Artists from Switzerland have been inspired to express the spectacular beauty of their home country’s landscapes for centuries, and famous Swiss paintings are housed in museums across Switzerland, Europe, and the world. However, Swiss visual art has generally been less known internationally, taking a step behind architecture, watchmaking, artisan crafts like music boxes, and cheese and chocolate making.
This is probably because icons from the Modernist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who did gain international recognition often spent part of their lives in cities in Switzerland’s bordering countries like Paris and Munich, confusing the rest of the world about their Swiss identity.
Swiss impressionist painters and others like the following are important standouts in Switzerland’s artistic history.
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Swiss-German painter Paul Klee was born in 1879 in Münchenbuchsee, Switzerland. Often called “the father of abstract art,” his works weren’t of one specific school. Expressionism, cubism, and surrealism were art movements that influenced his style, and his work had elements of each.
Klee was originally a part of the German Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter even though he didn’t pledge to any one single artistic movement during his career. He preferred to experiment with a variety of media including ink, watercolor, and oil. He loved the free-flowing art of children and used paint in unusual ways for his time.
A teacher at the German art school Staatliches Bauhaus, Klee’s lectures on color theory were a great influence on modern art.
At the time of his death in 1940, he had a legacy of around 9,000 works of art.
Swiss painter and sculptor Alberto Giacometti was born in Borgonovo, Switzerland in 1901. He lived and worked mainly in Paris beginning in 1922, but often returned to his hometown through the years to visit family and work on his art.
Sculpting was Giacometti’s main art form, and he was one of the most notable sculptors of the 20th century. His work was influenced by styles such as Surrealism and Cubism. Existential debates and philosophical questions also played a role in his work. Although he rubbed shoulders with surrealists such as Miro, Dali, and Breton, these artists rejected Giacometti in 1935.
Giacometti became filled with self-doubt and grew critical of his own work. He turned away from surrealism in order to develop a deeper analysis of figurative compositions and wrote texts for exhibition catalogs and periodicals. His paintings constituted the smallest body of his work until 1957 when his figurative paintings became equally as important.
Giacometti died in Chur in 1966.
Swiss Neoclassical painter Angelica Kauffman was born in Chur in Graubünden in 1741. Her father was a skilled Austrian muralist who frequently traveled for work. In 1742, the family moved to Austria. After Angelica’s mother died, her father decided to move to Milan. Throughout the years, they would live in several Italian locations.
While living in Florence, Angelica developed the painting style known as Neoclassical. Later, while living in Rome, Angelica was introduced to the British community. She added English to her spoken languages of French, Italian, and German. She became a popular portraitist for British travelers in Rome. Eventually, she was persuaded to go to London by Lady Wentworth, the wife of a British ambassador to paint portraits of members of British society and nobility.
After getting separation from a marriage she was conned into, Angelica spent several months in Ireland where she painted portraits of several Irish notables including Philip Tisdall, the Attorney General for Ireland, and his wife Mary.
Angelika Kauffmann was considered a history painter when she died in 1807.
H. R. Giger
Swiss artist H.R. Giger was born in Chur in 1940. His father was a pharmacist and considered art a “breadless profession” and encouraged him to become a pharmacist. Giger refused and later moved to Zurich where he attended the School of Applied Arts to study architecture and industrial design.
Giger developed a technique called “biomechanical” which involved airbrushing images of humans intertwined with machines. He is also known for working on a special effects team for the 1979 science fiction horror film Alien. The team won an Academy Award for their work.
Giger later gave up his airbrushed work of human physics and machines for ink, pastels, and markers. His contributions to the world of art include artwork on several posters, music albums, books of paintings, and art published in Omni magazine.
Giger was able to acquire the Saint-Germain Castle in Gruyères, Switzerland. It now houses the H.R. Giger Museum. Giger died in 2014 from injuries sustained in a fall.
Swiss painter and illustrator Albert Anker earned the title “national painter” of Switzerland for his endearing depictions of life in a Swiss village in the 19th century. He was born as the son of a veterinarian in 1831 in the canton of Bern. He took early drawing lessons with painter Louis Wallingerand and later attended the Gymnasium Kirchenfeld in Bern. Afterward, he studied theology in Bern and continued at the University of Halle in Germany. It was there that he was inspired by the art collections to pursue a career in art.
Anker later moved to Paris to attend the École des Beaux-Arts where he studied with Charles Gleyre. He set up a studio in his parents’ home and created works for exhibitions in Switzerland and Paris.
