Style note: Since there is no ‘umlaut’ in the English language (that’s those double dots which appear above some vowels in German), we have decided here not to use them, but instead to add an ‘e’ after the vowel – for example, ‘Duerer’ instead of ‘Dürer’ .
Dresden’s rise to a political and cultural centre began when the dukes of Saxony established their residence in the city in 1485. A ‘Kunstkammer’ (literally, art chamber) was founded in the mid-1500s, laying the foundations for the city’s legendary collections. More than any other ruler, Augustus the Strong (1670-1733) was particularly passionate about collecting, an interest fuelled by his ‘grand tour’ to various European courts. As a cultural centre in the middle of Europe with a flourishing economy, Dresden attracted the finest artists, craftsmen and traffickers of luxury goods to supply the court.
Fast forward to February 1945, when over 90 per cent of Dresden’s city centre was reduced to rubble under Allied bombing, causing over 25,000 mainly civilian deaths in one of the most controversial operations of WWII. Critics have asserted that Dresden was a cultural landmark with little strategic significance. A rebuilding programme by the Soviet-backed East German government began in the years following WWII with some work continuing to this day.
Dresden straddles the River Elbe. On the left bank is the Altstadt (Old Town), the historical centre with reconstructed buildings evoking its Renaissance, Baroque and 19th century glory and symbolised above all by the domed Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady). Built between 1726 and 1743, destroyed in 1945, rebuilt from the 1990s and reconsecrated in 2005, it dominates the skyline again, fronted by the Altmarkt (Old Market), the traditional social centre of the city.
ROYAL PALACE (RESIDENZSCHLOSS)
We begin our art tour in the 15th century power centre of Saxon princes and kings, the Royal Palace, which was reconstructed after WWII as a museum complex to house part of the Dresden State Art Collections, which are shown here in four sections.
The most famous part is the Historic Green Vault, which shot to international attention in 2019, when a number of priceless, jewel-encrusted items were stolen during a night-time raid. (Some of the objects have since been recovered and six men are currently on trial for the robbery.) Increased security now includes two ticket checkpoints, sliding double doors to gain entry and the banning of photography. Finally inside, it is like standing in a giant treasure chest.
The Green Vault – the term ‘vault’ is a misnomer, since rather than the bank-like storage room one imagines, these are in fact spacious chambers with high ceilings and mirrored walls, while the malachite-green decor has given it its name – contains about 3,000 items of jewellery and other treasures made from and decorated with all manner of materials, from precious stones, gold, silver, ivory and coral to amber, mother of pearl, seashell, enamel and crystal (not to mention sea snails’ shells and ostrich eggs), all made by some of the finest Renaissance and Baroque craftmakers and indicative of the stupendous wealth of the Saxon rulers.
One could run out of superlatives to describe the items – luxurious? sumptuous? exquisite? – many of which are mind-bogglingly detailed. The many highlights, including those in the New Green Vault upstairs, include: two remarkable figures of bejewelled ebony black men holding trays laden with rocks encrusted with emeralds; the 41-carat “Dresden green diamond”, one of the rarest gemstones in the world and the most valuable in the collection; The throne of the Grand Mogul Aurengzeb from the workshop of the Dresden goldsmith Johann Melchior Dinglinger, who used illustrations and accounts in travel books for his representation of a Persian palace courtyard with 132 figures; a delicate ivory and ebony chess set on a silver-laid board of tinted ivory and tortoise shell; and all manner of drinking vessels, clocks, jewellery, mythical creatures, elephants, unicorns and grotesque figures, all displayed in non-reflective glass cases to show off the superb craftsmanship.
The complex also includes the State Apartments in the heart of the palace. Here a giant figure of August the Strong as the King of Poland (that country did not have a male heir and invited him to ascend its throne) wears his 1687 coronation regalia. The facial features are accurate, taken from a life mask which is displayed nearby.
In the Audience Chamber, complete with silver furniture made in Augsburg, stands the throne ensemble, while a ceiling painting shows the hero Hercules with whom August the Strong was fond of comparing himself.
