Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum: World’s Greatest Art Museum?

Nothing like a little controversy to start this post, eh?  I’m always bothered by titles like “World’s Greatest”.  Great is a subjective word, and depends on the user for its definition!  But IN MY OPINION the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna IS the greatest art museum in the world, and I’m going to do my best to show you why I think that!  🙂

Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

          (The Kunsthistorisches Museum, as seen from Maria-Theresien-Platz.)

The first problem with “Greatest Art Museum”, of course, is that not everyone likes the same kind of art, or even likes art at all!  Some people only like modern art, while others  prefer the Renaissance and Baroque periods.  A person that is into modern art may not be interested in Canaletto, for example, so for that person, a place like the Tate Modern in London or the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City might be their idea of the “greatest” art museum.  

Of course, to someone that doesn’t like art, the term “greatest art museum” is a bit of an oxymoron, since (in their view) there is nothing great about art (or maybe even museums, for that matter!)

Why then did I choose the Kunsthistorisches Museum as my “world’s greatest?”  Here goes: and try not to laugh at some of my reasons!

Purpose-built to display art

 The Kunsthistorisches (Art History) Museum (hereafter referred to as KHM) was built by order of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Franz Josef, between 1871-1891.  (Across the plaza is an identical building, constructed at the same time, which houses the excellent Natural History Museum.)  I like this museum because it was purpose-built by the Habsburgs to hold and display their massive art collection and to make it available to the public.   The building was designed for this specific purpose, and it really shows off the art in an easy-to-access way.  In his opening speech, the Emperor said, “Everything has turned out very well – the building is as beautiful as the arrangement is practical. Only now can the objects be seen to their full advantage“.  He was so right!

Opening of Kunsthistorisches Museum 1891

          (Opening of the KHM by Emperor Franz Josef on 17 October 1891.  Watercolor by  Robert Raschka.  You can see this painting in the museum!)

The interior of the building is beautiful: a work of art in its own right

When you enter the museum, you will be in a large round area.  Make sure at some point to look up: the inside of the dome was painted by the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt (most famous for his painting, “The Kiss.”)

KHM Cupola

As you’re looking around, you will see some of the most impressive staircases you will EVER see!  Here’s just one of them, in the entrance hall.

KHM Staircase

There is another (more impressive) staircase across the room from this one.  This is the view down from the first landing.

Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien View from first

Clear layout and organization

 The KHM is incredibly easy to navigate, and perfectly organized.  When I say “organized”, I MEAN organized!  I’m OCD and this place is perfect for people like me!  Everything is arranged chronologically, and then by country or area.  When you visit, you can get an excellent paper map to the whole collection, and there are also apps you can download when you’re there, to guide you around.  

KHM 1st floor

Here’s the first floor [or second floor to North Americans!]: as you can see, on the right-hand side, you’ll find Italian, Spanish, and French paintings, while on the left are the Dutch, Flemish and German paintings.  The rooms flow into each other, so getting around is easy.  And you can’t get lost, because the staircases are always in the middle of the rectangular building!)

The museum itself has an interactive guide online that is really good.  You can see all the floors, and if you click on a particular room, it will show you images of every painting or work of art in that room!  It’s in German, but pretty easy to useClick on the link below to use!

It’s never crowded

OK, I’m sure there are occasional times when it gets busy at KHM.  But seriously: it’s one of the least-visited of all the great European art museums.  Just to give you an idea: check out the visitor numbers for some “famous” art museums for 2016.  Talk about crowded!

  • The Louvre, Paris       7.4 MILLION  
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York       7 MILLION
  • National Gallery, London        6.3 MILLION
  • National Gallery of Art, Washington DC      4.3 MILLION

KHM in 2016 had 769,000 visitors.  Not millions, thousands.  Here you can relax and actually get close to the art without having to elbow your way past the mobs at the other places.

Mona Lisa crowd

          (Going to the Louvre to see the Mona LisaGood luck with that!  [In case you’re wondering, the Mona Lisa is that little painting in the back left.])

KHM has the coolest museum cafe I’ve ever seen!

KHM Restaurant

          (Talk about a classy joint!)  🙂

Kids love this place!

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: kids HATE art museums!  But I promise, I’ve field-tested my claim.  I’ve organized and personally led hundreds of middle-school kids to Europe (groups of as many as 26) and we visited all the major museums in the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, and Hungary.  I learned very quickly that kids (and most adults) suffer from sensory overload in most museums.  After an hour or so, everything looks the same to them, and any longer than that, and you’re just dragging them around, forcing them to pretend they’re interested (if they’re good kids) or to throw a tantrum (if they’re typical teenagers).

