The formation of a national gallery had been the focus of countless debates and numerous efforts since the early 19th century. It was not until 1861, however, that a national gallery for contemporary art finally opened in the German capital. The decisive impetus for its creation came when Joachim Heinrich Wagener, a Berlin banker, donated to the Prussian king some 262 pictures from his private collection, which he had amassed for over forty years for this very purpose, with the proviso that they form the heart of a future national gallery. Just a few weeks after the gift was accepted by the king, on 22 March 1861, the very first exhibition opened its doors at the Academy of the Arts' former building on Unter den Linden. The exhibition bore the title 'The Wagener and National Gallery'. The National Gallery's own building on the Museum Island was only officially opened 15 years later, in 1876.
The anniversary of this event focuses primarily on the building now known as the Old National Gallery and is marked by the exhibition 'The Collection of the Banker J.H. Wagener. The Formation of the National Gallery', which runs from 22 March 2011 until the end of the year. Due to go on show is a selection of the most important and distinguished works originally contained in Wagener's donation, numbering a 140 or so paintings in total, which will reflect this collection's focus on art in Germany and Europe of the time. The purchase of Schinkel's 'Gothic Church on a Cliff by the Sea' in 1815, the year the collection began, set the tone for how Wagener envisaged his collection would take shape. Over the course of the following decades he mostly concentrated on the art of the Romantics, as well as on landscapes, history paintings and architectural depictions, all chosen with a prevailing taste for realistic depiction.
The aim of today's exhibition it to present Wagener's collection more fully as a whole and re-examine it, some 150 years after it first went on show. The very nature of the proviso under which the donation was presented indicates that the collector saw these works as a way to impart the sense to generations to come that German art had come to occupy an increasingly serious role within the wider European context.
A reprint of the original catalogue from 1861, illustrated and with an accompanying commentary, is published to mark the occasion.
Since the National Gallery's benefactor also bequeathed a large collection of artists' letters, the National Museums' Central Archive is also organizing a small exhibition of documents relating to his collection.
Today's project dedicates itself to an outstanding achievement of private, civic patronage in Berlin. It takes a look at the beginnings of what went on to become the National Gallery as we know it today, with its six separate divisions: the Old National Gallery, New National Gallery, Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum Berggruen, Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg and Friedrichswerder Church.
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