Dresden Art Gallery
Old Masters Gallery Dresden
Dresden Art Gallery is a collection of authentic gems of painting from the 15th to 18th century. It is located in the old palace complex Zwinger in the historic center of Dresden, the capital of the German state of Saxony. The attraction is also known as the Old Masters Gallery.
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Video: Dresden Art Gallery
Originally the paintings decorated the palace of the Saxon electors, then one of the rooms of the Zwinger was adapted for the exposition. In the middle of the 19th century a separate two-story building with suits of rooms, in which masterpieces can be viewed to this day, was built for the gallery. The main treasures of the Dresden Gallery are the paintings of the Renaissance masters. Works by Dutch artists Rembrandt van Rijn and Jacob van Rijsdal, German painters Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein and Lucas Cranach are on display here. Paintings by artists from other European countries are represented by canvases by El Greco, Velázquez and many other masters. Besides paintings, the gallery offers ancient woven tapestries, pastels and miniatures.
The gallery in Dresden is on the prestigious list of the most famous art museums on the planet. In the ranking of museums in Germany it ranks second only to the Berlin collections. Over half a million art lovers come to the Old Masters Gallery in Dresden each year.
History of the art gallery
Collecting works of art was the passion of the powerful Saxon ruler Augustus II the Strong, who also held the titles of King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. This monarch ruled at the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was during this period that the core of his art collection formed the basis of the modern Dresden Picture Gallery. The hereditary prince who eventually took his father’s throne under the name of Augustus III enlarged the collection with new acquisitions of paintings by renowned painters.
In 1746 Augustus III bought around a hundred paintings from Italy, which adorned the palace of Francesco III D’Este, Duke of Modena and Reggio. Among them were rare canvases by Renaissance artists, works by Baroque and Classicist masters. But the most fortunate acquisition of the Elector of Saxony was Raphael Santi’s painting The Sistine Madonna, painted in the early 16th century and kept in a monastery in Italy.
The art collection of the Saxon elector, which was considerably enriched under this patron of the arts, gained European fame. But the priceless paintings which filled the interiors of the royal palace were not available to the general public. It was time to place these treasures in a special gallery. It was decided to build it in the palace complex Zwinger. The building was designed by the famous German architect Gottfried Semper. In spite of the fact that the facades of the gallery were made in the Neo-Renaissance style, the building blended harmoniously into the Baroque stylistics of the architectural complex.
The building was completed in 1855. Now everyone could see the artistic treasures. The first visitors were the Dresden burghers who brought their families to admire the paintings. There is evidence that the only stipulation for tourists in the mid-19th century was a dress code: visitors were required to come to the gallery in “decent clothes”. But we should not think that for ordinary European townspeople the paintings of famous artists were a curiosity. Many painters drew the subjects of their works in the domestic environment and carried out orders not only rich aristocrats, but also wealthy merchants and artisans. For example, the paintings of the so-called “Little Dutchmen” exhibited in the Dresden Gallery, who painted small canvases, once decorated the living rooms of weavers or carpenters. One of his paintings was once hung in the house of an Amsterdam baker.
The German National Socialists who came to power in Germany in 1933, led by Adolf Hitler, infected the country with the ideology of Nazism. Some of the paintings in the Dresden gallery were declared “degenerate and ideologically harmful”, and soon these works were destroyed. Many paintings that the Nazi leaders liked were moved into their luxurious apartments.
The gallery building was catastrophically damaged during the Second World War. In April 1945 it was bombed by Allied planes. Most of the paintings had been removed and hidden beforehand, but the remaining canvases, mostly large format, were destroyed by fire. When Dresden was cleared of Wehrmacht troops by the Soviet army, the hidden paintings were discovered in nearby mines. Among them was Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, badly damaged by humidity. The finds were taken to restoration workshops in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. In June 1956, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev returned the salvaged works of art to Dresden.
The restoration of the Dresden Gallery building was completed in 1960, but extensive restoration work was also carried out in the following years. Following the regular renovation a few years ago, the interior design of the rooms was radically changed. The exterior luxury of the Royal Zwinger remains beyond the threshold of the gallery. The interiors are decorated in emphatically restrained fashion; there is nothing to distract from contemplation of the canvases hanging on the monochrome walls.