Anker’s art includes a series of works with biblical and historical themes such as paintings of Luther and Calvin, over 30 still-lifes, and hundreds of watercolors and drawings. In 1901, a debilitating stroke reduced his ability to paint. He died in 1910.
One of the most popular Swiss painters of the 19th century, Ferdinand Hodler was born in Bern in 1853. His works included landscapes and portraits in a realistic style. He later created a personal form of symbolism called “parallelism.”
The son of a poor carpenter, Hodler was the eldest of six children. He lost his father and two siblings to tuberculosis when he was eight years old. His mother remarried widower Gottlieb Schüpach, a decorative painter with five children of his own. Hodler had to help the family financially by painting signs with his stepfather.
After his mother also died of TB, Hodler was sent to Thun to work as an apprentice for a local painter where he learned the craft of painting Alpine landscapes. At the age of 18 in 1871, he walked to Geneva to begin a career in painting.
Hodler’s career includes painting historical buildings and works of landscapes, portraits, and figure compositions. One of the best-known is Self-Portrait, The Angry One which depicts his exasperation with poverty and non-recognition.
Holder died of pulmonary edema in 1918.
Swiss painter, draftsman, and art writer Henry Fuseli was born in Zurich in 1741 but spent most of his life in Britain. His father, a painter of portraits and landscapes, intended his son for the church and sent him to Caroline College where he obtained a classical education.
Fuseli became a leading artist of the Romantic movement and created art such as the painting Nightmare that depicted the darker side of the human mind. He drew his inspiration from literary sources such as Milton, Shakespeare, and Dante. A Midsummer Night’s Dream inspired him to depict fairies and dreams.
Future lord mayor of London, John Boydell, and James Woodmason of Dublin opened purpose-built Shakespeare Galleries to promote British art. Fuseli contributed paintings to both projects.
Fuseli lived a long life and died of natural causes in 1825.
Felix Vallotton was born in Lausanne in 1865 and left Switzerland for Paris to become a painter when he was 17. During his time in Lausanne, he graduated from Collège Cantonal with a degree in classical studies.
After moving to Paris, Vallotton studied art at the Académie Julian under Jules Joseph Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger. He spent much time in the Louvre where he admired the works of Holbein, Ingres, and Dürer. They remained exemplars for his life as an artist.
Vallotton’s most admired paintings are the Ingresque Portrait of Monsieur Ursenbach and a painted self-portrait that received an honorable mention at the Salon des artistes français in 1886.
Vallotton was also an active writer. After his death in 1925, his novel La Vie meurtrière (The Murderous Life) was published posthumously.
Arnold Böcklin was born in Basel in 1827 to a family with a father that was a descendant of a family of silk traders. He studied at the Düsseldorf school of painting under German landscape artist Johann Wilhelm Schirmer.
After recognizing Böcklin’s talent, Schirmer sent him to Belgium to copy the works of Flemish and Dutch masters. He then left for Paris to work at the Louvre where he painted landscapes. After serving time in the army, he went to Rome where allegorical and mythological figures influenced his work. In 1856, he moved to Munich.
Böcklin returned to Rome and remained there from 1862 to 1866 where he expressed his taste for violent color-free art in several paintings including his Portrait of Mme Böcklin, An Anchorite in the Wilderness, a Roman Tavern, and Villa on the Seashore.
Böcklin died in Florence in 1901.
Born in Südern-Linden, Switzerland in 1888, Johannes Itten was a Swiss expressionist painter, designer, teacher, and writer. He is best known for his seven color theories: contrasts of hue, value, temperature, elements, contrasts by complements, simultaneous contrast, contrast by saturation, and contrast by extension.
Itten trained as an elementary school teacher and taught kindergarten concepts from 1904 to 1908. He enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts in Geneva in 1909. He was unimpressed with the school and went to Bern.
Itten taught at the German art school Bauhaus from 1919 to 1922. It was here that he taught students his seven colors theory along with the basics of material characteristics and composition. In 1920, he published a book called the Art of Color. His color studies influenced the world of Op Art. After his death in 1967, his work with color gained attention in the cosmetics industry. Today, cosmetologists still use his seasonal color analysis.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the most famous piece of art in Switzerland?
Some of Switzerland's most notable art includes: Métamatics by Jean Tinguely, La légende de Saint Adolf by Adolf Wölfli, The creature in Alien by Hans Ruedi Giger and L’homme qui marche by Alberto Giacometti.
Who is the most famous Swiss artist?
Some of the most famous Swiss artists include: Paul Klee, Roman Signer, H.R. Giger, Max Bill, Jean Tinguely, Ugo Rondinone, Alberto Giacometti, and John Armleder.