Even back in 1768, Wolfgang von Goethe enthused about the halls of the Old Masters: "I entered this shrine, and my amazement exceeded any preconceived idea!" Since Goethe's day, the significance of the works has hardly changed, and they continue to meet with as great an appreciation: The Gemäldegalerie has hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world every year.
Most of the principal works on display were collected within only five decades. Systematically, the Saxon Elector and later King of Poland August the Strong (1670-1733), and especially his son August III (1696-1763) expanded the collection of German and Netherlandish Masters held by the Kunstkammer. Until the outbreak of the Seven Years' War, their agents acquired 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century works from all over Europe.
Starting in 1747, the collection was presented to the public at the so-called Johanneum, the former electoral stables. About a hundred years later, it received a suitable home that also accommodated its steady growth: Gottfried Semper, the architect of the royal opera, known today as the "Semperoper", erected a gallery building at the Zwinger, neighbouring the opera, which still houses the Old Masters today.
Portraitansicht eines Mannes mit Pelzmütze, langem Bart und Mantel
Jean-Étienne Liotard, Selbstbildnis in türkischer Tracht, 1744/45
With war fast approaching, the gallery was closed in 1939. It was possible to evacuate the majority of the works and thus they remained unharmed - nevertheless, the collection suffered some war losses and the whereabouts of several works remain unclear. At the end of the Second World War, most paintings - like the holdings of many other museums - were taken by the Red Army to Moscow and Kiev. When it was established in 1955 that the art treasures would gradually be returned to East Germany, the heavily war-damaged gallery building was reconstructed and reopened. The Semperbau has been undergoing extensive renovation since 2013, which will be concluded in 2019 with a grand reopening of the entire Gemäldegalerie.