Masterpieces of the Dresden Gallery
The catalog of the Dresden Gallery lists about 1,500 works, but the exhibition space allows to display not more than 450 of them. From time to time a few canvases are put into the storerooms and are replaced by other works from the collection. The glare of the lights makes it difficult to see some of the paintings on the upper row, below the ceilings. But when the time comes to change the exposition, these canvases are moved to a more favorable viewing area, so that tourists on their second visit to the museum have all the chances to rediscover the works of their favorite artists.
Let’s present a few famous paintings by artists from different countries and eras that never leave the Dresden Gallery’s exposition.
Raphael painted the image of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus in her arms around 1513 for the Benedictine monastery of St. Sixtus in Piacenza. The heavenly patrons of Piacenza, St. Barbara and St. Sixtus, bow before the Madonna stepping out of the clouds. According to legend, the model for the image of the Queen of Heaven was the beautiful Fornarina, the model and lover of the artist. The characters of the legends were also two pretty little angels looking at the Madonna in admiration. It is said that the images of these cherubs were inspired by village children who were looking at the window with sweets in the city bakery.
For more than two centuries, the painting, hanging over the altar of a provincial monastery, was not widely known. But once it was discovered by agents of the King of Saxony, who were buying works of art for him all over Europe. For several years the elector Augustus III negotiated with Pope Benedict XIV, seeking permission to buy and export the painting to Dresden. Finally, in 1754, negotiations were crowned with success. Crowned connoisseur of painting bought the canvas by Raphael for the colossal amount of money, the corresponding 70 gold ingots weighing one kilogram. It was the largest sum in history, paid for an artwork. The place of the painting above the monastery altar was taken by a quality copy.
It is said that King Augustus liked to spend hours looking at this canvas by the great painter. He even ordered to move his throne to see the Madonna in the most favorable angle. Today, connoisseurs of painting have the opportunity to sit regally on the comfortable leather sofas set up in the center of many halls of the Dresden Gallery, and admire the stunning works in comfort.
“The Dresden Altar.”
In April 1496 the Elector of Saxony, Frederick III, visited Nuremberg. During this visit he commissioned several works from the great German painter Albrecht Dürer. In the Dresden Gallery you can get acquainted with some of them. Here are paintings on Christian themes, intended for the royal chapel and painted on wooden panels – an altar triptych called the “Dresden Altar,” and seven panels with allegorical representations of the seven deadly sins.
“The Girl with the Letter.”
“Girl with a Letter” is a canvas by the artist Jan Vermeer, one of the greatest painters of the Golden Age of Dutch art. The work was created presumably in 1657. It is known that the painting was sold at an Amsterdam auction in 1772 for 110 florins.
On the canvas depicts a girl reading a letter from her beloved at the open window. Why exactly from him? After all, nothing in the picture indicates the content of the message, except a slight smile on the lips of the reader. A hint of a love story hidden under a layer of paint. An examination of the painting under an X-ray revealed that the painter had planned to depict Cupid behind the window, but for some reason he never got around to painting the god of love.
The artist had the secret of a special image of light falling from several sources and highlighting the central character in the story, focusing the viewer’s attention on the girl’s face, turned in profile.
Another interesting observation is that this painting by Jan Vermeer depicts the same room as his painting The Sleeping Girl in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The vase of fruit on the table also appears to be used in both paintings.
Vermeer also impresses with the incredibly meticulous elaboration of details. Every fold is visible on the girl’s dress, the texture of the window pane and the light bronze grille are reflected in the shadows and highlights, and you can distinguish individual flecks of woolen fabric on the green drape in the interior of the room.
One of artist Jean-Etienne Lyotard’s most famous paintings depicts a young German maid carrying a cup of hot chocolate on a tray. She is known as the Vienna Chocolatier or simply the Chocolatier. The picture was painted in 1744 on a sheet of parchment in tempera and exhibited in a gallery in Venice. The very next year it was bought for the Dresden collection by Count Francesco Algarotti, a confidante of the Elector of Saxony. In his accompanying letter, the count wrote: “This is the most delightful pastel I have ever seen.
