tapestry has been well-preserved.”

The pieces on display span the family's art-collecting beginnings in the late Middle Ages through the end of its reign in the early 20th century. Personal and intimate items like love letters and ball gowns are on display, as are pieces like sleds and carriages. The family seemed to appreciate almost anything as art, even turning walrus tusks into curvacious female forms.

Photo Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

One of the family's most enthusiastic art collectors was Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, who lived in the 17th century and compiled a mass of paintings by the renowned artists of the period. Many of these left Austria for the first time this summer, making their debut first in Minneapolis, and now Houston, before their journey completes in Atlanta. The works presented, which hail from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, display the likes of Caravaggio, Correggio, Giorgione, Rubens, Tintoretto, Titian and Velázquez. “Even in Vienna, they don’t have these pieces all together in the same room,” Bomford said.

A standout is a portrait of the royal empress, Isabelle d’Este, who holds her gaze steady as the oils that comprise her complexion immortalize a youth that had ended even before the painting was created. (She had the painter, Titian, paint her twice—first in her old age and then as she had looked 30 years before. The location of the first work remains unknown).

Flintlock rifles appear in glass cases, monocles instead of scopes clamped over the trigger. A long velvet gown that belonged to Empress “Cici” Elizabeth (the “princess Diana of her day,” Bomford claims) stands in a room that’s illuminated by a video of the funeral of Jozéf Franz. The death of the last great emperor of the Habsburg dynasty marked an end of power for the family, but not an end of art appreciation. 

Tickets are $18 for the installation, which opened this past Sunday, and will remain until Sunday, Sept. 13. Tue & Wed 10-5; Thu 10-9; Fri & Sat 10-7; Sun 12:15-7. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. 713-639-7300.

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