1811 was an annus horribilis in modern Austrian history. Setting up an art collection in Graz appeared unthinkable. With the foundation of the Joanneum, Archduke John nevertheless launched an unprecedented culture and education initiative in the spirit of progressive education, or in modern terms: he pursued an active location policy.
Initial donations by the founder of the museum were followed by a number of bequests. In 1895, the most important came from Julie von Benedek, the widow of the general at the battles of Solferino and Königgrätz. The same year, the collection was transferred to the new museum building at Neutorgasse 45. This prestigious building in the style of Viennese Neo-Baroque was conceived primarily as a "museum of cultural history" of Styria, to which, in keeping with the times, the mediaeval holdings also belong. The nineteenth-century holdings were split off in 1941. They formed the basis of a new department of the Joanneum: the "Neue Galerie", or New Gallery. The lack of space persisted nevertheless. Since 2005 the Old Gallery is therefore presented with a new look.
The collection of medieval art largely comprises objects from Styria and, alongside the medieval section at the Belvedere in Vienna, is the most significant collection of its kind in Austria thanks to its wealth of excellent panel paintings and sculptures. The "Admont Virgin"worthy of particular note, a major work of High Gothic sculpture of European standing. Also at a European level, the votive panel and the Bearing of the Cross from St. Lambrecht abbey (Upper Styria) represent the impact of the "International Gothic" style in the Alps region. The main works of the Late Gothic period, above all featuring high-quality Styrian exhibits, include panels by Michael and Friedrich Pacher, leading masters of Late Gothic Art in Tyrol. The increasing influence of the Renaissance and the development of local art are evidenced by the monumental "Grand Miracle Altar of Mariazell" one of the most important pilgrimage churches in Central Europe, and the singular name panel of the master of St Martin from Bruck / Mur.
The collection also includes a substantial holding of High and Late Gothic glass painting from regional places but very close to international tendencies in the late Middele Ages.
The collection of Renaissance and Baroque art features major movements in European painting since the early sixteenth century. The German Renaissance is represented by Lucas Cranach the Elder and a singular bronze sculpture by Stefan Godl and Leonhard Magt.
The panorama of post-medieval Flemish painting with its unique diversity of genres includes such leading masters, particularly active in the metropolis of Antwerp as Herri met de Bles, Frans Floris, Jacob de Backer, Maerten de Vos, Jan Brueghel the Elder, Pieter Breughel the Younger, Gillis III van Coninxloo, Joos de Momper the Younger, and David Teniers the Younger, up to the Rubens successors such as Cornelis de Vos and Erasmus II Quellinus. This helps understand the northern Alpine development from the Renaissance to the Baroque. International Late Mannerism in the Habsburg residences at Prague and Brussels is represented by major works of Bartholomäus Spranger, Giambologna and Hendrick de Clerck. These feature alongside works of German contemporaries of early Baroque such as Hans Rottenhammer, Johann König and Johann Heiss.
Giovanni Pietro de Pomis, leading painter and architect at the Inner Austrian court in Graz around 1600, has a special place in the collection. Italian Baroque is represented by works of Domenico Fetti, Luca Giordano and Francesco Solimena.
Numerous paintings and oil sketches by painters from what is now southern Germany and the former territories reigned by the Habsburg dynasty add to the range of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century art in Central Europe: Johann Heinrich Schönfeld, Johann Michael Rottmayr, Franz Anton Maulbertsch, Norbert Grund, Johann Georg Platzer, Franz Christoph Janneck, and the most important complex of works of Martin Johann Schmidt, also known as "Kremser Schmidt". Sculptures by Josef Stammel, Philipp Jakob Straub and Veit Königer present a vivid picture of late Baroque sacred sculpture in Styria.
The graphic art comprises some 15,000 sheets. It features sketches and prints from the period from 1500 to the end of the eighteenth century. These include such leading international names as Albrecht Dürer, Lucas van Leyden, Jacques Callot, Stefano della Bella, Rembrandt, Daniel Chodowiecki, Giambattista Piranesi and Francisco de Goya. Predominant among the sketches are southern German and Austrian artists of the eighteenth century such as Franz Anton Maulbertsch, Paul Troger, Martin Johann Schmidt, also known as Kremser Schmidt, and Daniel Gran.
The holdings of the copperplate engraving cabinet may be viewed by making and advance appointment and are the topic of regular lectures at the universities of Graz.