The history of Zachęta began in 1860 when, on the initiative of a group of painters (including, for example, Wojciech Gerson), the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts (TZSP) was founded. In the Russian-governed part of Poland it was the first institution devoted to the exhibition and collecting of Polish art.
‘As an association of Artists and art Lovers, the mission of the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts is to promote the fine arts at home and to offer help and encouragement to artists, especially young ones, graduating from the School of Fine Arts in Warsaw’
proclaimed the Art. 1 of the Act of the Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts in the Kingdom of Poland.
By the late 19th century, the Society had become a well-known institution that played an influential role in Polish artistic life. It lacked, however, its own exhibition space, using rented premises at Krakowskie Przedmieście Street, e.g. in the Mokronowski Palace, Gerlach Hotel or the Bernardine monastery by St. Anne’s Church. Following architectural competitions held in 1894 and 1896, Stefan Szyller, one of the most outstanding Polish architects, author, among other designs, of the Warsaw University of Technology building, was commissioned to design and supervise the construction of the Zachęta building. A sculptural decoration with the famous tympanum representing a personification of the arts and the inscription ARTIBUS (‘To the Arts’) was created by Zygmunt Otto.
From the very beginning Zachęta was a community and national initiative. It is worth stressing the role of numerous donors, without whom the fine building, reminiscent of the 19th-century architecture of European metropolises (e.g. Vienna, Berlin or Paris), would have never been built. Ludwika Górecka, a well-known social activist and philanthropist, donated a plot of land at Plac Małachowskiego. The building opened on 15 December 1900. Soon a permanent exhibition was unveiled, featuring, for example, Jan Matejko’s Battle of Grunwald. Visits at Zachęta became a popular pastime for Varsovians, where they were able to view the finest paintings by Jacek Malczewski, Józef Mehoffer or Stanisław Wyspiański, sculptures by Xawery Dunikowski, Henryk Kuna or Edward Wittig, and many other works. The development, through acquisitions and donations, of a collection of Polish art was an important aspect of the institution’s activities.
Following the rebirth of independent Poland in 1918, the Zachęta building became the site of a national tragedy when on 16 December 1922, during an exhibition opening, the first Polish president, Gabriel Narutowicz, was assassinated by Eligiusz Niewiadomski, a painter and commentator associated with the right-wing National Democracy party.
During the Second World War, the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts was dissolved after nearly 80 years of activity and the building itself was commandeered by the occupying power. Most of the collection was transferred to the National Museum in Warsaw, while the Zachęta building was turned into the Haus der Deutschen Kultur (House of German Culture) and used for Nazi propaganda events. During the Warsaw Uprising, it was damaged by artillery fire; retreating in 1945, the Germans also tried to set it on fire.
In 1945, the Warsaw Reconstruction Bureau renovated the building, but the TZSP wasn’t reactivated. In 1949, the building became the seat of the Central Bureau of Artistic Exhibitions (CBWA). Besides planning and coordinating exhibitions at regional Bureaus of Artistic Exhibitions (BWAs), the institution’s role was to stage exhibitions on its own, according to the official cultural policy of People’s Poland. Among the important events organised by the CBWA were the exhibition Romanticism and Romanticness in 19th- and 20th-Century Polish Art (1975) and surveys of contemporary Italian and French art. The International Poster Biennial, organised from 1966, was the first such event in the world, drawing on the successes of the Polish School of Posters.
After the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989, Zachęta continued its mission of popularising contemporary art, broadening the artistic consciousness and supporting young artists – initially as the Zachęta State Gallery of Art, and from 2003 as the National Gallery of Art.
In 1991, the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts was reactivated as an association of art lovers affiliated with Zachęta.