Far older than the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe’s actual building is the collection it holds. It dates back to the dynasty of the margraves of Baden. When Christopher I commissioned the Markgrafentafel or ‘margrave panel’ shortly after 1500, he selected a renowned artist in Strasbourg to complete the task: the pupil of Dürer, Hans Baldung Grien.
This panel painting depicts the prince of the Holy Roman Empire with his spouse Ottilie of Katzenelnbogen and their 15 children gathered in adoration of the Virgin and Child with St. Anne. The depiction with St. Anne, the family’s patron saint, at the centre of the panel is a proclamation of family harmony, something which took as much effort for Christopher to maintain as it did to hold together his own margrave.
One of Christopher I’s great-grandsons, Margrave Frederick V of Baden-Durlach, was an avid collector predominantly of exquisite prints and drawings. In Strasbourg he acquired the sketchbook of Hans Baldung Grien and a large collection of drawings. Among Frederick V’s many acquisitions was the largest collection in the world of cartoons and design drawings for stained and painted glass windows, around 420 prints by Dutch Mannerists, some 100 sheets by Hendrick Goltzius, around 150 engravings after Peter Paul Rubens and Anthonis van Dyck and more than 1500 works in all by contemporary artists of his day. His son, Frederick VI of Baden-Durlach, also dedicated himself to acquiring works in the graphic medium.
At the outbreak of the Nine Years’ War in 1688, his successor, Frederick VII Magnus, saved the collection from destruction by having it removed from the Karlsburg in Durlach and taken to Basel for safekeeping. By this time, the collection’s inventory listed more than 700 paintings, including Jan van Hemessen’s “Loose Company” and Hans Burgkmair’s portrait of Sebastian Brant, scholar and author of the “Narrenschiff” or “Ship of Fools”. Margrave Hermann of Baden-Baden grew into a passionate connoisseur of art, who left an indelible mark on the character of today’s collection at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe. Hermann initially fought against the troops of Louis XIV and was later active as a diplomatic emissary.
Around 20 works, now held at the Kunsthalle, date from the private collection of Hermann, the imperial field marshal who surrounded himself with pictures by living artists of his day. The Kunsthalle has his appreciation of art to thank for many canvases now in the collection, including Jacob Jordaens’ large-scale painting Moses Striking the Rock.
The most important and fruitful period in the formation of the margraves’ collection was shaped not by a man, but a woman, who married into the Durlach line in 1751. Her name was Caroline Louise, Princess of Hessen-Darmstadt, and she married Margrave Charles Frederick (Karl Friedrich) at age 28. His grandfather Karl Wilhelm had founded the city of Karlsruhe and started construction on his new palace in 1715.
A talented and well-educated woman, Caroline Louise forged and maintained ties with numerous writers and thinkers of her day. The margravine predominantly collected works by fijnschilders or ‘fine painters’ whose works tended to be intimate in scale and subject. Dutch realism appealed to her tastes more than the grand gestures typical of Baroque art or the florid court art of the Rococo. She sent her advisors forth in search of works that were to be ‘très finis’.
She favoured above all Flemish works from the 17th century and French painting by living artists and these kinds of works found their way into her ‘cabinet of art’, or Kunstkabinett. In 1759, she commissioned two pastoral shepherd scenes from François Boucher, while acquiring five paintings from Jean Baptiste Chardin, of which four still lifes can still be found in the Kunsthalle’s collection.
At the behest of gallery director Carl Ludwig Frommel, around the mid-19th century additions of more modern art were made to the collection. He acquired the large-scale sketches by his contemporaries of the Nazarene school, Moritz von Schwind, Friedrich Overbeck and Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, who had been entrusted with commissions for monumental canvases.
During this time there was a marked increase in the proportion of art within the collection that originated from Baden itself, the consequence of the appointment of court painters, who were obliged to submit a number of paintings every two years, and the foundation of the grand-ducal academy of fine arts in 1854.
When Johann Wilhelm Schirmer was appointed director of the arts academy and the history painter Carl Friedrich Lessing appointed director of the Kunsthalle as successor to Frommel, history and landscape paintings tended to dominate among the new acquisitions in the years after 1858.
The year 1880 saw the first art-historian succeed as director, Professor Wilhelm Lübke, who was the first to arrange the collection chronologically according to schools. The Kunsthalle has him to thank for the acquisition of the monumental canvas, Plato’s Symposium, by Anselm Feuerbach.
The year 1899 was the last time a painter, Hans Thoma, took over as head of the collection. It was during his term that one of the most spectacular acquisitions was made for the gallery, the purchase of Matthias Grünewald’s Tauberbischofsheim Altarpiece. French Impressionism, by contrast however, was deemed unworthy of collecting in Thoma’s eyes, who retired from his position in 1920 at the age of 81.
After Thoma, himself a painter, came Willy Storck, an art-historian, who succeeded to the post of gallery director. From this point on, directors came from an academic background as art-historians. In direct contrast to his predecessors, Storck advised the administration to acquire few works by living artists from Baden and instead advocated the purchase of works by German Impressionists.
One of Storck’s staff, Lilli Fischel was appointed curator in 1928 and managed the museum in this capacity until her politically motivated dismissal in 1933, after the Nazi rise to power. Lilli Fischel was responsible for, among other things, presenting to the public an exhibition with works by Vincent van Gogh and acquiring works by German Impressionists and artists of the New Objectivity. As a specialist in Early German painting of the Gothic and Renaissance periods, Fischel also enriched the Karlsruher collection with new additions of important panels of medieval painting.
The painter Hans Adolf Bühler, hand-picked by the Nazis to succeed Fischel, soon disqualified himself for the post through the sale of an important picture by Edvard Munch.
His replacement, the art historian Kurt Martin, led the gallery from September 1934 through the war years and beyond. Shortly after assuming his post, he initiated a major overhaul of the collection as a means to keep several important works from being seized by the Nazis. After the Second World War, Martin brought about decisive changes to the collection through a series of acquisitions, mostly of art from the 20th century.
Kurt Martin was succeeded in the directorship of the Kunsthalle Karlsruhe by Jan Lauts, then Horst Vey and Klaus Schrenk. Each in their own way managed to acquire numerous significant works of modern art, as well as art from earlier periods. Thanks to them, the Kunsthalle has firmly established itself as one of the leading public art galleries in Germany. In spring 2009 Pia Müller-Tamm took over as director.