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Unique source material in Kröller-Müller biography

09 November 2010

A chest of 3400 letters lies at the heart of a biography of Helene Kröller-Müller (1869-1939), the founder of the museum that bears her name in Otterlo. The biography, ‘De eeuwigheid verzameld’ [Collecting Eternity], will be published soon. Thanks to this unique source material, author Eva Rovers has been able to throw new light on the most famous art collector in the Netherlands. Kröller-Müller turns out indeed to have been very important for the acceptance of modern art in the Netherlands. Her collecting passion was fuelled not so much by a great love of art as by an almost religious mania. Although she lived most of her life in the Netherlands, her German origins turn out to have played a major role in her views on art and politics throughout her life. Rovers will be awarded a PhD for her research by the University of Groningen on 15 November.

Van Deventer’s chest

In December 2005, the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo was bequeathed the archive of Sam van Deventer, a confidant of Helene Kröller-Müller. This ‘Van Deventer’s chest’ contained over 3400 letters, most written by Helene herself. Eva Rovers was the first, and thus far the only, person to be granted access to this archive:‘Helene emerges as a stubborn, determined woman. She dismissed the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, fought so hard with Berlage that he resigned his job, and was also difficult for many other people around her, but she really wanted to share her insights and her collection with others. ’It was this passion that led her as early as 1913 to make her collection of modern art, one of the largest in Europe, accessible to the public. Until the 1930s, it was only possible to admire geniuses like Van Gogh, Picasso and Mondrian in her exhibition rooms.

Van Gogh

At times, Kröller-Müller bought Picassos and Mondrians like other ladies bought hats and handbags. Once she returned from three days in Paris with fifteen paintings by Vincent van Gogh, an artist who was very controversial at the time. She would eventually own nearly three hundred of his works. ‘By buying Van Goghs so early, paying large amounts for them, and taking them on tour of America, for example, she was of significant influence on the evaluation of his work.’  

German roots

Her letters reveal that her German roots always played a role in her life. She had moved to the Netherlands before the First World War, but discovered to her frustration that due to that war she was regarded with suspicion. As a result, she decided to go to work as a nurse in a German field hospital in Liège. She remained pro-German later, too, and developed sympathy for National Socialism. Despite this, she was appalled when in September 1939, a few months before her death, her fatherland again unleashed a war. Despite her German background, she remained true to her intention to build her museum in the Netherlands and to present it to the Dutch people. This was a gesture to show that art rose above the horrors of the time.


The biography of a pure-blood Maecenas like Kröller-Müller is particularly interesting in the current political climate, when the government is withdrawing its support of the arts. The book makes crystal clear how important private individuals are for the art world. Collectors like Helene Kröller-Müller laid the foundations for numerous museums across the world. Her motives were not only to elevate the masses, a large part consisted of philanthropy. Rovers: ‘People like her always hover slightly on the borders between philanthropy and self-glorification. However, she really felt the philanthropic need to leave a monument to culture behind her. And she succeeded.’  

Curriculum vitae

Eva Rovers (Eindhoven, 1978) studied Language and Culture Studies at the University of Utrecht. She works for the University of Groningen Institute of Biography and has also been a guest editor for the Oxford Journal of the History of Collections. Her supervisors at the University of Groningen were Prof. J.W. Renders and Prof. W. Krul. A commercial edition of the thesis will be published by Uitgeverij Bert Bakker/Prometheus.

In honour of the publication of the book, Rovers has designed an exhibition in the Kröller-Müller Museum, entitled ‘De mannen van Helene. Het leven, de liefde, de kunst en het bouwen’ [Helene’s Men. Life, Love, Art and Building].The exhibition will also show a documentary by Leo de Boer made for IDTVdocs/NTR, which tracked Rovers during her research.The documentary will be broadcast on 4 January in the programme Het Uur van de Wolf.


Eva Rovers

Last modified:13 March 2020 01.58 a.m.
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