The Emil Bührle Collection at the Kunsthaus Zürich

Introduction

The Emil Bührle Collection at the Kunsthaus Zürich A world-class art collection and its history

Some 170 artworks from the private Foundation E.G. Bührle Collection entered the Kunsthaus Zürich on long-term loan in autumn 2021. A popular vote in 2012 approved their incorporation into the museum’s new extension. The collection contains works from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern era, with an outstanding ensemble of French Impressionist painting at its centre.

Bernardo Strozzi, Santa Caterina d’Alessandria (Saint Catherine of Alexandria), 1618-1620 Oil on canvas, 165 x 130 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, La Liseuse (A Girl Reading), 1845-1850 Oil on canvas, 42.5 x 32.5 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)
Édouard Manet, Un Coin du jardin de Bellevue (A Garden Nook at Bellevue), 1880 Oil on canvas, 91 x 70 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)
Edgar Degas, Petite Danseuse de quatorze ans (Little Dancer Aged Fourteen), 1880-1881 Bronze, cotton tutu, silk ribbon, 98 cm high, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: Peter Schälchli, Zurich
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Irène Cahen d’Anvers (La Petite Irène) [Irène Cahen d’Anvers (Little Irene)], 1880 Oil on canvas, 65 x 54 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: Schälchli/Schmidt, Zurich
Pablo Picasso, L’Italienne (Italian Woman), 1917 Oil on canvas, 149 x 101.5 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)

Emil Bührle (1890–1956) was an important industrialist, collector and patron who remains a controversial figure to this day. He expanded the Machine Tool Factory in Oerlikon next to Zurich into an arms company of international dimensions. The company’s success made him extremely wealthy, and enabled him to accumulate one of the most important private collections of the era, consisting of over 600 works.

Emil Bührle posing in front of a prototype anti-aircraft missile system designed by his firm, 1954 The LIFE Picture Collection / Shutterstock / Photo: Dmitri Kessel

Emil Bührle began collecting in 1936. Between then and 1945, some 150 works entered his collection. Thirteen of them were identified as looted art after the Second World War, and Bührle was obliged to return them to their rightful owners. He acquired nine of them a second time. The principal phase of his collecting activities came after the war.

Emil Bührle in his collection, 1954 The LIFE Picture Collection / Shutterstock / Photo: Dmitri Kessel
Claude Monet, Le Bassin aux nymphéas, le soir (The Water Lily Pond in the Evening), 1916-1922 Oil on canvas, 200 x 600 cm, Kunsthaus Zürich, Donated by Emil G. Bührle, 1952, photo: Kunsthaus Zürich, Franca Candrian

The Kunsthaus Zürich was also a beneficiary of Bührle’s wealth. Bührle had been a member of the collection committee since 1940, and that same year he put forward the idea of financing an extension. In 1952, when the project was being realised, he donated two large water-lily pictures by Claude Monet to the Kunsthaus.

It is my intention to offer the public a comprehensive presentation of my collection when the new building opens. I therefore say: see you on Heimplatz.

Emil Bührle, 1954 lecture

The exhibition took place in 1958, two years after the collector’s death. In 1960 some 200 works from the collection were transferred to a foundation which displayed them in a private museum in an outer district of Zurich until 2015. The location was not especially suitable for large numbers of visitors, and it proved impossible to guarantee the works’ security. In October 2021 the collection moved on long-term loan to the Chipperfield building, where it occupies one sixth of the total exhibition space. This marked the start of a new phase in the relationship between Bührle, his family and his collection on the one hand, and the Kunsthaus and the city of Zurich on the other.

The garden side of the villa next to the Bührle family residence at Zollikerstrasse 172 in Zurich Archive Foundation E. G. Bührle Collection, Zurich The extension by David Chipperfield Architects on Heimplatz in Zurich, August 2021 Photo: Kunsthaus Zürich, Franca Candrian

The collection

Vincent van Gogh, Le Semeur au soleil couchant (The Sower with Setting Sun), 1888 Oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: Schälchli/Schmidt, Zurich

The central element of Emil Bührle’s collection is French Impressionist painting. It is complemented by works that paved the way for, were created alongside, or drew their inspiration from Impressionism. There is also a group of late medieval wooden sculptures.

Bührle chose his works in accordance with fixed criteria. For him, French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting laid the foundations of modernism. There are also a small number of high-quality works representing two important art movements of the early 20th century: Fauvism and Cubism.

Impressionism

Substantial groups of works from the collection vividly illustrate key themes and developments within Impressionism.

In the second half of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution and the invention of railways profoundly transformed perceptions of the outside world, nature and the landscape. In the 1870s Claude Monet, along with his colleagues Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley, developed the airy art of Impressionism, which involved swiftly capturing an atmospheric moment with spontaneous brushstrokes. Aided by the invention of the paint tube, the Impressionists increasingly abandoned their studios and found myriad subjects to inspire them outdoors, which they painted there and then, en plein air.

Impressionism

In the second half of the 19th century, France experienced an economic boom, and Paris became the world’s leading cultural metropolis. Artists began asking themselves what qualities a picture needed to reflect those social phenomena. They looked around for novel ways of seeing and painting to capture this new world. Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir recognised that objects continually changed how they looked depending on the light and the environment, creating different visual impressions. They now set out to record those impressions, largely working en plein air – outdoors – and seeking to convey their atmospheric effect rather than aiming at strictly accurate imitation. The Impressionists made their first public appearance at a joint exhibition in 1874. Numerous further exhibitions – eight in total – were to follow.

