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The Thannhauser Legacy

The Thannhauser Collection comprises a bequest of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century art that Justin K. and Hilde Thannhauser gave to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York. These essential works signify the culmination of the Thannhauser family’s tireless promotion of progressive art over their distinguished careers as dealers and collectors in Germany, Switzerland, France, and the United States.

Justin Thannhauser (1892–1976) was the son of the German Jewish art dealer Heinrich Thannhauser (1859–1935), who founded the Moderne Galerie in Munich in 1909. From an early age, Justin worked alongside his father in the flourishing gallery and helped build a versatile exhibition program. In addition to presenting contemporary German artists, the gallery especially highlighted the late nineteenthcentury French avant-garde, thus helping to cultivate a taste for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in Germany.

For example, Heinrich was earlier involved in a posthumous survey of Vincent van Gogh’s work in 1908, which influenced local artists beginning to work in an Expressionist vein. The Thannhausers also mounted in 1913 one of the first major Pablo Picasso retrospectives, thus initiating a close, lifelong relationship between Justin and the artist.

An ambitious businessman, Justin opened a second gallery in Lucerne, Switzerland, in 1920 with his cousin Siegfried Rosengart (1894–1985). Seven years later, the Thannhausers relocated their Munich gallery to the thriving art center of Berlin. As the capital of the liberal Weimar Republic, Berlin in the 1920s was a dynamic cultural hub, embracing audacious art and transgressive lifestyles. There, Justin organized significant exhibitions of the work of such artists as Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, and Claude Monet.

Business operations were hindered in the next decade, however, when the Nazi government began attacking the so-called “degenerate” art of the avant-garde. The Berlin gallery closed in late 1937, shortly after the Thannhauser family immigrated to Paris, where Justin opened yet another gallery devoted to modern art. He eventually settled in New York in early 1941 and established himself as a private art dealer, serving a range of notable cultural, political, and even scientific figures.

The Thannhausers’ commitment to fostering artistic innovation paralleled the vision of Solomon R. Guggenheim (1861–1949). In appreciation of this shared spirit and in his family’s memory, Justin gave a significant portion of his art collection, including more than thirty works by Picasso, to the Guggenheim. A bequest of ten additional works from Hilde Thannhauser (1919–1991), Justin’s second wife and widow, augmented the holdings. The Thannhauser Collection continues, to this day, to provide a significant framework for considering one of the most dynamic periods in the history of art.


The Thannhauser Collection played a major role in expanding the range of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation’s holdings to incorporate the immediate precursors to modern art. As prominent dealers in Germany, Switzerland, and France in the first half of the twentieth century, the Thannhauser family organized important group and solo exhibitions featuring French avant-gardists from the late nineteenth century, including Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. These innovative artists, centered in Paris and associated with the loosely defined group of Impressionists, employed stylistic devices such as loose brushwork in order to impart an illusion of spontaneity. Cézanne’s experiments with form went even further: he departed from the traditional pursuit of reproducing an illusion of real space, and his work increasingly exhibited spatial discontinuity and approached geometric abstraction.

The Impressionists explored the fleeting effects of natural and urban subjects, and realistically portrayed the shifting class structures and mores of French culture. Manet’s Before the Mirror (1876), for example, depicts a courtesan looking into her psyche (mirror) in a state of partial undress. Similar to Manet’s work in its intimacy, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Woman with Parakeet (1871) captures a young, upper-middleclass Parisian woman playing with her pet bird. She would have been confined almost exclusively to indoor domestic spaces—like the parakeet to its gilded cage—rather than permitted to move freely about the city with her male counterparts.

Post-impressionism and early modernism

The Thannhauser Collection’s selection of European art of the fin de siècle—a complex period defined by economic, political, social, and psychological turmoil, often in the name of progress—captures the diversity of styles that emerged in reaction to the era’s two dominant artistic strains: academic naturalism and Impressionism, which both promoted adherence to the physical world. 

Artists such as Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh—subjects of critical exhibitions organized at the Thannhausers’ gallery in Munich—turned their eye inward. Rather than produce art that was a “window to the world,” these so-called Post-Impressionists used sinuous lines and nonnaturalistic colors to imbue their paintings with an emotive tenor. Van Gogh, in particular, translated reality through the lens of personal experience and feeling. Painted during Van Gogh’s recovery from an attack of mental distress, Mountains at Saint-Rémy (July 1889) evokes the artist’s subjective state—not to mention the awe inspiring presence of the rock formations near his hospital grounds—through its thick application of paint and animated brushstrokes.

Georges Braque, in his Fauvist painting Landscape near Antwerp (1906), employed vibrant, expressionistic colors and deconstructed the landscape as a sensation of patterned light. Still other varied art forms appeared at the turn of the century, including the flattened, stylized work of the untrained painter Henri Rousseau. Set in an unspecified forest, Rousseau’s The Football Players (1908) is at once a joyful romp and a hauntingly dreamlike scene.

Picasso and Thannhauser

Pablo Picasso was first drawn from his native Spain to Paris, which had developed into the international nexus of the art world, for the 1900 World’s Fair. Le Moulin de la Galette (1900), the foremost painting executed during his two-month stay, reflects the young artist’s fascination with the lusty decadence and gaudy glamour of Parisian night life. Picasso’s more naturalistic style rapidly evolved into his melancholic Blue Period and following Rose Period, before he came to pioneer with Georges Braque the faceted forms and flattened spatial planes associated with Cubism. This movement, emerging around 1907, is regarded as one of the most innovative and influential aesthetic developments of the twentieth century. Picasso subsequently experimented with neoclassicism, and his work displayed a renewed interest in drawing and figurative representation in the interwar period. He was also involved to a certain degree with Surrealism, whose adherents attempted to give form to notions of repressed desires, dream imagery, and the unconscious mind.

Collector and dealer Justin K. Thannhauser had a strong personal relationship with Picasso that formed early in both men’s careers, namely around 1913, when the Thannhausers’ gallery in Munich mounted one of the artist’s first major exhibitions in Germany. More than thirty works by Picasso—spanning sixty-five years of his oeuvre—entered the Guggenheim’s collection in 1978 and 1991 with the respective donations of Justin and Hilde Thannhauser.

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