The Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau occupies the former residence of the artist Franz von Lenbach (1836–1904). Between 1887 and 1890, the acclaimed portraitist built himself a representative studio and villa in the Tuscan style designed by Gabriel von Seidl, then the star of the Munich architecture scene. The ensemble was rounded out by a garden designed by Max Kolb, another renowned master of his métier. The complex’s prominent situation on Brienner Straße, in the immediate vicinity of Königsplatz and the royal art collections, underscored its representational function: here lived the prosperous Bavarian capital's "prince of artists."
His widow Lolo von Lenbach sold the property to the City of Munich in 1924, donating the building’s furnishings and interior decorations and numerous works by von Lenbach. The acquisition allowed the authorities to fulfill the long-held desire for a museum to be dedicated to the works of the nineteenth-century Munich School of painters and contemporary art. Paintings and sculptures were purchased from dealers as well as local artists and their descendants. To create enough floor space for the collection and exhibitions, the architect Hans Grässel added an extension to Lenbach's studio and residence building; the result was today's three-wing structure. The Städtische Galerie, with an integrated gallery showcasing von Lenbach’s art, opened its doors to the public on May 1, 1929.
Only a few years later, in 1933, the National Socialists seized power and began installing party loyalists in leadership positions in cultural institutions who implemented the new rulers' policies. Like other museums, the Lenbachhaus “purged” its collection, exhibited and acquired the works of artists who had the approval of the Nazi party, and in some instances enlarged its collection by making purchases that, in today's perspective, were clearly illegitimate.
In 1944–45, the museum suffered heavy damage from bombing raids. The collections had been moved to safe storage, but the unique interiors of Lenbach's studio wing were largely destroyed. The first postwar exhibition of works by Munich artists was held in the provisionally restored north wing in June 1947.
In 1957, a singularly generous donation by Gabriele Münter transformed the Lenbachhaus into a world-class museum. On occasion of her eightieth birthday, the artist gave the Städtische Galerie a large collection of works by Wassily Kandinsky dating from before 1914, as well as art by Münter herself, fellow members of the Blue Rider, and other artists in the group's orbit. With subsequent acquisitions of important works and donations, including one in honor of the eminent patron and collector of works by Franz Marc and August Macke, Bernhard Koehler, the Lenbachhaus emerged as the world's leading institution dedicated to the presentation and scholarly study of the art of the Blue Rider.
Beginning in the 1970s, the museum mounted exhibitions that highlighted major tendencies in Western contemporary art. But it was only in the 1980s, after the controversy around the acquisition of Joseph Beuys's "show your wound," that the collection development policy was reoriented toward the work of living artists.
The Lenbachhaus Kunstbau, a large underground exhibition space on the mezzanine level above the Königsplatz subway station designed by the Munich architect Uwe Kiessler, was inaugurated in 1994. Located in the immediate vicinity of the Lenbachhaus, the Kunstbau has enabled the museum to present large special exhibitions.
Between 2009 and 2013, the main building underwent a comprehensive renovation based on plans by Foster + Partners. An extension from the 1970s by Heinrich Volbehr and Rudolf Thönessen that was no longer adequate was torn down and replaced with a new structure with state-of-the-art facilities that affords the museum greater flexibility in its exhibition and event programming. Today's Lenbachhaus is an attractive destination beloved by visitors from Munich and the region, throughout Germany, and around the world.