Landscapes

The construction of the first railway lines brought outlying areas around the city of Paris within reach of a populace seeking leisure and relaxation. The Impressionists painted both the railways’ technical infrastructure as it advanced into rural areas and the swarms of people heading out of the capital. Their rapid painting technique enabled them to record their immediate impressions on the spot.

Claude Monet, Champ de coquelicots près de Vétheuil (Poppy Field near Vétheuil), ca. 1879 Oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: Schälchli/Schmidt, Zurich Alfred Sisley, Été à Bougival (Summer at Bougival), 1876 Oil on canvas, 47 x 62 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)

The Impressionists’ technique was revolutionary: instead of mixing their paints on the palette, they applied them directly to the canvas in luminous dabs of colour which only blended together in the observer’s eye, creating an effect of great immediacy.

Figures

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Irène Cahen d’Anvers (La Petite Irène) [Irène Cahen d’Anvers (Little Irene)], 1880 Oil on canvas, 65 x 54 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: Schälchli/Schmidt, Zurich Edgar Degas, Ludovic Lepic et ses filles (Ludovic Lepic and His Daughters), ca. 1871 Oil on canvas, 65 x 81 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: Peter Schälchli, Zurich

For all their emphasis on landscape painting, the Impressionists still continued to paint the human figure. Nevertheless, in his depiction of a seated girl, Pierre-Auguste Renoir exploited the ambient light to emphasise the model’s presence captured at a moment in time. Edgar Degas experimented with blurring and cropping of the kind he had encountered in photography.

Before Impressionism

Édouard Manet is a precursor of Impressionism who in his own time was already searching for new ways to depict modern life in Paris. He abandoned the clarity of conventional pictorial structures, instead allowing the observer’s eye to wander freely across the canvas. His seemingly spontaneous application of paint disrupts the stability of a classical composition and the integrity of forms, figures and spaces.

Édouard Manet, Les Hirondelles (The Swallows), 1873 Oil on canvas, 65 x 81 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)

Édouard Manet was of pivotal importance to Emil Bührle, who regarded him as the originator of modern French painting, and sought to ensure he was properly represented in his collection. At the same time, however, Manet also linked back to earlier techniques: when developing his spontaneous painting style, he drew inspiration from the great masters of the tradition, such as the Dutch artist Frans Hals. Emil Bührle, himself a student of art history, wanted to reflect such lines of influence in his collection.

One of the most important paintings in the collection. The freedom and virtuosity of the brushwork, which were never surpassed, clearly demonstrate Manet’s affinity with Frans Hals.

Emil Bührle, 1954 lecture
Frans Hals, Portrait of a Man, 1660-1666 Oil on canvas, 70 x 58.5 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: Schälchli/Schmidt, Zurich

Bührle added further figures and eras of earlier art to his collection: he was, for example, fascinated by the 18th-century Venetian masters because their depiction of light reminded him of the later work of the Impressionists.

Post-Impressionism

Bührle was also interested in the developments in art that followed and were inspired by Impressionism. The three great Post-Impressionists – Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin – occupy a central place in his collection. They bring the achievements of Impressionism into the modern era.

Paul Cézanne, Le Garçon au gilet rouge (The Boy in the Red Waistcoat), 1888-1890 Oil on canvas, 79.5 x 64 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)

In Cézanne’s rhythmic dabs of colour, painting itself acquires an intrinsic value. Here, rather than depicting the material qualities of the shirt and jacket, Cézanne seeks to densify the composition using brushwork. He structures the dabs of colour in relation to the overall surface of the painting. He also pays great attention to the spaces in between: from a painting perspective, the gap between the red jacket, the arm and the table is just as important as the forms defining the figure of the boy. The result is a dense network of painting.

Vincent van Gogh, Le Semeur au soleil couchant (The Sower with Setting Sun), 1888 Oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: Schälchli/Schmidt, Zurich
Paul Gauguin, L’Offrande (The Offering), 1902 Oil on canvas, 68.5 x 78.5 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: Schälchli/Schmidt, Zurich

Paul Gauguin preferred to paint large, closed areas of colour and used curving (arabesque) lines to divide up his compositions in a new way. They have a novel, abstract quality that gives the picture density on its surface.

Paul Signac, Les Modistes (The Milliners), 1885-1886 Oil on canvas, 116 x 89 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)

Emil Bührle’s collection also gives space to the fourth avenue of Post-Impressionism: the Pointillism of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, which is based on a systematic approach to the Impressionists’ technique. Rather than applying paint across the surface of the canvas in brushstrokes, the Pointillists employed individual points of colour of identical size, from which the motif emerges when viewed at a distance.

The Nabis and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

The works of the Nabis (a group of artists who derived their name from the Hebrew word for ‘prophets’) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec take the collection beyond Impressionism. Unlike the Impressionists, the Nabis liked to paint intensely atmospheric interiors centred around human figures.

