Vienna, the capital of the Hapsburg Empire, during the reigns of Empress Maria Theresa and her son Emperor Joseph II from the 1740s through the 1790s, experienced an intellectual revolution known as the Enlightenment. This philosophy based on reason and rationalism and with the aim of transforming society arrived in Vienna somewhat later than other European countries. Joseph II was, however, a fervent advocate of this philosophy and introduced sweeping reforms throughout government, the legal code, economics and education, including religious tolerance, the abolishment of the death penalty and serfdom, and the establishment of hospitals and orphanages. Vienna fascinated the free-spirited intelligentsia and was transformed into a European cultural center.
The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1814 led to the Vienna Congress, a gathering of advisors from countries throughout Europe who set out to redraw the map of Europe. The period from 1814 until the revolution erupted in 1848 is today called the Biedermeier era. At first this term referred to a style of furniture, but then it came to be used to describe the overall lifestyle and way of thinking of this period. Amidst this period’s rapid urbanization and growing political oppression, people turned their interest to the private realm. In an environment that saw the censorship of some publications, painters turned to the creation of familiar scenes from everyday life, whether in the city or pastoral scenes of villages.
The fin de siècle arts that flourished in 1900s Vienna had the Biedermeier culture as their wellspring. The Biedermeier period discerned the functional beauty in everyday life that would later become the model for modernism.
The reign of Emperor Franz Joseph I (r. 1848-1916) saw Vienna transformed into a modern imperial capital. The population swelled from 500,000 to 2.2 million.
The transformation into a modern capital saw the emperor order the destruction of the castle walls circling the city in 1857, and this led to the opening of the Ringstrasse, which became the main artery of the new Vienna. Indeed, the Ringstrasse came to symbolize 19th century Vienna. In 1879, a massive parade celebrating the silver wedding anniversary of the imperial couple was staged by the painter Hans Makart on this route. A series of new buildings in historical architectural styles were constructed along the route, including the Greek classical style national parliament, a neo-Gothic church and a neo-Renaissance style university. At the end of the 19th century, some Secessionists also designed buildings for the route.
The urban infrastructure of Vienna was solidified by Karl Lueger during his 1844-1910 years as mayor. Public transportation in the form of trams and subways was developed. The architect Otto Wagner proposed numerous urban design projects. While some never left the drawing board, Wagner’s buildings that were realized are an impressive part of the Viennese streetscape.
In the field of painting, the year 1897 saw several young painters led by Gustav Klimt form the Viennese Secessionists group. Then in 1903, the Vienna Werkstätte was formed around a core group of artists who had graduated from the School of Applied Arts.
Wealthy Jews were important patrons for both the Secessionists and the Vienna Werkstätte. The artists in these two groups, all imbued with an experimental spirit and unstinting creativity, produced many of the masterpieces of this period.