Looking back to its founding date in 1861, the museum unveiled an unprecedented collection of paintings from masters such as Caspar David Friedrich and Karl Friedrich Schinkel.
“Nowhere else can you find such a broad collection of art from this period,” said museum director Udo Kittelmann at the show's opening on Tuesday evening. “This is an opportunity to re-examine this era anew.”
The exhibition stems from 262 works donated to King Wilhelm I of Prussia by Berlin banker Joachim Heinrich Wagener upon his death in 1861 - on the condition that they be housed in a national gallery.
Wagener began collecting contemporary art in 1815 specifically for this purpose. His first coup was Karl Friedrich Schinkel's Gotische Kirche auf einem Felsen am Meer, or “Gothic Church on a Rock in the Sea,” from 1815 – one of the exhibition's most prized pieces.
The paintings were initially displayed at an exhibition on Berlin's grand Unter den Linden boulevard before they were finally housed 15 years later in the newly constructed Old National Gallery on Museum Island, designed by a student of Schinkel's, Friedrich August Stüler.
Some 140 pieces from the original collection will be on display, many of which have lain in the archives for the last century.
“We treasure that this collection arose out of a sense of civic and liberal pride, and one can see that,” said curator Angelika Wesenberg.
The museum also plans to hold an additional colloquium to investigate the three enormous volumes of artists' letters collected over decades and left behind by patron Wagener.
“It's a hidden treasure,” said Wesenburg. “It can't be that we have it and no one really knows what's in it.”