Pierre Bonnard, Le Déjeuner (The Luncheon), 1899 Oil on cardboard, 54.5 x 70.5 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)

The Nabis were inspired by the early paintings of Paul Gauguin from rural Brittany. They regarded themselves as the prophets of a new kind of art which should serve to express ideas through forms, and be symbolic, subjective and decorative. Illusionism, reality and trompe-l’œil were taboo. While the Impressionists had focused much of their work on the landscape, the two most important Nabis, Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard, were particularly interested in depicting figures in decorative interiors.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Messaline, 1900-1901 Oil on canvas, 92 x 68 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was also very much interested in painting people indoors; but unlike the Nabis, he chose mainly to depict not private, personal spaces but specifically seedy locations such as cabarets and brothels. He also showed the darker side of life, which did not greatly interest the Impressionists.

Cubism

When looking ahead to the artistic avant-garde of the 20th century, Bührle was once again guided by the impact of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

Georges Braque, Homme au violon (The Violinist), 1912 Oil on canvas, 100 x 73 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn) Pablo Picasso, L’Italienne (Italian Woman), 1917 Oil on canvas, 149 x 101.5 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)

In 1909, taking up where Cézanne had left off, the founders of Cubism, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, began radically transforming painting. They focused attention on the ways in which painting covers surfaces: line, colour shading, formal rhythm and the creation of space through the illusion of overlaid surfaces now became the essential content of their pictures. The aim was no longer to reproduce the visible world, but rather to construct it anew and in a controlled manner within the picture. Braque’s Violinist exemplifies the clear, seemingly non-material Cubism of these years. In his 1917 painting, Picasso combined surface elements and patterns to create a decorative unity.

Medieval religious art

In 1951, Bührle began adding the final element to his collection: an extensive group of medieval sculptures.

Emil Bührle’s interest in medieval sculpture was personal. It reminded him of his student enthusiasm for Gothic art, and there was also the matter of his religious faith: he was an Old Catholic and endowed a church in Oerlikon, acquiring some of these works to display inside it.

The Virgin of Mercy, Upper Swabia, ca. 1500 Lime wood, 115 cm high, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: Peter Schälchli, Zurich

The Virgin of Mercy is a popular pictorial motif of the late medieval era. Small figures representing various classes of society seek shelter beneath the cloak of the standing Madonna holding the Christ Child, with the men to the right and women to the left from Mary’s perspective. Mary’s care for the child is thus transmitted to all the faithful. Two angels hold the fabric of the gilded cloak. The sculpture in general is lavishly gilded and painted.

The collector

The collector

Claude Monet, Champ de coquelicots (Poppy Field), 1880 Oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, bequest of Dr. Dieter Bührle, 2012, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: Schälchli/Schmidt, Zurich

In 1924 Emil Bührle took over as head of the Machine Tool Factory in Oerlikon next to Zurich. He built the company into an arms manufacturer with global operations. He began collecting on a large scale in 1936 and within just 20 years became one of the most important collectors of his time.

Emil Bührle was born into a middle-class family in 1890. Between 1909 and 1914 he studied German and art history in Freiburg and Munich. The knowledge of painting and medieval sculpture that he acquired there was to influence the shape of his collection.

Bührle’s fellow students included Erwin Panofsky, who went on to become one of the leading art historians of the 20th century.

List of participants in the 1914 summer semester, including Erwin Panofsky and Emil Bührle Vöge Archive, Freiburg i.Br.

In 1913 Emil Bührle visited the Nationalgalerie in Berlin as a student, and saw paintings by the French Impressionists for the first time. Their acquisition had led to a political controversy with nationalist and anti-French overtones that had ended in 1908 with the dismissal of the museum’s director Hugo von Tschudi by the German Kaiser.

The Impressionist room is dominated by Édouard Manet’s In the Conservatory (1877), which can be seen to the left of the picture.

View of the exhibition at the Nationalgalerie, 3rd floor, room 5 with works by the French Impressionists bpk / Zentralarchiv, SMB

In that moment, as I stood before the creations of the French painters, a realisation came over me. I resolved that, if ever I were in a position to do so, I should have pictures by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas and Cézanne such as these hanging on my wall.

Emil Bührle, 1954 lecture

1914 saw the outbreak of the First World War. Like most of his fellow students, Emil Bührle was called up for military service. After being wounded, he was trained as a machine-gunner. Promoted to the rank of lieutenant in 1916, he took over the command of a machine-gun squad deployed on the battlefields of the German Eastern and Western fronts.

After the war ended he remained with his division, which joined up with a volunteer militia brigade in Berlin. The paramilitary Freikorps took part in the suppression of uprisings by the Communist Spartacist League in Berlin. Historians have not yet established how far Bührle was involved in these actions.

F. Hanel, ‘Bührle’s reconnaissance patrol’ (1918), from Georg Bahls, Das 3. Badische Dragoner-Regiment, 1934 Archive Foundation E. G. Bührle Collection, Zurich

Transferred to Magdeburg with his unit, Bührle was accommodated in the private residence of the banker and entrepreneur Ernst Schalk. There he met Schalk’s daughter Charlotte, to whom he became engaged in October 1919. On his wedding day in 1920, Bührle was appointed an authorised officer of the Magdeburg Tool and Machine Factory, of which Ernst Schalk was a shareholder.

Charlotte Schalk and Emil Bührle on their engagement, 1919 Archive Foundation E. G. Bührle Collection, Zurich

The entrepreneur

In 1924 Emil Bührle moved to Switzerland, where he became an authorised officer of the Werkzeugmaschinenfabrik Oerlikon (Machine Tool Factory Oerlikon, WO). WO had been purchased by the Magdeburg firm in 1923. Bührle thus became one of the country’s biggest employers.

