The Alte Nationalgalerie’s holdings include Romantic and Impressionist masterpieces as well as a world-class collection of works by Adolph Menzel. The museum’s collection dates back to a gift from the banker Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Wagener to the Prussian state in 1861, a bequest of 262 works with an emphasis on Belgian history painting and the Düsseldorf school. However, this collection also included Caspar David Friedrich’s "Lonely Tree" and Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s "Gothic Church on a Rock by the Sea", which formed the foundation for what are today two of the Nationalgalerie’s most significant suites of works from the early 19th century.
By the time it opened in 1876, the Nationalgalerie had acquired enough paintings, sculptures, and sketches to increase its holdings by half. The museum’s director, Impressionism-enthusiast Hugo von Tschudi, acquired Édouard Manet’s "In the Conservatory" and Claude Monet’s "View of Vétheuil" in 1896, making the Nationalgalerie the first museum in the world to purchase Impressionist art.
Ludwig Justi, Tschudi’s successor, was equally pioneering in his work at the museum. After 1918 he assembled a singular collection of Expressionist art, exhibited in the Kronprinzenpalais on Unter den Linden, including masterpieces such as Franz Marc’s painting "The Tower of Blue Horses", which has since been lost. The works from this modern-art department that survived the iconoclasm of the Nazi regime and the devastation of the war can now be found at the Neue Nationalgalerie. On view in the Alte Nationalgalerie, Lovis Corinth’s "The Blind Samson" is testament to the rise of modernism and is exemplary of painting at the end of the "long" 19th century.
Today, the Alte Nationalgalerie owns approximately 1800 paintings and 1500 sculptures. A selection of sculptural works – among them Johann Gottfried Schadow’s famous "Princesses Luise and Friederike" – is located on the first floor of the building. Additional sculptures from the 19th century can be found in the Friedrichswerdersche Kirche.
The museum’s display of 19th century art begins on the third floor with painting from the "Age of Goethe". Aside from those paintings and suites by Schinkel and Friedrich mentioned above, highlights include frescoes of the Nazarenes created for the Casa Bartholdy in Rome, and the paintings of Carl Blechen.
The main axis of the second floor is formed by a gallery of Impressionist painting and the gallery of "German Roman" artists, with key works by Arnold Böcklin, including a version of the famous "Isle of the Dead", paintings by Hans von Marées, and pictorial works by Adolf von Hildebrand. In the adjacent rooms, the works of Anselm Feuerbach and the Munich School attest to the diversity of artistic expression in the second half of the century, while the paintings of Max Liebermann herald the arrival of Impressionism in Germany.
After passing through the sculpture hall on the first floor of the exhibition, visitors are presented with a broad survey of European paintings, with works by John Constable, Gustave Courbet, and the Barbizon school. The rear transverse hall and apse are dedicated to Adolph Menzel. A number of his most renowned paintings are on prominent display, among them scenes from the life of Frederick the Great such as the "Iron-Rolling Mill" and "The Balcony Room". In the rooms adjoining to the east, the paintings of Anton von Werner exemplify the academic style favoured by Wilhelm II during the Kaiserreich.
Today, the collection of the Alte Nationalgalerie is a historical one, and is only expanded under exceptional circumstances. One recent example is the acquisition of Adolph Menzel’s "The Petition", which serves as an excellent complement to his paintings from the life of Frederick the Great already on display.
Titles of publication released by the Nationalgalerie are listed in the bibliography of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.