Founded in 1787, the Künstlergesellschaft began to collect works of art in 1794. Every member donated either one of their own drawings or a work by another artist towards what they termed a ‘Malerbuch’ – a painting book. In 1812 they took out a loan to acquire premises, which initially functioned as a club house and bar. Thanks to an international appeal for funds it became possible in 1818 to secure Zurich’s main artistic attraction, the ‘Gessnerische Gemählde-Cabinet’, for the city; it comprises 24 gouache pictures of idyllic landscapes and a large number of drawings by Salomon Gessner.

Kunsthausgebäude 1847, Franz Hegi
Franz Hegi, Das Kunsthausgebäude, 1847, Malerbuch, Bd. 17, fol 1, Kunsthaus Zürich

In 1847 the rotating exhibition organized by the Swiss Fine Arts Association from 1840 onwards provided the impetus to annex a small gallery designed by Gustav Albert Wegmann to the original premises. For a long time the new ‘museum’ was dominated by the collection donated by Colonel Keller zum Mohrenkopf in 1854, a representative selection of Zurich painting from Hans Asper to the 18th century.

« Here at the Kunsthaus we wish to dedicate ourselves to that end and draw encouragement to make our house into a house of art. » — Prof. Arnold Meyer, Rector of Zurich University, in the formal address at the opening of the Kunsthaus Zürich on 17 April 1910
« Let our home be far removed from all false appearance and grandeur, from all luxury that is not in tune with its means (…). » — Prof. Arnold Meyer, Rector of Zurich University, in the formal address at the opening of the Kunsthaus Zürich on 17 April 1910
Edvard Munch, «Dr. Wilhelm Wartmann», 1923
Edvard Munch, Bildnis Dr. Wilhelm Wartmann, 1923, Kunsthaus Zürich, gift of Alfred Rütschi, 1929

Owing to the small size of the collection, the first curator and later Director from 1909 until 1949, Wilhelm Wartmann, initially concentrated on Swiss art and alongside the most interesting works of the time he put together groups of late Gothic painting and pictures by Henry Fuseli.

When the Kunsthaus held a large Ferdinand Hodler exhibition in 1917, it became clear that the financial resources of the Kunstgesellschaft were insufficient, and Alfred Rüetschi responded by founding the ‘Vereinigung Zürcher Kunstfreunde’ (Society of Zurich Friends of Art), which to this day regularly helps to extend the Kunsthaus Collection with significant acquisitions. Rüetschi himself made a number of large compositions and important landscapes by Hodler available to the Kunsthaus.

In 1920 the Kunsthaus was bequeathed the collection of Hans Schuler and with it, for the first time, works of French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism by Renoir, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Bonnard. After many years of preparation Wartmann organized his first exhibition of Edvard Munch in 1922 and began to build up the largest collection of works by the Norwegian artist outside Scandinavia.

Karl Moser extended the Kunsthaus in 1925 and in 1929 Dr. Hans E. Mayenfisch began to buy works by living Swiss artists for the Kunsthaus; by the time of his death in 1957 the collection had increased to over 450 works. The Nobel Prize winner Leopold Ruzicka set up a foundation in 1949 with his outstanding collection of 17th-century Dutch painting. When René Wehrli replaced Wilhelm Wartmann as Director in 1950 he moved the focus on to French painting since Monet; following the Monet retrospective the two large water lily panels were acquired.

The largest column-free exhibition gallery in Switzerland

1958 saw the opening of the large, adaptable exhibition gallery with an auditorium and spacious restaurant beneath that had been planned since 1944 by the Pfister brothers and was financed by Emil G. Bührle. A group of art lovers close to the Bechtler brothers created a foundation in 1965 with the most important collection of works by Alberto Giacometti, to which the artist donated additional pieces. In 1966 Nelly Bär endowed the Werner Bär gallery, donating a group of sculptures from Rodin to Richier. Thanks to Gustav Zumsteg and the support of a number of patrons and the artist himself the Marc Chagall gallery was created in 1973.

Highlights from the history of Kunsthaus

Umgebaute Eingangshalle 1958
Reconstructed entry hall, 1958, Archive Kunsthaus Zürich, Photo Walter Dräyer, Zürich
Historische Aussenaufnahme
Historic picture, 1959, Archive Kunsthaus Zürich
Amerikanische Kunst 1969
Exhibition «Amerikanische Kunst 1948-1968», 1969, Photo Walter Dräyer
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Reading room of the library and the collection of prints and drawings in the enlarged Kunsthaus end of 1925, photo Ernst Linck
Erweiterung von Erwin Müller, 1976
Extension of Erwin Müller, 1976, Archive Kunsthaus Zürich, Photo Walter Dräyer

In this period, Erna and Curt Burgauer began donating works from their collection of modern art to the Kunsthaus. 1976 brought the opening of the extension by the architect Erwin Müller, while Felix Baumann replaced René Wehrli as Director. In 1980, thanks to numerous donations, an extensive collection of works documenting the Dada movement was established. The Johanna and Walter L. Wolf Collection added significant new works of French art from Impressionism to Classical Modernism in 1984. Betty and David M. Koetser gave their important collection of Dutch paintings, Italian Baroque and the Venetian Settecento to their foundation in 1986 and in 1995 Walter Haefner presented the Kunsthaus with twelve outstanding paintings by artists from Monet to Magritte.

Villa Tobler
Villa Tobler, © Kunsthaus Zürich, Photo: Franca Candrian

Renovation of the buildings and structures

From 1998 to 2000 the Villa Tobler, a protected historic monument located at Winkelwiese 4, was restored in a manner befitting its status as a new renaissance palazzo to become the new home of management and to serve as a venue for official events. In September 2000 Christoph Becker succeeded Felix Baumann as the new Director and the electorate of Zurich voted in favour of a loan of 28.5 million Swiss francs for renovation of the Kunsthaus. In 2001 the museum board adopted a new artistic strategy, with in-house working groups and a public commission of experts on the future of the Kunsthaus to support reforms of internal structures, while renovation work began.

The extension: a museum for art and its public in the 21st century

On 28 May 2002 the outgoing President of the Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft, Thomas W. Bechtler, Director Christoph Becker and the Mayor of Zurich, Elmar Ledergerber, presented plans for a new extension to the Kunsthaus at Heimplatz. The project, one of the principal aims of which is to create more space for the growing collection, was also backed by Walter B. Kielholz, who in June 2002 became President of the Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft, one of the largest European art associations with 19,000 members. The extension designed by David Chipperfield is due to be completed by 2020. In the intervening period, a number of prestigious collections have moved into the Kunsthaus or announced their intention to do so; they include the Old Master collection of Karin and Ferdinand Knecht,the Looser Collection of art post-1960 and the internationally famed Emil Bührle Collection , which has enjoyed close ties with the Kunsthaus for generations. Together with the Kunsthaus’s own holdings it will create the most important collection of French painting and Impressionism in Europe outside Paris. Some of the works are already regularly displayed at the Kunsthaus.