Art-lovers will also want to visit the Prints, Drawings and Photographs Collection, where there are temporary exhibitions from a collection comprising over half a million works spanning eight centuries by some 20,000 artists, including Duerer, van Eyck, Raphael, Rembrandt, Caspar David Friedrich, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso. In the large courtyard, don’t miss the Altan, a four-storey loggia and Italian-inspired sgraffito fresco dating from the mid-1500s, its rich details making it one of the most important facades north of the Alps.
Around the corner on Augustusstrasse is the Princes Procession, a 102 metre-long mural depicting the mounted rulers of the Wettin dynasty between the 11th and 19th centuries. Originally made in stucco in the 1870s, the current mural was made in 1903-06 from some 24,000 Meissen porcelain tiles (only 400 of which have had to be replaced), making it the largest porcelain artwork in the world. Fortunately, it was not destroyed in WWII.
Another huge cultural attraction in Dresden is the Zwinger (literally ‘kennel’, the name stemming from a feature of the original defensive structure), a huge complex built initially to host the extravagant, month-long ‘wedding of the century’ festivities in 1719 of the son of Augustus the Strong and the Habsburg princess Maria Josepha, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor. (The bride covered the last stretch of her journey from Vienna to Dresden in a magnificent gondola, bringing to mind the splendour of the doges in Venice.) The complex was later expanded and turned into the museum it is today to house part of the royal art collection.
The Old Masters Picture Gallery, has been a called ‘summit meeting’ of European art from the early Renaissance to the Rococo. With the walls in each room colour-coded according to the nationality of the artists and their era, the gallery boasts both the most important Renaissance collection north of the Alps, including works by Raphael (Sistine Madonna), Giorgione (Sleeping Venus), Coreggio (Nativity), Titian, Mategna, Botticelli, Veronese, Tintoretto and others, and the second most important Baroque collection after the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, with Flemish and Dutch paintings by the likes of Rubens, van Dyck, Rembrandt, Jordaens, Snyders and Vermeer, including his celebrated Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window.
Another star of the collection is Bernardo Bellotto (he adopted the name Canaletto after his more famous uncle, Giovanni Antonio Canal), who came to Dresden from Venice in 1747 to be court painter. He has 14 large scale ‘vedute’, or views, on display, which came to embody the myth of Dresden and its Italianate nature. (It was sometimes referred to as Florence on the Elbe.) Most famous of his pictures is the iconic “Canaletto view” from the opposite bank of the river, where a metal frame marks the spot through which viewers can observe the scene.
There are also works by 16th to 18th century Spanish, French and German artists (Murillo, Poussin, Holbein, Duerer et al), the world’s largest collection of works by Lucas Cranach the Elder and Younger and an extensive sculpture collection.
Occupying its own pavilion is the stupendous Porcelain Collection, with over 20,000 pieces the largest and most important of its kind in the world. This collection owes its existence to Augustus the Strong, who was such an avid collector that he referred to his passion as a “sickness”, even trading 600 soldiers to the King of Prussia in exchange for over 150 examples of Far Eastern porcelain. The collection includes early Chinese and Japanese wares and a glittering selection of Meissen porcelain.
When Augustus first began collecting, China (and later Japan) and the Dutch East India Company had a monopoly on the supply and distribution of porcelain, so scientists set out to unlock the secret of the ‘white gold’. Using a large, concave ‘burning mirror’, they were able to concentrate the sun’s rays on a single spot, where a sample of imported porcelain was placed. Melted down, they were able to identify its component parts and their chemical reaction, whereas they had hitherto believed only a single special clay was involved. Thus “Dresden china” was born, although nearby Meissen became more famous for the product after manufacture was moved for security reasons to the Albrechtsburg castle, where the first porcelain factory in Europe was established.
The original ‘burning mirror’ is on view in the Museum of Mathematical and Physical Instruments, the oldest museum in the Zwinger, where there is also a world famous collection of exquisitely crafted timepieces, early precision instruments, historic globes, automata, telescopes and astronomical equipment dating as far back as the 16th century.
Originally a Count’s private pleasure garden, Bruehl’s Terrace is an elevated promenade with sweeping views over the Elbe and landing stages for river cruises. Nicknamed the “Balcony of Europe”, from here you can visit three venues within a short distance of one another.
