The Picture Gallery (German: Bildergalerie) in the park of Sanssouci palace in Potsdam was built in 1755–64 during the reign of Frederick II of Prussia under the supervision of Johann Gottfried Büring. The Picture Gallery is situated east of the palace and is the oldest extant museum built for a ruler in Germany.
Frederick II was a passionate collector of paintings. In his youth, he preferred the contemporary French art of the Rococo, and the walls of his rooms in Sanssouci were adorned with paintings of his favorite artist Antoine Watteau. After his accession to the throne in 1740, the king became increasingly interested in history paintings, which were highly regarded at his time. Especially, he collected works of renaissance, mannerism and Baroque art, mostly from Italian and Flemish artists. Due to the opening of the Altes Museum in Berlin in 1829, about fifty paintings were transferred there. Among these were the Leda by Correggio, three paintings by Rembrandt, some by Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, and Antoine Watteau. Also, all the marble statues were moved.
After the accession to the throne in 1740, the king increasingly emphasized images of historical painting, which were at the top of the hierarchy of pictorial genres at this time. They were works of high renaissance, mannerism and baroque, mainly Italian and Flemish artists.
When the Old Museum in Berlin was opened in 1829, about fifty pictures were given there, including: a. the Leda by Correggio, three paintings by Rembrandt, some by Rubens, Anton van Dyck, Watteau and all the marble works.
In 1929–30, the Picture Gallery was set up again, and 120 of the 159 works marked in the catalogue as purchased by Frederick returned from Berlin.
During World War II, all the paintings were moved to Rheinsberg Palace in Rheinsberg. Only ten paintings returned from there in 1946, and most of the pictures seemed lost. However, a large collection of paintings confiscated by the Soviet Union was returned in 1958. However, some of the pictures are still in Russian collections.
The Picture Gallery was built in the place of a former greenhouse, which Frederick the Great had used to raise tropical fruit. Büring replaced this with a long, single-story building painted in yellow, the middle part of which is emphasized by a dome. On the garden side, marble sculptures stand between the windows reaching down to the floor. Most of the sculptures were made by Johann Gottlieb Heymüller and Johann Peter Benckert, and depict allegorical figures from arts and sciences. The heads on the keystones show portraits of artists.
Previously, on the square of the picture gallery, there was a greenhouse in which Frederick the Great made tropical fruit. Büring, who was the director of the royal Baucomptoirs with Jan Bouman and who had supervision over many of Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff designed buildings, put to exact specifications of Frederick the Great in the place of the greenhouse, a long-drawn, single-storey building with yellow paint. For this purpose, he oriented himself to the New Chambers built by Knobelsdorff west of Sanssouci, which together form a three-part ensemble of buildings. The middle part of the picture gallery is through a dome with a group of eagle and snake in the fight of Benjamin Gieseand Friedrich Jury stresses. Following Friedrich Christian Glume’s coronation of the Mittelrisalit of the New Chambers, Benjamin Giese and Peter Benkert created a cartouche with sun, cherubs, female figures with palette, bust and globe as allegories of art and science (left) and a tablet describing them as allegories of poetry or historiography (right) made of sandstone, To the west, the king could reach the gallery via a stairwell from the highest terrace of Sanssouci by the shortest route. On the north side there is a passage through which the northern picture wall could be tempered already in the times of Frederick the Great. On the garden side, 18 marble statues, mostly worked by the sculptors Johann Gottlieb Heymüller and Johann Peter Benkert, stand between the windows reaching down to the ground. The sculptures are allegorical figures of the arts and sciences. The capstone heads above the long windows show artist portraits.
The gallery hall is magnificently designed with richly gilded ornaments on the slightly curved ceiling. The floor is laid out in matching colors with a rhombic pattern of white and yellow Italian marble. On the green walls, the framed paintings are laid out densely above and alongside each other in a Baroque style. Some of the works exhibited are Caravaggio’s Increduility of St Thomas, Anthony van Dycks Pentecost, and Four Evangelists and Saint Hieronymus from the workshop of Peter Paul Rubens. Adjacent to the long gallery hall is the similarly richly arranged cabinet, where the paintings of smaller format are exhibited.
Use by Frederick II.
1761 wrote the Marquis d’Argens to Frederick II in the camp:
“As far as the gallery is concerned, it is indisputable that after St. Peter in Rome it is the most beautiful in the world. My surprise was extraordinary, and I never thought that this gallery would do even half of the effect it produced. It is now completely finished… ”
A later visitor wrote:
“Frederick the Great used to go there at eleven o’clock in the afternoon and spend an hour there. Usually the supervisor of the gallery accompanied him; but sometimes he threw the door behind him as he entered, and remained alone. This happened when displeasure clouded his forehead; but he never returned from this hall except with a cheerful eye and a benevolent expression. Here, among the masterpieces of art, he forgot his cares; and who could not forget them in these halls, where only the feeling is lifted, but not depressed by any sad objects. It is really striking that in the whole gallery, neither battles nor Martir stories, nor any other subject is found that could bring about a gloomy memory in us. At eleven o’clock in the afternoon Friedrich went to this gallery,
Visitors could be led by the overseer through the gallery. The park was open to all visitors and also the rooms of the castle itself were made accessible to visitors when the king was not present.
2013: The most beautiful in the world. A reunion with the picture gallery of Frederick the Great. Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam. Catalog.