Oskar Reinhart: A Swiss Art Collector of European Stature

By Lukas Gloor

Written for the concert An Italian Journey through German Romanticism performed on March 11, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In 1922, Oskar Reinhart – referring not only to his hometown of Winterthur but to Switzerland in general – wrote to a friend: “Here French art rules supreme; the noted private collectors buy only French art and exhibitions of French art abound.” The trend thus described by Oskar Reinhart was indeed fairly recent; on a broader scale, Swiss industrialists and merchants had begun to form collections of contemporary paintings in the years immediately preceding World War I. Following the example of German collectors and museum directors, they had, however, readily focused on the art of the French Impressionists and post-Impressionists, whose works were then quickly gaining international fame and market value. Collecting German art of the same period – popular during the nineteenth century at least in the German speaking part of Switzerland – soon fell out of fashion.

Oskar Reinhart also had dedicated himself to French art at that time and had started to build up what eventually would arguably become Switzerland’s most important private collection of Old Masters and French Impressionists. It was later bequeathed to the Swiss Confederation and is still installed in Oskar Reinhart’s estate Am Römerholz in Winterthur. Nevertheless, while collecting French paintings, Oskar Reinhart kept his independence to state that “. . . there are also, German masters, and I hope to assemble, over the years, a small but select collection of German pictures.” Today, the small but select” group of paintings which Oskar Reinhart, the son of a wealthy merchant family in Winterthur, set out to bring together in the 1920s proves to be the most outstanding collection in nineteenth- century art from the German speaking area of Europe outside of Germany. In 1939, Oskar Reinhart split his collection apart and gave the German, Swiss and Austrian paintings to the city of Winterthur.

Obviously, an eye which had been trained to look carefully at the great French master of the nineteenth century such as G. Courbet, E. Manet, A. Renoir and P. Cézanne would select among their works In a similar spirit, landscape paintings clearly form the core of the collection, as do small oil sketches in which an “impressionist”” approach to painting prevails. The collection span almost two hundred years of art history. Apart from a group of painters active in Geneva shortly before 1800 such as W.A. Toepffer and J.L. Agasse, who later settled in London, the collection emphasizes the importance of the Alpine landscape for Swiss art through paintings by C. Wolf, A. Calame, G. Sengantini and F. Hodler. The collections main focus, however, lies on the German painters of the nineteenth century, including the foremost masters of Romanticism, Realism and Impressionism. Different artistic attitudes are thus represented in the collection: while for C. D. Friedrich, landscape painting assumed an almost religious importance, other German painters of the early 1800s set out in search of beauty in the “classical”” landscape of Italy. A. Menzel’s oil sketches give intimate insights into the modest daily life the artist led in Berlin, the capital of the newly united Germany since 1871. Munich, at that time still Germany’s artistic center, was hometown to a group of painters who followed their master W. Leibl and some French contemporaries whom they greatly admired. However, throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, Italy and Rome maintained their attraction, inducing innumerable painters to travel the country–or as was true for the mast famous amongst them, A. Böcklin–to settle there for many years.