7 Best Paintings at Vienna’s KHM

The Habsburgs left a mark on Vienna that lingers to this day, and it goes beyond ostentatious palaces and opulent gardens. Opened in 1891 by Emperor Franz Joseph , the Kunsthistorisches Museum houses the Habsburgs’ extensive art collection, showcasing their passion for the seminal painters of the day.  To help you find the best paintings and hidden gems, we sat down with several art historians who teach in local institutions in Vienna (and who also lead our in-depth tours of the Kunsthistoriches Museum) to get their opinion on the 7 best paintings at the KHM.

7 Best Paintings at Vienna’s KHM (in our opinion)

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Bruegel’s knowledge of building procedures and techniques is considerable and correct in detail.


KHM Best Paintings 1: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Reminiscent of the Roman Colosseum and symbolizing both the decay of Rome the eternal city and the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in the Netherlands, Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted The Tower of Babel in 1563.  Architectural Historian and Context docent, Piroska Mayer-Sebesteyen, says that the Tower of Babel is a must-see because it is a study in contrasts,What I like so much about it is that this unfinished tower is supposed to be extraordinarily well-built, bigger than any of the buildings surrounding it; but at the same time, it is somehow too near to the shore, leaning in a threatening way. If you were inside it, you would not feel very safe or be able to find your way through it. For me, this painting is telling us that we are sometimes so ambitious that we reach out too far and are not able to keep a balanced view of the world. If we could see the greater picture, we would not risk getting into disaster.”

Jupiter and Io, by Antonio Allegri (called Correggio)
Jupiter and Io, by Antonio Allegri (called Correggio). The painting shows how Jupiter, disguised as a dark cloud, seduces Io, daughter of the King of Argos, a story from the Metamorphoses of Ovid.


KHM Best Paintings 2: Jupiter and Io – Antonio Allegri, called Correggio

Jupiter and Io (1530) is a painting by the Italian late Renaissance artist Antonio Allegri da Correggio (1489 – 1534).  Known as Correggio, he painted Jupiter and Io as part of his Jupiter series.  Inspired by Ovid‘s classic Metamorphoses, Art historian and Context docent Alexa Brauner declares, “This is my number one painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. To me, it represents painted sensuality. Io, who tried to escape before, is now embraced by Jupiter and is lost in his soft foggy arms and she enjoys totally the situation. No other painting will show this theme in the history of art that way again. Not even the famous “Kiss” by Gustav Klimt shows dedication in that intense way.”

Portrait of Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein the Younger
Portrait of Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein the Younger


KHM Best Paintings 3: Portrait of Jane Seymour – Hans Holbein the Younger

Wolf Hall fans will recognize Jane Seymour (1509-1537) in this portrait, Henry VIII’s third wife and mother of King Edward VI. Famous for succeeding where Henry’s previous wives had failed, Jane provided the king with a legitimate male heir to the throne. King’s painter to Henry VIII, the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543) created this portrait after the marriage of Jane Seymour to Henry VIII in 1536.   Context docent, Clemena Antonova, loves Jane Seymour’s portrait because she says it is a pure example of art bringing history to life, “The Tudor dynasty has always exerted a fascination over later generations, and Henry VIII and his six wives have been, in many ways, in the center of the spotlight. Ironically, the private life of the King is probably much better known that the fact that he helped initiate some of the landmark events in English and European history, as the English Reformation. What this seems to show once again is that people love stories. And Holbein’s portrait of Jane Seymour is part of the story – the story of the English king who got several of his wives executed, but loved Jane, next to whom he expressed a wish of being buried, and the story of the Tudors, whose reign saw the Reformation in England and the rise of Anglicanism, the Renaissance and Shakespeare, etc. It is also an important moment in the story of art, at a time when the only important painters in England were foreigners, especially Italians and Northern Europeans, including Holbein – a German painter at the Tudor court. When we read about Henry VIII and his wives, about Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas More, it is Holbein’s portraits of these historical figures that come to mind. We see a whole epoch in English history through the eyes – and the works – of Holbein.”