Bührle’s career would not have been possible without the initial capital provided by his parents-in-law. When he arrived in Zurich in 1924, he was the son-in-law and trusted associate of a wealthy family with contacts in right-wing conservative circles. In 1927 he took over as general manager of Machine Tool Factory Oerlikon.

Werkzeugmaschinenfabrik Oerlikon (Machine Tool Factory Oerlikon, WO)

Machine Tool Factory Oerlikon arose out of the Swiss Machine Tool Factory Oerlikon (SWO), founded in 1906, which was acquired for 1.5 million Swiss francs by the Magdeburg Tool and Machine Factory in 1923. The Swiss arms industry grew up in the wake of German covert rearmament, a consequence of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles which ordered Germany to disarm. Switzerland had no interest in ratifying the treaty, and instead sought to regulate its economically important relations with its northern neighbour through bilateral arrangements.

In 1937 Bührle became a Swiss citizen and sole owner of Oerlikon Bührle & Co. (WOB). Following the occupation of France in 1940 WOB, in agreement with the Swiss Federal Council, supplied weapons to Nazi Germany worth a total of 540 million Swiss francs, accounting for around 70% of Swiss arms exports. In 1941 deliveries of weapons from Switzerland accounted for 14% of the country’s entire exports.

Emil Bührle with a machine gun (around 1925): ‘Mr E. Bührle operates the OERLIKON ring-mounted gun installed in the Dornier Superwal’ Source: Ein Rückblick. Die geschichtliche Entwicklung der OERLIKON-Waffen in 20 Jahren, in: Werkmitteilungen, May 1945, pp. 18–22. Photo: Rheinmetall Air Defence AG
Lathe operators in the Machine Tool Factory Oerlikon Bührle & Co. around 1940 Swiss Social Archives / Photo: Ernst Koehli Machine Tool Factory Oerlikon Bührle & Co., 1946 Rheinmetall Air Defence AG

Forced labour at the IKARIA subsidiary

In 1934 Bührle became a co-founder of Ikaria (Berlin), but in 1937 he was obliged to surrender his shares in the company to the German Air Ministry. However, WOB received licence payments for a wing-mounted cannon it had developed. From 1943 onwards, female forced labourers from a nearby concentration camp were used at the manufacturing facility in Velten (Brandenburg). WOB earned around 870,000 Swiss francs from its licence up to the end of the Second World War. Historians now believe that Bührle could have learned about the working conditions in Velten after the war.

Employing 3,700 people, WOB was one of the biggest companies in Switzerland during the war. The Swiss Federal Council’s ban on arms exports in 1944 led to a marked decline in production at WOB, which also found itself on the Allies’ ‘black list’. Following diplomatic efforts by the Swiss Foreign Ministry, the ban was lifted in 1946.

En route to the US, 1947 Archive Foundation E. G. Bührle Collection, Zurich

Within the space of a few months, Bührle successfully moved from the Allies’ black list to the society pages of US magazines, gaining unhindered admission to circles dedicated to containing Communism.

Prof. Matthieu Leimgruber, 2020

Summer 1950 saw the outbreak of the Korean War. A sharp increase in arms exports from Switzerland ensued, with a highly efficient rocket newly developed by WOB playing a key role. This was made possible by the Federal Council’s War Materiel Decree of 1949, which was supported by the trade unions. Swiss companies, including WOB, also expanded into India and Egypt.

Assembly of 8-cm OERLIKON rockets Rheinmetall Air Defence AG The 8-cm OERLIKON rockets Rheinmetall Air Defence AG

The Korean War

The war between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north and the Republic of Korea in the south lasted from 1950 to 1953. The two states had crystallised out of the Soviet- and US-occupied zones of Korea after the Second World War. Interventions by the US and later China transformed a national war into an international conflict which cost the lives of 940,000 soldiers and around three million civilians. Chinese troops remained in North Korea until 1958, while US troops are stationed in South Korea to this day. As yet, no peace treaty has been concluded between the two nations.

In the early 1950s East and West were engaged in the Cold War. In 1952, WOB secured a major order from the US Department of Defense worth 140 million francs. The Swiss Federal Council launched a 1.2-billion-franc programme to modernise and rearm the Swiss Army; WOB was one of the suppliers, receiving orders worth 100 million.

The Cold War

The Cold War lasted from 1945 until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. The term refers to the confrontation between two opposing systems: capitalism and communism. On one side stood the Western powers led by the US; on the other the Eastern Bloc, led by the Soviet Union (USSR). Although no direct military conflicts between the superpowers took place, there were ‘proxy wars’ in countries such as Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. The rivalry between the two systems permeated every area of society, but in particular it fuelled an arms race.

The 50th birthday celebrations of WOB were held on 19 October 1956 in Zurich’s Hallenstadion. More than 3,000 guests were invited, including high-ranking local and national figures from the worlds of politics, the military, industry, finance and culture. Five weeks later, on 28 November 1956, Emil Bührle died of heart failure.

The celebrations marking 50 years of Machine Tool Factory Oerlikon in Zurich’s Hallenstadion, 19 October 1956 ullstein-bild – RDB

The collector

While cementing his financial success as an entrepreneur, Bührle was also building up an important collection of art that, by the end of his life, numbered some 600 works.

