Until the 1950s, the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, which opened in 1929, primarily collected and presented nineteenth-century paintings from Munich and early twentieth-century German art. With the works of the villa’s former resident, Franz von Lenbach, this original focus constitutes the collection's historic core.
In the nineteenth century, the "Munich school" enjoyed international renown, attracting artists to the city whose works were prized by collectors around the world. The most important venue for the local bourgeoisie, which took a lively interest in this art, was the Münchener Kunstverein, founded in 1823, whose exhibitions primarily presented landscapes and genre paintings. As a municipal institution, the Lenbachhaus initially focused its collecting efforts on this more private and bourgeois art, in programmatic contradistinction to the Bavarian State Painting Collections, which built on the holdings of the Bavarian royal house and the work of the Academy of Fine Arts of Munich.
A romantic conception of the landscape, a realism inspired by Gustave Courbet’s work, enthusiasm for the art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the influences of Belgian, Dutch, French, and English painters informed the development of the art produced in Munich. In the Lenbachhaus's collections, eminent artists such as Wilhelm von Kobell, Johann Georg von Dillis, Thomas Fearnley, Ernst Kaiser, Christian E. B. Morgenstern, Carl Rottmann, Carl Spitzweg, and Eduard Schleich the Elder represent this period. The museum also has examples of the outstanding painterly craftsmanship of the Leibl circle (Wilhelm Leibl, Carl Schuch, Wilhelm Trübner, and Hans Thoma), works by exponents of academic painting such as Carl Theodor von Piloty, Hans Makart, Gabriel von Max, and Albert von Keller, and portraits by the so-called princes of painters, Franz von Lenbach and Friedrich August von Kaulbach.
With the establishment of the Munich Secession in 1892, new tendencies appeared on the scene; the group united a wide variety of styles between Impressionism, art nouveau, and avant-garde conceptions of the picture, as illustrated by paintings by Franz von Stuck, Lovis Corinth, Max Slevogt, Fritz von Uhde, and many others. These works mark the transition to the collection’s holdings of the art of the "Neue Künstlervereinigung München" (New Artists‘ Association Munich) and the Blue Rider group.
Over the years, the Lenbachhaus has frequently had the opportunity to add important individual works to its collection of nineteenth-century art, which has also been enlarged by substantial bequests. The collection is rounded out by permanent loans such as the holdings of the Munich Secession, the estate of Johann Georg von Dillis, which is held by the Historical Society of Upper Bavaria, and the estate of the founder of "Simplicissimus", Thomas Theodor Heine.
In time for the museum's reopening in 2013, the Lenbachhaus received the Christoph Heilmann Foundation's holdings of paintings of the German romantics and the Barbizon school, adding an international dimension to the nineteenth-century collection as well.