Rudolf VON ALT

Vienna 1812 - Vienna 1905


One of the finest watercolourists of the 19th century, Rudolf Alt was the son and pupil of the painter, watercolourist and lithographer Jakob Alt, whose lithographs he would colour in as a youth. He began studying at the Akademie in Vienna in 1826, but received his basic training as a watercolourist in Jakob’s studio. Father and son worked and travelled together frequently in the 1830s, and the younger artist continued to travel widely on annual study trips for the remainder of his career. Over a period of many years, between 1833 and 1848, both Jakob and Rudolf Alt contributed to the series of large-scale watercolours known as ‘Guckkastenblätter’, commissioned by the Archduke Ferdinand, later Emperor Ferdinand I. These were views of the most picturesque sites of the Austrian Empire and Italy, as well as some more exotic views, and the watercolours were intended to be viewed behind a concave mirror in an illuminated peepshow box. Although several artists were commissioned to create watercolours for the Emperor’s peepshow box, Jakob and Rudolf Alt produced the vast majority of these ‘Guckkastenblätter’, numbering 234 watercolours in all. These works were, in fact, to be the Alt family studio’s main source of income for several years.

Rudolf Alt painted plein-air watercolour landscapes of views throughout the Austrian Empire, as well as in Italy, Switzerland and southern Germany. He also produced views of the interiors of churches, palaces and other buildings, all characterized by highly original viewpoints and an emphasis on picturesque detail. The 1840s found the artist at the height of his powers, receiving numerous commissions for views of Vienna and other cities, as well as picturesque landscapes, from publishers and collectors. The years of the succeeding decade, however, were more difficult. Having fled Vienna during the Revolution of 1848, on his return found that commissions were few and far between, with many of his former clients having left the city. The events of the Revolution had also severely limited the amount of travel one could undertake beyond the limits of the city, and as a result he was forced to rehash old compositions and develop earlier studies into finished works. He also began to suffer from hand tremors, and attempted to change his technique, experimenting with painting in gouache. By the middle of the decade, however, he had begun to receive commissions for interior views of palaces throughout the Empire, for which he gained a formidable reputation, and in 1863 he was invited by Czar Nicholas II to spend the summer in Crimea. This trip, and stays in Italy in 1865 and 1867, were to have a profound effect on Alt’s watercolour technique, which became looser and less detailed, with a corresponding freedom of handling of the medium. A stay in Salzburg in the autumn of 1869 was also important in renewing the artist’s love of nature.

By the 1870s Alt was widely recognized as one of the leading artists of Vienna. He continued to travel widely, and remained extremely productive. A prestigous commission from the Austrian Ministry of Culture for a series of major watercolours of views taken throughout the Empire occupied the artist for twenty years. On his eightieth birthday in 1892, an exhibition of over five hundred of his works was held at the Künstlerhaus in Vienna, and five years later the artist was raised to the nobility by the Emperor. As has been noted, ‘Rudolf von Alt’s life and artistic career of almost eighty years spans several periods of Austrian art and cultural history: his point of departure was the Biedermeier, while his late style precedes the era of Austrian Expressionism…The broad, loose brushwork of his late work contains a fresh expressiveness that brought him the acknowledgement and respect of the next generation of artists, the group around Gustav Klimt.’ Indeed, in 1897 von Alt was named the honorary president of the Vienna Secession, and the following year took part in the first Secession exhibition.

Over the course of his very long career, von Alt worked almost exclusively in watercolour, or watercolour and gouache; indeed, his oeuvre of paintings is thought to number only around 115 canvases, dating mostly from the earlier years of his career. That he was one of the finest exponents of the watercolour medium in the 19th century has long been recognized. One recent scholar has praised the artist’s ‘sophisticated watercolor technique’, adding that ‘Von Alt was at his best in broader scenes of architecture or landscape where he reveled in the widespread play of light and shade. Based on his extraordinary facility with all the techniques of watercolor, and his patience in building layers of transparent color over color, he created an amazing variety of tones and subtle gradation of hues while retaining brilliant light.’