Today, the lovely Chocolatier draws attention with a creative presentation to the audience. It has a hall set aside for it, with the distinctive aroma of hot chocolate as you enter.
After seeing the Dresden Gallery’s collection of paintings, stroll through the other museums in the Zwinger, and explore the complex’s many architectural monuments. Within walking distance, on the embankment of the Elbe, is the Gallery of the New Masters, where a collection of works by prominent European painters of the 19th and 20th centuries is on display. Its masterpieces are housed in the Albertinum Museum of Fine Arts. Both museums are united under the auspices of the Dresden State Art Collections.
Nearby one can visit the Royal Opera House, the Transportation Museum, the Royal Palace and the ancient churches.
The Dresden Art Gallery is open Tuesday through Sunday. Monday – day off. Opening hours – 10:00-18:00.
At the entrance, visitors are offered an audio guide with headphones (3 €), which contains concise comments by art historians on about half a hundred of the gallery’s most famous paintings. A Russian-language version is available. The audio guided tour can be downloaded to your smartphone for free. At the entrance to the Dresden Gallery there is a souvenir store, which offers art albums with reproductions of paintings.
The entrance fee to the Old Masters Gallery is 10 €, and the ticket gives you the opportunity to visit two other museums located nearby in the Zwinger: an exhibition of porcelain from China and Meissen, and a physics and mathematics salon, where ancient scientific instruments are exhibited. A tour of the gallery with a group of 10 people will cost 11 €. Children and young people up to 17 years old enjoy free entry to the gallery.
On Sundays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. admission to the Dresden Art Gallery is free for everyone. This innovation has been in effect since 2018 and applies to all museums in the city that are part of the Dresden State Art Collections.
How to get there
The address of the Dresden Art Gallery is Theaterplatz, 1 (Theaterplatz). From the rest of the city you can get here by streetcar to the center. From the railway station to the gallery is convenient to get by streetcars number 4, 8, 9, 11. Get off at the bus stop “Postplatz” and then walk from there. At the same stop you should get off if you go from the train station by one of the city buses #333 or #360.
The Dresden Gallery stands out from a number of other key European museums, primarily because it offers visitors a collection of only classical paintings. This narrow specialization is, in my opinion, the main advantage of this museum, where it’s a pleasure to wander for a couple of hours and see the best of the works. Walking around these halls you’ll learn the history of European painting from the 15th-18th centuries better than reading a dozen of textbooks and reference books so I highly recommend you to visit this gallery.
What is the Dresden Gallery
Visiting famous museums and galleries is always a must for me, but it’s usually the most tedious: an endless line, where you sometimes stand for more than an hour, followed by an equally endless number of rooms, and so much that requires close attention: paintings, sculptures, and interiors. The abundance of exhibits slowly makes me go crazy and by the end of the second hour I sink tiredly on a bench in one of the halls, lazily looking through a booklet and deciding what are the most important masterpieces left to see. Despite the wealth of collections and the luxury of the museum halls, I no longer feel like returning to the Louvre or the Prado Museum, nor to many other such repositories of cultural heritage. The Dresden Gallery is a pleasant exception in this series of world-class museums.
The relatively small Gallery of the Old Masters (the official name of the Dresden Gallery) can be viewed in a couple of hours, not in a wild rush, and without rushing, thoroughly examining the particularly interesting paintings.
Nothing here distracts from the paintings: the exterior of the sumptuous Zwinger Palace complex, where the gallery is located, is very simply decorated inside: plain walls, small decorative panels underneath and discreet bas-reliefs on the ceilings. There are soft leather sofas in almost every room, so you can sit down and admire the picture you like as long as you like.
The only thing that confused me was the placement of some paintings in the second row, almost under the ceiling. Because of the lacquering they shine and it’s almost impossible to look at them properly. But they reorganize the museum from time to time, so if you come back in a couple of years you might find that those “upper” paintings have moved into places of honor in the adjoining halls. That’s exactly what happened to me and my favorite still life paintings by Dutch Jordaens and Snyders.
