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Helene Kröller-Müller and the breakthrough of modern art

To collect only those pieces of art that will stand the test of time”. This was the task Helene Kröller-Müller set for herself in 1912. She had been born over forty years before that in the German Ruhr area, where she grew up in the heyday of the Besitzbürgertum. In 1888 she married a promising Dutch employee of her father’s firm, Anton Kröller, who soon became the successful managing director of that same firm, Müller & Co. Under Anton’s leadership Müller & Co developed into a flourishing multinational, with its headquarters in Rotterdam and - from 1900 onwards - in the Dutch royal residence of The Hague.

Even in this affluent city Müller - because of the spectacular development of the family firm - stood out as one of the wealthiest inhabitants. However she was not only rich, she was also ambitious, proud and very determined. In 1905 Müller took up lessons in aesthetics, taught by the acknowledged art mentor H.P. Bremmer. He was an exponent of what Peter Gay has described as the higher bourgeois’ need for cultural guidance. The majority of Bremmer’s students were wealthy, well educated individuals, most of whom had already started their own collection by the time Müller enrolled in Bremmer’s course. These other collections immediately awoke Müller’s urge for competition and within a few years she had gathered a collection of early modern art that was unrivalled in The Netherlands and beyond.

At first her purchases were to some extent arbitrary; Müller bought what she personally liked. In 1911 however, two defining moments changed her manner of collecting. The first of which was occasioned by a visit to Karl Ernst Osthaus, a German philanthropist who not only owned a magnificent collection of modern art, but who exhibited this collection in his house museum. By founding a museum in a densely industrialized German region, Osthaus intended to give an impulse to local cultural development. These moral ideals that were the basis of his collection made Müller realise that her collection as well could exceed the status of a personal pursuit.

A few months later, in September 1911, Müller was diagnosed with several tumours and she had to undergo complicated surgery. Facing death, she decided that if she survived, she would establish a museum for her collection, a museum that would belong to the public. And that is what happened. For the rest of her life she strove for the realisation of this museum, which made her reasons for purchasing pieces of art go beyond personal preferences. From then on Müller’s main criteria for adding an object to her collection was the belief that it would stand the test of time. She turned to collecting rather daring works of art, especially the work of Vincent van Gogh, which was quite controversial up to the First World War. From 1913 onwards parts of her collection were open to the public; until the mid 1930s her exhibition hall in The Hague was one of the very rare places where one could see more than a few works of modern art, let alone pieces of this quality: Picasso, Gris, Mondriaan, Van der Leck, Signac, Seurat, they were all present and drew visitors from all over Europe.

Therefore Müller’s collection was not only modern, it was grand and, just as important, it was accessible. As such it determined for at least a decade the international view of, for example, the work of Van Gogh. Müller’s long held dream was realised when in 1938, little over a year before her death, she opened the Kröller-Müller Museum, one of the first Dutch museums that was mainly dedicated to modern art.

Methodology: a contextual approach

Seen from just this one perspective, Müller was a gatekeeper. By deciding which pieces of art she added to her collection, she determined for some time which art and which art movements would reach an audience. However in writing the biography of this collector, I want to address the question whether Müller really was the leading figure, the gatekeeper, she seems to have been at first glance. Was she responsible for the breakthrough of modern art in the Dutch museum system? Or was she perhaps more of a follower, a person who knew how to observe well and to reassemble what she saw and heard into seemingly new ideas and deeds? In order to say anything about Müller’s relevance, a life story alone won’t suffice. In my view the person whose life one writes about, is like a pebble thrown in the water; it is surrounded by circles of influence. If you ignore those circles, you’ll never find the pebble. Therefore I will have to reshape those circles and place Müller in a context; the context of fellow collectors, of critics, art dealers - in short the context of the art world, but also the context of her social background in Germany and of her time in general.

I have selected two aspects of the art world that are not only relevant to the life of Müller, but are relevant in understanding the field of the early twentieth century west-European art world in general. One aspect is the private collector who bequeathed a museum to the public in their will. In my biography of Müller I want to describe three or four private collectors whom she must have known, to serve as case studies of how modern art found its way into the museum system through the bequests of collectors. I will then compare the influence of these collectors to that of Müller. The other aspect that will be used as a case study is the development of Vincent van Gogh’s reputation prior to the First World War. I want to employ Van Gogh as a pars pro toto in order to analyze the influence of art collectors and art dealers on the reception of modern art, as well as the role Müller played in that reception process.

At this moment I do not know what role exactly Müller played in the breakthrough of modern art. I have to do more research on both Müller and on the field in which she operated. Especially the case studies need further analyses. What I do know is that finding the balance in this contextual approach makes it possible not only to write life, but to write art history as well.

Eva Rovers MA

University of Groningen - Institute of Biography

E.M.Rovers rug.nl


Abbreviated bibliography

Jos ten Berge, Teio Meedendorp [a.o.], De schilderijen van Vincent van Gogh in de collectie van het Kröller-Müller Museum , Stichting Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo 2003.

Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Routledge & Kegan Paul, Londen [etc.] 1984.

Bourdieu, Pierre, The Field of Cultural Production, Polity Press, Oxford 1993.

Sam van Deventer, Kröller-Müller. De geschiedenis van een cultureel levenswerk. Arnhem: J.S.R. van Deventer 1956, second edition 2004.

Peter Gay, Pleasure Wars. The Bourgeois Experience, vol. 5, Norton, New York 1998.

Paul Hirsch, “Processing Fads and Fashions: An Organization Set Analysis of Cultural Industry Systems”, The American Journal of Sociology, 77(1972)4.

Last modified:09 January 2017 11.03 a.m.
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