Bored kids

What we do in a museum is always the same.  We prep the kids before the trip, talking about each museum we’ll visit, what they’ll see there, and how to look at the art.  When we get to the museum, I take the group to a couple of my favorite rooms, and talk about why I like that artist, or that painting.  That lasts no more than five minutes, then we give the kids a map and turn them loose.  They have one hour to go to any room(s) they want, and look at anything they wantAfter supper that night, each kid talks about one painting or artist that they liked, and explain why


 (At KHM I always bring the kids to the Brueghel room.  This is the painting we talk about: Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.)

The kids love this place because they can find everything very easily, and there are plenty of benches and chairs to sit on while viewing the art.  I’ve never had a single kid tell me they didn’t like art, or museums: they enjoyed being able to choose what to look at, or ignore.  We’ve also never had anyone at our after-supper discussions that had nothing to say.  Most of the time, we have to stop them from talking, so that everyone can have a turn!  One of my favorite reactions ever came from a kid as we were leaving the KHM: “They have a whole room full of Rembrandts!  I’ve never even seen one: they have a whole room!  That guy is amazing!”  

KHM Rembrandt Self-Portrait

          (Self Portrait, Rembrandt, painted in 1652)

KHM is much more than paintings!

When most people think of art museums, most think of paintings.  And they’ve got plenty here, that’s for sure.  (See next section!)  But one of the really cool things about KHM is that they have some excellent collections outside of the Picture Gallery.  These include the Egyptian and Near Eastern Collection, the Collection of Greek and Roman Antiquities, the Coin Collection (one of the five largest and most important collections in the world), and the “Kunstkammer Wien” (Art Chamber Vienna), which is described on the KHM website as “the most important collection of its kind in the world.”  Here are some of the amazing things you can see in these collections!

KHM monkey jar

          (Container for eye makeup, in the form of a female monkey, 6th Dynasty, in the time of Pepi I, around 2354 BC.  Egyptian Collection)

KHM Signet Ring

                   (Signet ring of Ramses X, 20th Dynasty, 1120 BC.  Egyptian Collection)

KHM adler

          (Roman jewelry!  This is a cameo of an eagle, from the early years of the Roman Empire, 27 BC.  Greek and Roman Antiquities)

KHM cameo

          (This is another Roman cameo, of a lion, dating from around 100 AD.  How does stuff this beautiful survive for 2,000 years?  It’s amazing.  Greek and Roman Antiquities)

These next few items come from the “Kunstkammer“.  

KHM gryphon

          (Bronze pitcher in the shape of a griffin, maker unknown, 1130)

KHM salt

          (For most of history, salt was more valuable than gold.  During the Renaissance, kings and emperors commissioned artists to create salt “cellars” for their tables.  Each would have a small dish for the precious condiment.  This cellar was made by perhaps the greatest goldsmith of the Renaissance, Benvenuto Cellini, in 1540.)

KHM surtout

            (Yet another example of how rich people spend their money here!  This item is called a “surtout” [above all, in French], and was used as the center item on a noble dining table.  It contains all the various condiments and items needed for seasoning food.  The containers are made of porcelain: everything else [except for the precious gems and handpainted porcelain] is solid gold.  It was made for Duke Karl Alexander von Lothringen in 1755.)

KHM ruby mug

          (Talk about over the top!  This beautiful dragon vessel was made from a large mussel shell, overlaid with lapis lazuli, gold, and precious stones.  It was made in 1565 by Gasparo Miseroni.)

And let’s not forget: the art at KHM is amazing too!

KHM doesn’t have as many paintings as the Louvre in Paris, or the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, but what they lack in quantity they certainly make up for in the quality of the works they possess.  Here are just a FEW of the masterpieces on display here.

KHM Tintoretto

          (Sebastiano Venier [d. 1678] with the Sea Battle of Lepanto in background), by Tintoretto)

KHM Rubens 2

          (Self Portrait, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1638)

KHM Teniers

          (The Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his gallery at Brussels, by David Teniers the Younger, c. 1651)

KHM Titian

          (Ecce Homo[Behold the Man], by Titian, 1543)

KHM Durer

          (Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman, by Albrecht Dürer, 1505)

KHM Kreuzigung

           (Crucifixion Altar Piece, by Rogier van Weyden, 1443)

KHM Vermeer

          (The Art of Painting, by Johannes Vermeer, 1665)

And finally, here are a couple views of typical rooms in KHM.  You’ll see that there are some REALLY comfortable seats, and that the rooms are joined, so it’s easy to move around.  No big crowds either!  🙂

KHM room view

KHM room view 2

I hope enjoyed your “visit” to the KHM.  Maybe I didn’t convince you it’s the “greatest art museum in the world”, but you can’t say I didn’t try!  🙂  Thanks for stopping by!


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