Ever since its foundation in 1830, the Gemäldegalerie’s collection has been developed with a systematic and scholarly eye to the history of art. This consistent and continual survey of European painting from the 13th to 18th century is the basis for both the world-class reputation that the gallery enjoys today and the many incomparable masterpieces that it contains, dating from all key art-historical epochs.
A complete tour of the gallery stretches to just under two kilometres, taking the visitor through some 72 main galleries and intimate small side-rooms, which act as windows onto the constantly shifting terrain of the history of Western art. Core focal points in the collection are German and Italian painting of the 13th to 16th century and Netherlandish painting of the 15th and 16th century. The collection of paintings from the late Middle Ages and Renaissance ranges from the great Italian masters Giotto, Fra Angelico, Raphael and Titian to the richly detailed pictures of Pieter Bruegel, via the Flemish master Jan van Eyck and the most notable figures in early German painting of the Gothic and Renaissance periods such as Konrad Witz, Albrecht Dürer, Hans Baldung Grien, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Hans Holbein.
The gallery of Rembrandt’s works occupies a central role in the museum, which is reflected by the central position it commands. With some 16 works by the artist, the Gemäldegalerie presides over one of the largest and most exquisite Rembrandt collections in the world. It is enhanced by a number of other paintings by Dutch and Flemish artists of the 17th century. An array of portraits, genre paintings, interior scenes, landscapes, and still lifes are a vivid reflection of the way artists in this golden age of painting specialized in repeatedly depicting certain subjects. The splendid collection of Italian, French, German, and English 18th-century painting includes works by Canaletto, Jean-Antoine Watteau, Antoine Pesne, and Thomas Gainsborough.
Approximately 1000 masterpieces are on display in the upper galleries at any one time. Since May 2017 the central hall became a new, central entry point to the Gemäldegalerie with the exhibition In a New Light. The choice of works and their hanging provide viewers with orientation for their tour through the building and invite them to discover the individual collection areas, art schools, and stylistic periods. In addition, audio guides are on offer in German and English.
The Gemäldegalerie first opened its doors as a public institution in 1830, in its original home overlooking Lustgarten, the 'Royal Museum' known today as the Altes Museum, designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. The combined art collection of Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg and Frederick the Great formed the basis of the collection in the 17th and 18th centuries. The first director of the gallery, Gustav Friedrich Waagen, arranged and expanded the Berlin collection according to systematic scholarly criteria as opposed to purely personal tastes, something which was genuinely innovative at the time.
The international reputation the gallery now commands is largely due to Wilhelm von Bode, who served as its director from 1890 to 1929. Under his watch and thanks to his great connoisseurship and commitment, a string of significant acquisitions were made to expand the collection. Thanks to his efforts, we now have a near complete survey of European painting from the 13th century onwards.
In 1904, the gallery and its swollen collection relocated to the newly purpose-built Bode-Museum, known at the time as the Kaiser Friedrich-Museum, which was conceived as a museum of Renaissance art. Bode prompted wealthy Prussian citizens to lend their financial support to securing new acquisitions and in 1897 he founded the patrons society, the Kaiser Friedrich-Museums-Verein, which is still active today.
The Second World War marked the end of the collection’s long and illustrious period of continuous development. The museum building itself was badly damaged in the aerial bombardment. Over 400 large-scale works were lost in the war. The subsequent partitioning of the city in the Cold War led to a division of the collection that only magnified these losses. From that point on, the Gemäldegalerie was split between two exhibition venues: one in Berlin-Dahlem (West Berlin), the other at the Bode-Museum on the Museumsinsel Berlin in Mitte (East Berlin), in a situation that prevailed until 1997. After being divided for more than fifty years, the collection went on display at the Kulturforum in 1998, restored to its original splendour. Plans are currently being devised to eventually return the art museum to its historical place of origin, the Museumsinsel Berlin, as a way to present the paintings in an intimate dialogue with sculptures from the same period.