Bührle began buying art in 1936, having earned his first million through the expansion of WO’s arms exports. Between 1936 and 1940, he purchased a total of 53 works from Swiss dealers at a cost of 1.4 million francs. The Swiss art market also expanded during those years. Gallerists from abroad settled in Switzerland; they included Toni Aktuaryus in Zurich and Fritz Nathan in St. Gallen. Bührle conducted business with both of them.

The Swiss art market

From 1933 onwards, the increasing persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany and later Austria prompted collectors and gallerists to emigrate to other countries in Europe or the US. The breakup of numerous private and public collections as a consequence of seizures, expropriations and forced sales led to a deluge of works entering the art market, and this trend accelerated as persecutions and plunder intensified across occupied Europe from 1940 onwards. The Swiss art market was one of the beneficiaries.

In 1939 Carl Montag, a Swiss painter, middleman and collector with international connections and ties to the Kunsthaus, advised Bührle to set himself up in competition with Oskar Reinhart in Winterthur, and build a collection of first-class artworks. Reinhart, who had been acquiring mainly Impressionist paintings and Old Masters since the 1920s, was the most important collector in German-speaking Switzerland at the time.

Bührle had maintained contacts with Theodor Fischer’s gallery in Lucerne since 1938. In 1939 he attended an auction organised by Fischer for the Nazi regime and containing works that had been seized from German museums and condemned as ‘degenerate’. In the years that followed, Fischer continued to sell works from private collections that had been stolen by the Nazis in France. Bührle bought 11 of these paintings from Fischer, including 10 in 1942 alone, with a total value of 543,000 Swiss francs. Bührle knew shortly after the war ended that he had acquired part of his collection illegitimately.

Fischer auction of ‘degenerate art’ in Lucerne, 1939 Photo: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The following four paintings are examples of formerly looted art belonging to the Emil Bührle Collection. Details on all collection works and their provenances can be found on www.buehrle.ch/en/collection/

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Moine assis, lisant (Sitting Monk, Reading), ca. 1865 Oil on canvas, 73 x 50 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)
Edgar Degas, Madame Camus au piano (Madame Camus at the Piano), 1869 Oil on canvas, 139 x 94 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)
Edgar Degas, Avant le départ (Before the Start), 1878-1880 Oil on canvas, 39.5 x 89 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)
Édouard Manet, La Toilette (The Toilet), ca. 1879 Pastel on canvas, 55 x 46 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)

In 1945, under pressure from the Allies, the Federal Council (Switzerland’s government) set up a Chamber on Looted Assets of the Swiss Federal Supreme Court. Legal investigations ensued, in the course of which 77 artworks that had entered Swiss collections were identified as having been stolen from their rightful owners. Of these, 13 were held by Bührle, who was obliged to return them. He reacquired nine of them at market prices.

Judgment of the Chamber on Looted Assets of the Swiss Federal Supreme Court, 3.6.1948 Archive Foundation E. G. Bührle Collection, Zurich Contract for the repurchase of Corot’s A Girl Reading from Paul Rosenberg, 30.6.1948 Archive Foundation E. G. Bührle Collection, Zurich

The pictures that Bührle acquired from Fischer and was later compelled to return included A Girl Reading by Camille Corot. The work had been stolen from the Jewish gallerist Paul Rosenberg in 1940 when he fled from France. Bührle bought it from Galerie Fischer in 1942 for 70,000 Swiss francs. He was obliged to return it to Rosenberg in 1948, but bought it just a month later from Rosenberg’s New York gallery, at a price of 80,000 francs – the second time he had acquired it, only this time from its rightful owner.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, La Liseuse (A Girl Reading), 1845-1850 Oil on canvas, 42.5 x 32.5 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)

Five works from the Emil Bührle Collection are considered 'flight assets' according to the Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland – Second World War formed by the Swiss Government in 1996 ('Bergier Commission'). 'Flight assets' are assets removed by their owners to a place of safety abroad, and over which those owners retained full control. See also the entry 'Provenance Research' below in the following segment.

Gustave Courbet, Portrait du sculpteur Louis-Joseph Leboeuf (The Sculptor Louis-Joseph Leboeuf), 1863 Oil on canvas, 65 x 50 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)
Paul Gauguin, La Route montante (The Road), 1884 Oil on canvas, 46 x 38 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)
Vincent van Gogh, Le Vieux Clocher (The Old Tower), 1884 Oil on canvas on wood, 47.5 x 55 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)
Claude Monet, Le Jardin de Monet à Giverny (Monet’s Garden at Giverny), 1895 Oil on canvas, 81.5 x 92 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Georges-Henri Manuel, 1891 Pastel on cardboard, 88 x 51 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)

The painting by Gustave Courbet belonged to the Berlin-based publisher Franz Ullstein (1868–1945), whose company was forcibly sold for about one fifth of its value in 1934 as a result of the owner’s Jewish descent. Ullstein sent the painting to the Kunsthaus Zürich in 1935 for an exhibition, where it remained for a time in safekeeping. In 1939 Ullstein signed it over to his daughter Lisbeth Malek-Ullstein, who lived in neutral Portugal from 1939 to 1941 and was presumably waiting there to emigrate to the USA. In 1941, while still in Portugal, she arranged for the painting to be shipped from the Kunsthaus to a dealer in Geneva, where the trail goes cold. The price at which the work was sold has not yet been clarified. A year later, in 1942, the painting turned up at the St. Gallen gallery of Fritz Nathan, who sold it to Emil Bührle for 26,000 Swiss francs.