The layout of the gallery is very simple: on the ground floor, through which you enter the gallery, there are rooms with works by Italian Renaissance masters of the 15th and 16th centuries. The ticket office, checkroom, gift store and audio guide are located downstairs, on the -1 floor, while the main part of the exposition continues on the ground floor, where you’ll find paintings from the 16th-18th centuries, including Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” and the rooms of Rembrandt, Velázquez, Van Dyck, Titian and Caravaggio. There are only 5 rooms on the second floor where you can see works by artists from the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as genre paintings and pastels from the 17th and 18th centuries. See a list of the museum’s rooms here.
It is worth noting right away that the Dresden Gallery exhibits paintings from the 15th-18th centuries, i.e. exclusively by old masters: classicism, romanticism, baroque and rococo are the styles that one can get a complete picture of. Among the notable masters whose paintings can be seen in Dresden are:
- Italians Raphael, Titian, Botticelli, Messina, Peturicchio, Vecchio, Tiepollo, Tintoretto;
- the French Poussin and Caravaggio;
- Spaniards Velázquez, Murillo, El Greco;
- Dutch artists Rubens, Rembrandt, Snyders, Van Dyck and Bruegel;
- the Germans Dürer, Rottenhammer, and Heinz.
The list of these names alone is fascinating: more than twenty notable artists, as well as the works of their students and followers, give a complete picture of the development of painting at this time. The museum’s exposition includes several paintings from the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries that show us further trends in the development of painting, which is about to undergo a turning point and be dominated by modernist painters (their works can be found in such famous museums as the London National Gallery and the Museum of Law in Madrid).
Walking around the halls of the Dresden Gallery, I was interested to see how the skill of the artists was growing and how the fashion for subjects and styles was changing: from details to colorism, from religious and biblical themes to mythology and scenes from ancient Greece. The gallery has entire halls devoted to portrait and landscape painting and altarpieces.
Masterpieces of the Dresden Gallery
It is impossible to list all the paintings collected in this museum, so I will give just a few examples of what you will find here and what it is worth coming here for.
“Sistine Madonna by Raphael
“The Sistine Madonna” by Raphael Santi is the painting that made this gallery famous. This painting is considered one of the master’s most outstanding works. The saint is depicted full-length in the picture with Jesus in her arms, she stands in heaven and as if she is taking a step forward towards the viewer. Her gaze is directed straight at you, so that it is impossible not only to pass by, but also to take your eyes away from this painting. Pope Sixtus II and Saint Barbara are also depicted. The painting vividly reflects the Madonna tradition from the turn of the century: the figure of the saint with the babe in her arms at the center of the canvas, with the saints and priests kneeling before Christ, with a free space in front of them always forming a triangle. The background looks deliberately theatrical. Thus, in Raphael’s painting, curtains appear, emphasizing the geometric precision of the composition and framing the scene, separating it from the viewer. In the foreground, we see two baby angels leaning thoughtfully on the picture frame. It is as if they are peering out of the heavenly world, thus separating the space of the painting from the earthly world. Before visiting the Dresden gallery, I could not have imagined that a picture of the Madonna could make such a strong impression on me. However, when I saw the “Sistine Madonna” for the first time, I was struck by the energy of the painting. Many tourists look at the angels in the foreground – this fragment of the painting is so popular that the museum uses it for ticketing and also replicates it on numerous souvenirs – notepads, magnets, bags. People often come here to be convinced of the truth of the “curious fact” floating around the Internet that the artist depicted many heads of angels in the background, which merge and appear to be just clouds from a distance. However, after standing by the canvas for about half an hour, I was only looking at the Madonna herself: the simplicity and naturalness of her pose, delicate facial features and such a piercing look! Perhaps everyone should see the painting to be convinced of the striking power of classical art.
This painting made much less of an impression on me. A relatively late work (1745), it seems surprisingly simple and unpretentious. On the canvas we see the image of a girl with a tray of hot chocolate and water in her hands. According to critics, this is not a portrait, but a genre scene showing an episode of everyday life of an ordinary poor girl. The picture seemed too simple and hence a little boring to me, though many people are won over by its simplicity of the plot. I can clearly note only the high skill Lyotard – the image is different almost photographic accuracy.