Portrait of Cardinal Niccolò Albergati by Jan van Eyck
Portrait of Cardinal Niccolò Albergati by Jan van Eyck. common in van Eyck’s work, attention to detail is maximum, thanks to his technique using successive layers of colors diluted with oil, which allowed him deep effects of transparency and lucidity.


KHM Best Paintings 4: Portrait of Cardinal Niccolo Albergati – Jan van Eyck

In 1431, Pope Martin V sent Cardinal Niccolo Albergati to Burgundy to mediate between Henry VI, Charles VII and Philip, Duke of Burgundy during the Hundred Years War.  Dutch painter, Jan van Eyck was commissioned to paint a portrait of the Cardinal which he executed from only a few sketches made during a brief meeting.  The sought-after artist was considered a revolutionary during his time for his design and methods and Lisa Regan, another of our Context docents, says his technique really distinguishes this piece.  “The KHM includes a balance of really major works and some minor gems, including a couple of really exquisite individual works that merit extended close looking. There are some fantastic, and too often overlooked, portraits – for instance, the works by Holbein, and Rembrandt’s portrait of his son, Titus (the only one to live to adulthood), reading aloud to him. Of course, the van Eyck portrait of Cardinal Niccolo Albergati merits a few long minutes of close examination, especially the handling of the skin around the eyes, temples, and mouth.”

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror by Parmigianino
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror by Parmigianino


KHM Best Paintings 5: Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror – Parmigianino

Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, known as Parmigianino (1503-1540), created this self-portrait after painting himself as he appeared in a barber’s convex glass mirror.  Used as a portfolio piece to seek employment with the Papacy, the painting was not created on a flat canvas but on a section of a wooden sphere that reproduces the shape of a convex mirror. The unusual nature of the piece captured Context docent Reinhard Travnicek’s imagination. “You can not stop looking at it – it is amazing and engages you immediately,” sys Reinhard. “ A lot of questions come to mind: ‘Is this a picture or a mirror? Who is the young boy? Why does he show us his hand like that? Why did he paint it so large and in such a prominent position?’ Based on these questions, we enter into the field of mannerist art, with its amazing effects and ambiguity.”

Naked Young Woman in Front of the Mirror- Giovanni Bellini
Naked Young Woman in Front of the Mirror- Giovanni Bellini


KHM Best Paintings 6: Naked Young Woman in Front of the Mirror- Giovanni Bellini

Venetian painter, Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516), painted Naked Young Woman in Front of the Mirror in 1515 at the age of 85.  His first female nude proved to be his final work of art.  Context docent, Gabriela Steiner-Scharfetter says this is a foundational painting for her, “With the works of the Italian Renaissance, I love very much the painting ‘Naked Young Woman in Front of the Mirror ‘by Bellini, who was a teacher of Titian. For me, it represents a very classical work of its time, but at the same time, it illustrates very nicely how painting tries to show the world that it is equal to sculpture, in regards to how it is able to show three-dimensionality. Once seeing this work in the Italian side of the picture gallery in the museum, I began to understand painting.”

Madonna and Child with Saints and an Angel by Lorenzo Lotto - The represented saints are Catherine of Alexandria and Thomas.
Madonna and Child with Saints and an Angel by Lorenzo Lotto – The represented saints are Catherine of Alexandria and Thomas.

KHM Best Paintings 7: Madonna and Child with Saints and an Angel- Lorenzo Lotto

Created by Venetian painter Lorenzo Lotto in 1528,  this painting was said to be heavily influenced by Palma Vecchio.  Nearly almost forgotten after his death, Context docent Alexa Brauner greatly appreciates Lotto’s realism, “I love Lorenzo Lotto’s work. He was that painter in Venice that built an extra touch of emotion upon the classic Renaissance by using special light effects and softened expressions of the characters, like the madonna in this painting. On the other side, he shows us what people of his time and his environment looked like without making them prettier; rather, he points out their character and doesn’t leave out imperfections.”