Gustave Courbet, Portrait du sculpteur Louis-Joseph Leboeuf (The Sculptor Louis-Joseph Leboeuf), 1863 Oil on canvas, 65 x 50 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)

Having made the bulk of his purchases up to 1950 from Swiss gallerists, Emil Bührle began using his numerous business trips to the US to forge contacts with art galleries and dealers there. The biggest expansion of the collection – and also the greatest qualitative improvement – came between 1950 and 1956. During this brief period, he acquired a further 400 works to add to the approximately 200 he already owned. The focus remained on French art and Classical Modernism, but there were also numerous Old Masters and medieval sculptures.

1951: Edgar Degas, Femme s’essuyant (After the Bath), 1896-1898 Pastel on cardboard, 66 x 61 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)
1952: The Virgin and Child, Ulm, ca. 1470 Wood, 138 x 45 x 30 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: Schälchli/Schmidt, Zurich
1952: André Derain, Scène d’intérieur (Interior Scene), ca. 1904 Oil on canvas, 94 x 85 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)
1954: Paul Signac, Les Modistes (The Milliners), 1885-1886 Oil on canvas, 116 x 89 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)
1955: Chaïm Soutine, Portrait d’une dame (Portrait of a Lady), ca. 1928 Oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)
1955: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Hippolyte-François Devillers, 1811 Oil on canvas, 96.5 x 78.5 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)

The Foundation E.G. Bührle Collection

On 24 February 1960, four years after Emil Bührle’s death, his widow Charlotte Bührle-Schalk and their children Dr Dieter Bührle and Hortense Anda-Bührle established the Foundation E.G. Bührle Collection in Zurich.

The founders transferred around a third of the artworks making up the collection to the Foundation, ensuring that the structure and completeness the collector had aimed for were preserved in the new entity.

Charlotte Bührle-Schalk welcoming the press at the opening of the museum, Zurich, 26.4.1960 Archive Foundation E. G. Bührle Collection, Zurich Foundation deed, 1960 Archive Foundation E. G. Bührle Collection, Zurich

The Foundation’s collection was accommodated in a former residence at Zollikerstrasse 172 in Zurich. The villa dating from 1886 was converted into a museum and opened to the public in April 1960. The costs of operation and maintenance were borne by the founders. The first chair of the Foundation was Charlotte Bührle-Schalk, and she was succeeded in 1980 by Hortense Anda-Bührle. Dr Dieter Bührle’s son Christian served in the position from 2014 to 2020.

The ‘Cézanne Trilogy’, view of a room at Zollikerstrasse 172, Zurich Archive Foundation E. G. Bührle Collection, Zurich, photo: Peter Schälchli, Zurich

Between 1961 and 2018 the Bührle Foundation’s collection travelled widely, and was shown in leading museums and exhibition galleries in Europe, North America and Japan. A successful exhibition was held at the Kunsthaus Zürich in 2010. The collection’s last journey before it moved into the Kunsthaus was in 2019, when it travelled to the Musée Maillol in Paris for its first presentation in France.

The garden side of the villa next to the Bührle family residence at Zollikerstrasse 172 in Zurich Archive Foundation E. G. Bührle Collection, Zurich

In 2002 the art historian Dr Lukas Gloor became the new director of the Foundation. Under his leadership, research was conducted into the provenance of all the works. The available information from the Foundation was compared with more recent findings; with the assistance of specialist Laurie A. Stein (Chicago/Berlin) it has been transferred to a resource that not only records every known change of a work’s ownership but also discloses the source of the information concerned.

Provenance research

Provenance research aims to clarify the origins and ownership of works of art. Under the Washington Conference Principles of 1998, the signatory states undertook to locate artworks that had been seized during the Nazi era, identify their rightful owners or their heirs, and swiftly take the steps necessary to achieve just and fair solutions.

The distinctions between ‘looted art’, ‘forced sales’, ‘flight assets’ and ‘degenerate art’ are central to a well-founded and nuanced discussion of the issue of restitution. ‘Looted art’ refers to artworks that were confiscated by the Nazis from private, mostly Jewish owners. ‘Forced sales’ are sales ordered by the Nazis where the works were not sold at the market price, or the proceeds either failed to reach the owners or were taken from them. Today, such items are treated in the same way as Nazi-looted art. ‘Flight assets’ are assets removed by their owners to a place of safety abroad, and over which those owners retained full control. Consequently, they are not covered by the Washington Conference Principles. The same applies to so-called ‘degenerate art’. The term refers to works of art that were removed from state museums by the Nazis and subsequently either destroyed or sold on the international art market.

On 10 February 2008, the museum on Zollikerstrasse fell victim to an armed robbery. Four key works by Cézanne, Degas, van Gogh and Monet were stolen. Two were swiftly returned, but the others were not recovered until four years later, in Belgrade. At the end of May 2015 the Foundation had to close the museum, as it had proved impossible to equip it with the security measures necessary for regular opening.

Vincent van Gogh, Branches de marronnier en fleur (Blossoming Chestnut Branches), 1890 Oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)

In 2016 the Foundation announced that ten important pictures from the collection of Emil Bührle had been bequeathed to it by his son Dr Dieter Bührle, bringing the Foundation’s holdings to a total of 203 works. In 2021 the Zurich-based lawyer Alexander Jolles took over as chair of the Foundation, the first holder of that position not to be a member of the family.