“Giorgione’s The Sleeping Venus
The famous painting depicts the goddess of love in a relaxed pose: she is asleep in a garden, in the shadow of a small rock. In the foreground we see finely painted draperies, and in the distance a landscape depicting a village and mountains. Giorgione did not have time to complete the painting, so it was finished by his pupil, Titian, who later used the same subject matter in his works. Later on many artists depicted their Venus in similar poses, thus quoting Giorgione. Everything in the painting is so peaceful and contemplative, it seems so quiet and harmonious. I was particularly struck by how finely the features of the goddess’s face are painted: her face really looks alive, and it seems that now a light breeze will blow and she’ll immediately wake up and go to the next village to have fun with a young couple in love.
“Holy Night,” Correggio
This painting depicts one of the most popular biblical scenes among artists – the shepherd’s adoration of the newborn baby Christ. Famous for being the first significant night scene, when looking at the canvas, the sense of space is associated specifically with light. The artist manages to clearly contrast the foreground, where the shepherd talks animatedly with the maids, and the middle ground, where Mary enjoys the first joys of motherhood and is surrounded by the divine radiance emanating from Jesus. The mother and infant prove to be not only the geometric center of the picture, but also the light. Their figures are the most luminous on the canvas. I have always been fascinated by the ability of artists of the 16th-18th centuries to work with light and with the help of differently lit figures and objects not only to create volume and separate plans, but also to add hidden meanings and stories to works. This painting by Correggio is a vivid example of this skill!
“Caesar’s Dinarium,” Titian
Another painting with a biblical subject depicts the figures of Jesus and the Pharisee trying to outwit the prophet. The artist does not set out to depict the entire scene, he concentrates on the faces and gestures of the characters, their figures occupy the entire space of the painting. This, however, is enough to grasp the depth of the subject. Titian is amazingly accurate in reflecting the notions of good and evil, morality and baseness, purity and meanness in the characters. As a true master, he achieves the highest expressiveness in painting narrative portraits. This small painting really fascinates, beside it you want to stop for a moment and think – not only about the subject depicted here, but also about higher and eternal values, which these figures represent.
Ticket prices and museum opening hours
The Old Masters Gallery is one of the three museums of the Zwinger palace complex, so the ticket for all three museums is common. For €10, you can also visit the Porcelain Museum and the Salon for Physics and Mathematics. There is a discount for students and seniors – the ticket costs only 7.50, and for children up to 17 years of age you can enter the museum for free. For groups of ten people or more there are also discounts – a ticket will cost only 9 euros. At the entrance you can take a map of the museum with a brief description of the most famous paintings, and for 3 euros you will be offered an audio guide, which has descriptions of more than 50 paintings of the museum. Russian is available, so if you’re interested in painting or want to start understanding it, I recommend this service: most of the comments are not long, about a minute, but very interesting.
The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday off. More information on discounts, group tours of the museum and temporary exhibitions can be found on its official website (German and English available). The exact address of the museum is Theaterplatz 1, 01067 Dresden.
Where is the Dresden Gallery
The Zwinger Palace complex, home to the gallery, is located in the historic center of Dresden, within walking distance of all the city’s sights. It is also just a 20-minute walk from the central city station or by public transport to the Dresden Postplatz bus stop (bus lines 333 and 360 or streetcar number 11 go here from the central station). On the map below you can see the museum as number 1, the train station as number 2 and the Old Town as a circle:
If you come to the Dresden Gallery by car, parking is easy to find. There are a lot of small free parking lots for 10 to 15 cars in the nearby streets, so you can find a spot there. The underground Haus am Zwinger (Kleine Brüdergasse 3) is a large parking lot right in front of the Zwinger. An hour there costs 2 €, a day – 20 €. Which is better for you to decide: it takes about 1,5-3 hours to see the entire gallery, and if you decide to go to other museums, you won’t notice how you spend a whole day here. See all of Dresden’s parking lots on this website.
The Dresden Gallery is one of the best collections of classical European painting, so anyone who is interested in art or wants to begin to understand it, should definitely visit here. If you’re not a fan of painting, you can visit the other two museums in the Zwinger and take a half hour to see the main masterpieces on display here. I was impressed with the gallery almost immediately – it has an abundance of famous paintings, beautiful examples of all trends and directions in painting of the 16-18 centuries and a cozy atmosphere, which does not distract from the study of paintings, but adjusts to a contemplative mood. What else does a museum need to be perfect?