1936–1959: The Collection of Emil Bührle
D. Kessel, 1954, ©gettyimages
© gettyimages

Born in Pforzheim, Germany in 1890, the industrialist Emil Georg Bührle lived in Zurich from 1924 until his death in 1956. In the middle years of the 20th century he built up one of the most important private collections of European painting. At its heart are French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Around the works of painters such as Cézanne, Gauguin, van Gogh, Monet and Renoir, Bührle grouped French artists of the 19th century who paved the way for Impressionism or developed alongside it, as well as paintings by older masters who followed artistic principles similar to those of the Impressionists. Bührle complemented the core holdings of his collection with examples of French avant-garde art since 1900. The collection also includes a group of medieval sculptures.

Emil Bührle’s focus on French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism reflected a widespread trend around 1950 which saw them as the origin of all the modern art that was important then. The three great Post-Impressionists – Cézanne, Gauguin and van Gogh – were at the time regarded as the true “fathers” of modern art, and large groups of their works feature in Bührle’s collection. Bührle endeavoured to complement the masterpieces in his collection with minor works that trace the personal development of each artist. The older Impressionists are also very fully represented, with examples from all the genres in which they worked.

Bührle also complemented his core holdings with works by old masters whose techniques often bore similarities to those of Impressionism, the most striking examples being the virtuoso brushwork of Frans Hals’ portrait of a young man and Francesco Guardi’s atmospherically dense depiction of St. Mark’s Bay in Venice. Bührle’s choices reflected the concept of an Entwicklungsgeschichte (history of development) as the guiding principle of art history, familiar to him since his studies in Germany before the First World War.

Emil Bührle acquired the vast majority of his pictures and sculptures between 1951 and 1956. Although he was not a collector of contemporary painting, he responded indirectly to ongoing changes in the art scene by adding to his collection examples of the turn of the century artistic avant-garde that had come to be seen as the historical foundation for the success of abstract painting in Europe and the US since 1945.