Pablo Picasso, Barcelone la nuit (Barcelona by Night), 1903 Oil on canvas, 67 x 50 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, bequest of Dr Dieter Bührle, 2012, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: Schälchli/Schmidt, Zurich

The Kunsthaus

The Kunsthaus

The Kunsthaus has been inextricably bound up with the collecting activities, patronage and personal ambitions of Emil Bührle since 1940.

The Kunsthaus Zürich owes its creation not to a prince, state or collector but to a small and convivial band of artists and art lovers who have been meeting regularly since 1787 for friendly discussion and mutual promotion. In 1794 it adopted the designation ‘Künstlergesellschaft’, and in 1803 established an association to collect works of art.

In 1847 the association acquired a gallery wing to complement its modest home at the ‘Künstler-Güetli’. From now on, collecting and exhibiting became its most important activities. In 1896 the Künstlergesellschaft became the Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft, which has overseen the fortunes of the Kunsthaus ever since. It currently has more than 23,000 members.

‘Wirthschaft zum Künstlergut’: entrance to the Künstlergut, 1910 Archive ZKG/KHZ

A milestone in the history of the Kunsthaus was the opening of the large museum building designed by Karl Moser in 1910. The Board of the Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft contained representatives of the private and public sectors. Its chairman from 1940 to 1960 was Franz Meyer-Stünzi. It was at his instigation that, in 1940, Bührle was made a member of the collection committee, which decided which works the Kunstgesellschaft should purchase.

Kunsthaus Zürich: view from Heimplatz with main entrance, 1910 Archive ZKG/KHZ

The Board of the Kunstgesellschaft has learned with great pleasure that you are prepared to play a part in expanding the collection and appointed you to our collection committee at its meeting yesterday.

Dr Wilhelm Wartmann, Director of the Kunsthaus, 1940

Emil Bührle, who directed his company’s arms production towards the Axis powers, and the new chairman of the Kunstgesellschaft belonged to the same business networks and moved in the same circles of employers who were highly sympathetic to Nazi Germany in the early 1940s.

Collecting was an integral part of his social advancement and integration into the Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft.

Prof. Matthieu Leimgruber, 2020

Bührle proved to be an active and loyal member of the collection committee. There are no instances of Bührle successfully arguing against an acquisition. On a number of occasions, he enabled purchases to be made by advancing the purchase price.

In May 1944 Emil Bührle was invited to join the Board of the Kunstgesellschaft, and he duly accepted.

8.5.1944 Invitation to join the Board of the Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft

Loans

Bührle’s work on the committee cemented his ties to the Kunsthaus. He was in close contact with the director, Wilhelm Wartmann, and many issues were explored in letters between the two. They mostly related to works that were up for acquisition, and in some cases potential purchases for Bührle’s own collection. In 1943 Wartmann opened an exhibition at the Kunsthaus devoted to international art in private collections in Zurich. Its biggest lender was Emil Bührle.

  • Catalogue of the exhibition 'European Art of the 13th-Über20th Centuries: from Zurich Collections', Kunsthaus Zürich, 6 June to 13 August 1950

    When the new director René Wehrli staged an exhibition of European art in 1950, Bührle made his now enlarged collection available, including Cézanne’s Boy in the Red Waistcoat.

Gifts

Bührle’s first gift to the Kunsthaus was the monumental Gates of Hell by Auguste Rodin. The work, which was owned by the Parisian bronze foundry owner Rudier, came to the Kunsthaus in 1947 for an exhibition of Rudier’s metal casts. Along with three other bronzes owned by Rudier, the Gates of Hell was acquired for the Kunsthaus in 1949. While the other works were purchased with a contribution from the City of Zurich, the Rodin entered the collection via the construction fund for the new exhibition wing, and hence with financing from Emil Bührle.

Auguste Rodin, La Porte de l’enfer (The Gates of Hell), 1880–1917 Bronze, 680 x 400 x 85 cm, Kunsthaus Zürich, donated by Emil Georg Bührle, 1949, photo: Kunsthaus Zürich, Franca Candrian

In 1951 Emil Bührle travelled with the new director of the Kunsthaus, René Wehrli, to Giverny, where Claude Monet spent the last 30 years of his life and laid out his own garden. There, Bührle purchased two large-format water-lily paintings for the Kunsthaus and another for his own collection.

Claude Monet, Le Bassin aux nymphéas, le soir (The Water Lily Pond in the Evening), 1916-1922 Oil on canvas, 200 x 600 cm, Kunsthaus Zürich, donated by Emil G. Bührle, 1952, photo: Kunsthaus Zürich, Franca Candrian Claude Monet, Le Bassin aux nymphéas avec iris (The Water Lily Pond with Irises), 1914-1922 Oil on canvas, 200 x 600 cm, Kunsthaus Zürich, donated by Emil G. Bührle, 1952, photo: Kunsthaus Zürich, Franca Candrian

Bührle admired the paintings’ space-defining character and secured the purchase with money from the construction fund he had set up to finance the newly planned exhibition building for the Kunsthaus on Heimplatz. Today, the three paintings are reunited in the extension.

Bührle gallery

In truly celebratory mood, the Board of the Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft received the news of your gift to enable a second Kunsthaus extension at its meeting yesterday. It requested us to express our sincerest gratitude to you for this resolution.

