Ernst Beyeler

Ernst and Hildy Beyeler outside their gallery at Bäumleingasse in Basel in 1997, Photo: Niggi Bräuning
Ernst and Hildy Beyeler: The greatness of simplicity

The early lives of Ernst and Hildy Beyeler gave no indication that they were destined for an outstanding career as art dealers. It was more by chance that Ernst Beyeler, then still a student, landed a job with Oskar Schloss at the latter’s print and antiquarian bookshop, ‘La Librairie du Château d’Art’, at Bäumleingasse 9 in Basel. At that point he could never have dreamed that the Galerie Beyeler would still be at the same address until it closed in 2012. Oskar Schloss had managed to escape to Switzerland from Nazi Germany; he had been a pioneering publisher of Buddhist texts, but his entire assets were seized by the Nazis, and in the latter years of his life he derived his income from his small antiquarian bookshop. For Ernst Beyeler, this period of apprenticeship proved profoundly influential, as Schloss introduced his young employees to literature, philosophy and art by engaging them in conversations after work. Following the unexpected death of his employer in 1945, Ernst Beyeler took over the business (and its debts) with the help of a start-up loan from his future wife, Hildy Kunz. The demanding business of buying and selling antiquarian books was not really where his heart lay, however, and so it was no surprise that he soon shifted his focus to the graphic arts. He began increasingly dealing in lithographs by Honoré Daumier and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as in Japanese colour woodcuts. In 1947 he added ‘Ernst Beyeler’ to the name of the firm he had taken over, and in 1952 changed it definitively to ‘Galerie Beyeler’ – thereby laying the foundations for an unparalleled career. One important quality was to remain from his early years amongst antiquarian books, however: his appreciation of beautifully designed catalogues.

Ernst Beyeler with Jean Tinguely and Martin Schwander, 1984

With impressive single-mindedness, Ernst Beyeler quickly developed Galerie Beyeler into a successful art business. Initially – and undoubtedly under the influence of the art historian and museum director Georg Schmidt – the gallery had a clear orientation towards German art: the most important Expressionist painters were well represented, as were Käthe Kollwitz, Edvard Munch and Alexei von Jawlensky. Masterpieces of French graphic art of the nineteenth and twentieth century were also an established part of the range, along with works by contemporary and local artists, some of whom were also Ernst Beyeler’s personal friends. In 1952 and 1953 the gallery published its first small catalogues, Bilder des 20. Jahrhunderts and Tableaux français, which clearly stood in the tradition of inventory catalogues. The selection and artistic quality of the gallery’s holdings and publications reflected Beyeler’s unwillingness to compromise. Right from the start, his bold ambition was to become one of the leading players in the art world, and he tenaciously followed his own convictions, namely that art should have substance, be an enduring source of pleasure and stand the test of time. Ernst Beyeler’s preference for ‘difficult’ art – the kind of work that was neither overly popular nor immediately pleasing – very soon became apparent. The 1950s were marked by the resolute expansion of the gallery’s activities, with French peinture increasingly setting the tone. Beyeler employed a simple rule of thumb: for every work sold, two new ones were bought. He began travelling more often, with Munich, Stuttgart, Cologne and Paris becoming his most important destinations, and he also attended the London auctions with growing regularity. In Basel, Hildy Beyeler oversaw the financial side of the business and managed the small team of staff. By the end of the 1950s, the gallery in the Bäumleingasse was no longer an insider’s tip: in addition to local clients and visitors, growing numbers of Americans made a special detour from Paris to visit the gallery’s summer exhibitions, whose great promise is clearly documented in the catalogue series Maîtres de l’art moderne (from 1955 to 1958).

Ernst Beyeler at the Art Basel 7, 1976

It was in this way that Ernst Beyeler also became acquainted with G. David Thompson, a collector from Pittsburgh who had a reputation for unpredictability and consequently attracted a great deal of attention in the art world. When Thompson later decided to sell his legendary collection of modern art to Beyeler, the Swiss gallery shot to global fame overnight. Entry into the North American market was secured and Ernst Beyeler gained the respect of the leading New York galleries. He subsequently made his name by selling complete groups of works from the G. David Thompson Collection to major museums, establishing a reputation that would henceforth open all doors. He also received great acclaim for placing a group of works by Klee in Düsseldorf and Giacometti sculptures in the specially founded Giacometti Foundation in Zurich. Beyeler the art dealer was thus also proving his credentials as a museum curator long before his own collection began to take shape.
As the broker of many major art deals, Ernst Beyeler became an important point of contact for leading international museums. He would later initiate entire exhibitions, to which he lent his energetic support.

Ernst Beyeler in the conservatory of the Fondation Beyeler

Yet all this fame and recognition never caused him to forget his modest beginnings. For Ernst Beyeler, the most important thing was always the challenging quality of a work of art. He shared this passion generously with his clients, visitors and – later – museum staff. He thereby never lost sight of the essential values of nature, inner balance, and political and ecological concerns. The hustle and bustle of the city never penetrated the rooms in the Bäumleingasse, which in their medieval tranquillity always granted pride of place to art.

Like a summer pavilion, the light-filled museum by Renzo Piano allows art to be experienced simply, directly and with lasting delight, in close harmony with nature. This unique approach to the presentation and appreciation of art can be regarded as Ernst and Hildy Beyeler’s most important legacy. Far beyond its material worth, the true value of their collection lies in the pleasure it affords visitors from all over the world, and the fresh passion for art it ignites in their hearts every single day.

Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1916 - 1919

Works in the Beyeler Collection.


Impressions in and around the Fondation Beyeler.

Past exhibitions since 1997

Henri Rousseau, Le liont ayant faim se jette sur l’antilope, 1905.