Austro-Hungarian Web Site

Let the artists tell us what life was like

© by Felix G. Game

Among the many tools that can be used to put meat on the bones of your family history, and one that is so painless that it can hardly be called "research" is the abundant supply of old paintings. Many of the painters were grass roots people and they produced much "folk art". These masters show us how people dressed a hundred or more years ago, how they lived and what values they had. We only need to take our time and look at their pictures.

A few years ago I received a lovely Christmas card from Ernst Schiebl, an Austrian friend. I really cherished this card, and I will use it now to illustrate what I am talking about. The scene depicted is called "Christtagmorgen" which is Christmas morning in English. The players are part of a peasant family. I will first let you look at it and study it and gather your own impressions, then I will tell you what I see and what I make of it.


1849 Painting by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller

Let us first of all remember that Waldmüller was an Austrian, and that it gets fairly cold around Christmas in Austria. So there has to be a good reason for the window to be opened even just for an instant. The reason seems fairly clear in the picture: A little girl is retrieving her shoe and the boy just had retrieved his and is visibly disappointed. The children had put their shoes in the window so that the Kristkindl (the Christ Child) would put a gift into their shoes - if they had been good all year. Perhaps the boy had not been all that well behaved.

If we stop at this thought for a moment, we will realize a number of things: We can assume that whatever gift was hoped for was no bigger than what would fit into a shoe. The multiple appearance of apples in the picture seems to indicate that an apple was a fairly common Christmas gift. There is also the indication that gifts were tied to behavior. Gifts were seen as a reward, something to be earned. The Christkindl was not obligated to bestow gifts on rotten little kids. The oldest boy seems to have been a little off in his behavior because he seems disappointed holding an empty shoe. But don't despair, he was loved at least by the two little girls in the foreground who are visibly distressed by his disappointment - to the point where the older of the two, the one sitting on the chair, is offering him her very own apple. What a gesture! What Christmas spirit! What a real Christmas gift! With all those uniform night-shirts, how can I tell the boys from the girls? It is fairly simple: the little girls are being gender-typed by wearing kerchiefs like the adult women. The two boys wear nothing on their heads (although the adult males do wear caps), and except for the smallest one wear Lederhosen

The family seems a bit short of men. At the right is obviously a grandfather figure who gets a big kick out of the youngest boy carrying on about what he found in his shoe. And it is not a coincidence that he is over on the right, that is where the big Kachelofen is.  That marvel of engineering, a stove built from glazed ceramic tiles, gives out steady heat for hours after the last armful of wood has been put into it. And yet it never gets hot enough to seriously burn anyone who touches it. In a peasant family, the cats and the old folks all have season tickets to the few places on the benches that are built into this heating apparatus. Rheumatism and arthritis are not modern inventions.

What we seem to see in this picture is a very basic existence. Both adults and children appear well nourished, but there is an obvious lack of "extras". The meagre presents tell a tale all of their own as does the Christmas tree which totally lacks the usual adornment of home made candies wrapped in fine paper cut to form elegant furry ends after they have been twisted. Those are not expensive ornaments and often contain nothing but a sugar cube. But even the poor people had to have an ornament for the tip of the tree - preferably an angel of some kind, or a shining star.  Perhaps it was a bad year, perhaps the men who seem to be missing had to go to war. And indeed , that could be the message that the artist intended to convey. Waldmüller painted this in 1849 and we know that all of Europe was boiling in 1848 and that Austria was at war with the Hungarians under Kossuth in 1849.  It is also a documented fact that the oldest son of an operational farm could be excused from the draft to obligatory military service if he was the one the farming family depended on, especially when he was the sole support of elderly parents. The young man at the back seems to  fall into this category. 

It is a humble household. There seems to be only one comfortable chair and a small bench, there is no floor covering, and at least one window pane is in need of replacement. About the only decorative item to please the eye is the meticulously polished copper Guglhupf form leaning on its perch against the Kachelofen which is surrounded by sticks for hanging wet things to dry overnight. The boys are wearing probably the only pair of Lederhosen they own, and there is a good chance that the adults are also wearing the only outfit they own except for their  Sunday clothes. It certainly does not appear to have been a materialistically oriented life style, but they all look well nourished and reasonably content and satisfied to be part of this family.

It would be extremely rare for us to find pictures of our ancestors of that era, so we need to take our clues from the artists who report to us today what they saw back then. 

If you want to look at other pictures and see how much you can learn about the life of past generations, you could visit my art gallery.


Kachelofen = Large stove built of glazed and often intricately decorated ceramic tiles which hold the heat. Once enough embers have been created, the stove gets closed front and back and stays hot for ten or twelve hours.

Christkindl   = Christ Child. In Austria, instead of Santa Claus and his Reindeer, it is the Christ Child and angels who bring the gifts.

Lederhosen = Pants made of deer skin. They were usually bought too big and a boy grew into them and wore them for ten years.

Guglhupf     = Most popular coffee cake of a distinct shape, rather tall with a hole in the center, and slanted ridges down its sides.

If you agree with me that old pictures can teach us something about how our ancestors lived, then do not hesitate to search the Web for other paintings. I mentioned only two masters, Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller (1793-1865) and Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885), but there are obviously many others.

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