Dr Wilhelm Wartmann, Director of the Kunsthaus, 1941

One of Emil Bührle’s first acts on joining the collection committee in 1940 was to commit two million francs to fund the extension. He became a member of the construction committee in 1941. A further two million were added to the fund in 1946, and the same figure again in 1952. Bührle became deputy chairman of the Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft in 1953, and took over as chairman of the collection committee.

26.7.1941 Invitation to join the construction committee

Emil Bührle did not live to see the extension open. The large exhibition gallery planned since 1944 by the Pfister brothers and financed by him opened in 1958, two years after his death. The inauguration was a major social event. The opening exhibition in the 1,200-square-metre, column-free room lit by natural light was the first public presentation of the Emil Bührle Collection.

The Kunsthaus Zürich with the extension by the Pfister brothers, 1959 Archive Kunsthaus Zürich

The largest column-free exhibition gallery in Switzerland was named after its donor. Now, for the first time, the collection galleries no longer needed to be emptied in order to install an exhibition. For decades, the Bührle gallery was by far the most important exhibition gallery in a museum in Switzerland. Countless major exhibitions have been staged here since it opened.

The exhibition of the Emil Bührle Collection in the Bührle gallery, 1958 Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: Walter Dräyer Exhibition view, ‘American art 1948–1968’ in the Bührle gallery, 1969 Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: Walter Dräyer

Popular vote

The Foundation’s key holdings complement those of the Kunsthaus, particularly in the area of French painting. In 2005 the Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft drew up a strategy under which the collection could move from the private museum to the Kunsthaus. In 2006 an initial agreement in principle was signed between the Foundation, the Kunstgesellschaft and the founding family providing for its transfer to the planned Kunsthaus extension.

In 2010 an exhibition of works from the Foundation at the Kunsthaus was seen by around 130,000 visitors. A documentation room with information on the origins of the collection and Bührle’s business activities formed part of the presentation. Since 2010, the provenances of all the works held by the Foundation have been available for consultation on its website. Zurich’s City Council threw its weight behind the plan to move the collection into the planned Kunsthaus extension by Sir David Chipperfield. In the popular vote in 2012, the transfer of the Foundation’s works to the Kunsthaus formed part of the proposal.

Claude Monet’s water-lily paintings in the exhibition of the Emil Bührle Collection at the Kunsthaus Zürich, 2010 Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: fmb studio

The collector and industrialist Emil Bührle has been the subject of repeated controversy since 1970. The City and Canton of Zurich commissioned an investigation headed by economic historian Prof. Matthieu Leimgruber to shed light on the economic, political and social background to the collection’s creation. The results were presented at a press conference in autumn 2020.

Matthieu Leimgruber, Kriegsgeschäfte, Kapital und Kunsthaus. Die Entstehung der Sammlung Emil Bührle im historischen Kontext, Zurich 2021

2021 extension

The extension by David Chipperfield Architects on Heimplatz in Zurich, 2021 Photo: Kunsthaus Zürich, Franca Candrian

The works from the Bührle Collection are now in the safekeeping of a museum partly supported by public funds. Bührle’s works are presented here with a variety of contextual information: a documentation room provides an introduction to the story of Emil Bührle and his activities as an industrialist and art collector who remains controversial to this day. The Emil Bührle Collection now stands next to the Kunsthaus Collection and will also find itself side by side with temporary exhibitions, not least of contemporary art. It has thus joined an art centre of international importance and, from now on, will be presented to the public in an entirely new way.

Vincent van Gogh, Les Ponts d’Asnières (Bridges across the Seine at Asnières), 1887 Oil on canvas, 53.5 x 67 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: Schälchli/Schmidt, Zurich
Paul Gauguin, Tournesols sur un fauteuil (Sunflowers on an Armchair), 1901 Oil on canvas, 68 x 75.5 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)
Paul Cézanne, Le Mont de Cengle (The Mont de Cengle), 1904-1906 Oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)
Maurice de Vlaminck, Chaland sur la Seine au Pecq (Barge on the Seine near Le Pecq), 1906 Oil on canvas, 65 x 92 cm, Emil Bührle Collection, on permanent loan at Kunsthaus Zürich, photo: SIK-ISEA, Zurich (J.-P. Kuhn)

The Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft is fully aware of its responsibility for this cultural heritage: a deliberate decision was taken that the collection of Emil Bührle should be on public display, and that the Kunsthaus is the right place for it. In the context of its own collection and the foundations and donations that have shaped the Kunsthaus for more than a century, this outstanding art collection is of pivotal importance. The public presence of the collection and an appreciation of its historical background are vital to our understanding of our own culture.

Further sources

Further sources

Anyone wishing to learn more about the story of Emil Bührle and his collection can consult the following sources: 

The reference work is the investigation ‘Kriegsgeschäfte, Kapital und Kunsthaus. Die Sammlung Emil Bührle im historischen Kontext’ by Prof. Matthieu Leimgruber, which was conducted on behalf of the City and Canton of Zurich at the Forschungsstelle für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte of the University of Zurich. This also contains the press publications on the collector and his collection, which are regularly updated.

Information about the status of provenance research can be found on the website of the Foundation E.G. Bührle Collection.

The archive of the Bührle Foundation is held in the Kunsthaus library and is available for consultation by researchers.

Guided tours of the Emil Bührle Collection and the documentation room can be booked at any time via the website of the Kunsthaus Zürich.

Documentation room, photo © Franca Candrian

Please rotate device.

The Digitorial is optimised for portrait mode.