Named after the 19th century King Albert of Saxony, the Albertinum has a collection ranging from 1800 to the present day, from long-time Dresden resident Caspar David Friedrich to Dresden-born Gerhard Richter, who has two rooms reserved for his work and whose archive is also housed there.
German Romantic art is one the main attractions of the Albertinum with a number of works by local hero Caspar David Friedrich such as Two Men Contemplating the Moon, the magnificent The Cross in the Mountains and The Large Enclosure. These are shown alongside works by contemporaries such Carl Gustav Carus, Friedrich’s gifted student Ernst Ferdinand Oehme and friend and fellow ‘wanderer’ Johan Christian Dahl.
Considered the most important painter of the early German Romantic period, Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) spent most of his life in Dresden, where he settled ‘to work in close proximity to the most valuable art treasures and surrounded by beautiful nature.’ He saw art as a mediator between nature and man and wandered far and wide through the countryside, often alone, in an effort to capture the spirit of nature as a profound symbol of human experiences and spiritual feelings.
Friedrich is best known for his mid-period allegorical landscapes, which typically feature contemplative figures silhouetted against night skies, morning mists, barren trees or Gothic ruins. In 2024 the Dresden State Art Collections are staging an exhibition entitled Where It All Began on the 250th anniversary of his birth (Aug 24, 2024-Jan 5, 2025).
The Impressionism rooms in the Albertinum boast some of the best known names in the movement such as Gauguin, Degas, Rodin, Monet, Manet, Gauguin, van Gogh, Max Liebermann and Max Slevogt, who has a whole room to himself of paintings from a large group he completed within a single month in north Africa.
Two huge triptychs dominate their respective spaces. Otto Dix’s harrowing War depicts the cycle of soldiers setting out for the front and reaping total destruction (in 1933 he was dismissed by the Nazis from the Dresden Art Academy for what they called his ‘degenerate’ art and went into inner emigration), while Dresden painter Hans Grundig’s The Thousand-Year Reich shows the Nazi regime’s descent into chaos.
Other sections are devoted to Expressionism, New Objectivity (a peculiarly German movement of the 1920s), Constructivism, art in the GDR (German Democratic Republic, or East Germany) and sculpture. The latter is shown in one of the largest Renaissance halls in Germany and covers 5,000 years’ of works.
Another interesting section entitled Renewal & Reform features paintings and sculptures created by artists who were appointed as professors at the Royal Dresden Art Academy around 1900, while artists belonging to the group known as ‘Die Bruecke’ (‘The Bridge’), founded in Dresden in 1905, are represented by the likes of Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, whose sketchy, rapidly painted nudes and landscapes were a protest against the established forces in the art world and shocking to viewers at the time. They too were confiscated by the Nazis.
A nice touch: In one room paintings are hung lower so that children – tomorrow’s gallery-goers – can appreciate them. Another nice touch: A section called The Depot comprises tall glass cases lined with sculptures from the vast portion of the museum’s collection which normally languishes in storage. On average it is estimated that only around ten per cent of a major museum’s works are on display at any one time.
Just off Bruehl’s Terrace, the glass dome of the University of Fine Arts – known locally as “the lemon squeezer” – caps a bare-brick space which hosts the annual student degree shows, while next door the Kunsthalle im Lipsiusbau – ‘Kunst’ is German for art, while the building (‘Bau’) is named after a professor of architecture – is home to special exhibitions of 20th and 21st century painting, graphic art and sculpture.
On a rise nearby is a curious metal memorial to Caspar David Friedrich of a window, an easel and a chair representing the artist’s famously spartan studio depicted in a painting by Georg Friedrich Kersting. A plaque partially reads: ‘The artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees in himself’.
Near the Altmarkt, the Dresden City Art Museum is home to the state capital’s art collection. There is a permanent exhibition of historic paintings of the city along with 20th and 21st century works from Dresden and the surrounding area, from Otto Dix to Ralf Winkler (better known as A. R. Penck, who has a local hotel named after him with a reception area full of his works and prints in the rooms), while the Neue Galerie is a project room featuring special exhibitions of contemporary art. On the upper floors the Dresden City Museum hosts a permanent exhibition tracing the history of the city from its foundation in the Middle Ages to the end of the GDR, when the city was a focus for the mass grassroots demonstrations in 1989.