Painting and graphic art

The focus in paintings, drawings, prints and photography is on the city of Basel and its historical sphere of influence. The principal themes of the collection are Late Gothic panel painting, portrait painting and portrait miniatures, paintings of Basel landmarks, views of the city, its buildings, scenes of daily life and local customs, special events and arts and crafts; to which can be added some 100 family registers dating from the 16th to 18th century as well as drawings and designs for stained-glass windows. These images were collected for a variety of reasons, whether as historical testimony or on account of their original purpose or provenance.

The collection covers a wide range of materials and techniques, including painting on wood, canvas, metal, glass, parchment and paper, as well as pastels, gouache, silverpoint, several different types of print and some early photographic techniques. Around a third of the over 700 paintings on wood or canvas is on show permanently, one special highlight being the nineteen surviving fragments of Basel’s monumental Dance of Death mural painted onto the cemetery wall of the Dominican Church in 1440.

The collection of paintings is dominated by some 500 portraits of Baslers dating from the 17th to the early 20th century. The preponderance of portraiture – compared with genre painting, landscapes or religious works – attests to a need that arose among the people of Basel in the post-Reformation period. The uneven quality of the works reflects the verdict of one C. G. Küttner, who in 1779 described Basel as a splendid place for portrait painters, since there is work for all of them here, “from the good and the mediocre to the worst of worst.” Not surprisingly, therefore, the portrait collection alone – not counting the miniatures and minor masters – comprises the work of some 100 different Swiss, German, Bohemian, Dutch and Italian painters. That a collection so resolutely local in scope can nevertheless claim international relevance is thus thanks solely to the artists.

Of special importance among the prints and drawings are the illustrations of art treasures that have been irretrievably dispersed or lost, such as those parts of the Burgundian Booty that were sold in 1504, the Basel Dance of Death torn down in 1805, and various items from the Cathedral Treasury that were auctioned off in 1836. One recent addition to these is an impressive body of preparatory drawings for murals by the Basel painter Alfred Heinrich Pellegrini (1881–1958), some of whose paintings can still be admired in situ.

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