By Jonathan Kandell
Inside the Kröller-Müller Museum, deep in the Dutch countryside, lies one of the world’s great Van Gogh collections, and behind it lies one of the great stories of 20th-century collecting.
Deep in southeastern Holland, around the village of Otterlo, far from Amsterdam’s canals and the North Sea dikes, the countryside loses its Dutch predictability. This is the Hoge Veluwe National Park, 13,600 acres of woods, heath, grassy plains and sand drifts populated by deer, wild boars and foxes. An eerie, medieval-looking fortress, St. Hubertus Hunting Lodge, rises on the edge of a lake. And stranger still in this isolated setting is the presence of the Kröller-Müller Museum, which behind its contemporary glass-and-aluminum façade houses one of the world’s greatest Van Gogh collections.
All this property was once the domain of Holland’s wealthiest couple, the industrialist Anton Kröller (1862–1941) and his wife, Helene Kröller-Müller (1869–1939), the heiress who brought him his fortune and amassed the art collection that has immortalized them both. Despite the 42-mile trek by train and bus from Amsterdam, some 300,000 visitors descend on the museum each year to see key Impressionist and modern works—but above all, to see the Van Goghs.
The core of the Kröller-Müller Museum’s holdings is housed in the original brown-brick wing designed by Henry van de Velde and opened in 1938. In the galleries around the main patio hang the Van Goghs—in the dark teak and pale maple frames chosen by Helene—surrounded by works by Seurat, Signac, Pissarro, Sisley, Cézanne, Picasso, Gris and Mondrian, among others. The outlying galleries hold earlier 19th-century works and a selection of Old Masters dating back to the 15th century.
The 60-acre sculpture garden, one of the largest in Europe, has more than 50 works by artists including Rodin, Henry Moore and Richard Serra. For the most part, the sculptures are set far apart from each other, either on the expansive lawns or in unexpected nooks hidden by clumps of bushes and trees. What a foreign visitor finds most striking about the Kröller-Müller is coming across such a remarkable collection in the middle of a forest two hours from the far better-known and much more crowded Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. But it was the founder’s intention that visitors should contemplate her prized modernist artworks in a quiet rural setting far from the distractions of modern life. And it is fitting that one must hunt a bit to find this trove hidden in the midst of an old hunting reserve.
Although the story of how the Kröller-Müller collection was put together is one of the most interesting in 20th-century collecting, it has only recently been fully told. Helene herself was something of a mystery—a tiny, unsmiling matron staring out from old photographs—but that changed in 2005, when the family of Sam van Deventer, a friend and confidant, gave the museum 3,400 letters that Helene had written to him. The Kröller-Müller then asked a Dutch scholar, Eva Rovers (currently a researcher at the University of Groningen), to use the letters to write a biography of Helene Kröller-Müller and to curate the first exhibition dedicated to her life. That show, titled “Helene’s Men,” ran at the Kröller-Müller from November through February and focused on the collector’s relationships with the advisors and experts who guided her. The book, Eternity Collected, appeared in Dutch late last year, though it has not yet been translated into any other language. The frank letters on which it is based reveal the complex gamut of motives—selfless and egotistical, aesthetic and social—behind the building of a great private collection.
Until 1905, when she was 36 years old, Kröller-Müller lived a conventional existence that left her with a sense of personal failure. She came from an extremely conservative social background in Germany and moved to Holland after marrying Anton Kröller, a Dutch executive in her father’s prosperous iron ore and coal company. Along with his wife, Anton would eventually inherit the firm and run it from The Hague.
For Helene, Holland was no more uplifting than Germany had been. Rejected by established Dutch society as a nouveau riche foreigner, she reacted with open displays of wealth. The Kröller-Müllers moved into an opulent villa in the best neighborhood of The Hague and were among the first people there to own an automobile. Still, Kröller-Müller was unsatisfied. “I was a nanny, housekeeper and lady all in one for years,” she wrote to her friend Van Deventer in 1912. “However, beneath all that lay something stronger. Something I can trace back to my childhood, the better me, which I could not reach for many years.”
Her awakening came by chance. Her adolescent daughter returned from an art class gushing about the instructor, Henk Bremmer, with such enthusiasm that Kröller-Müller decided to attend a class. Even more smitten than her daughter, she enrolled for seven classes a week and soon asked Bremmer, a renowned critic of modern art, to help her become a collector. Helene Kröller-Müller had found her calling.
Nonetheless, social impulses played a role in her artistic conversion. “Collecting art became a way to show that she had taste, perhaps better taste than most high-society families who collected conventional works from The Hague school of painting”—a late 19th-century realist movement influenced by the Barbizon school—“and Old Dutch Masters,” says Rovers. That was one reason why Kröller-Müller was receptive to Bremmer’s suggestion that she buy works by an artist as cutting-edge as Van Gogh.
In the span of a few years preceding World War I, Kröller-Müller purchased an astonishing 91 paintings and 175 drawings by Van Gogh—in fact, only the artist’s family possessed a greater private hoard of his work. Rovers points out, “Helene started acquiring Van Gogh at a time when he was still a controversial artist who wasn’t widely collected.” Her first Van Gogh purchase, in 1908, was Edge of a Wood (1882), depicting an almost orderly row of trees set against a dimly lit sky. Van Gogh, who had died 18 years before, was still little known, and Bremmer was gently nudging Kröller-Müller toward the unappreciated artist. “This is a Dutch work that wouldn’t scare Helene away from Van Gogh, perhaps the way the brightly colored French subjects would have,” says Rovers. It was also incredibly cheap—bought at auction in The Hague for only 110 guilders, the equivalent of about $50 at the time. Only months later, Kröller-Müller would be paying 10 times that amount for a Van Gogh painting like Sunflowers Gone to Seed (1887), a strong, colorful sample of the artist’s French-period paintings.
By 1912, Kröller-Müller was buying Van Goghs at a feverish pace, spending more than 115,000 guilders on a score of paintings in April alone. Her purchase of The Langlois Bridge With Washerwomen (1888) a month later for 16,000 guilders, five times the pre-auction estimate, made a very public statement. “It really helped raise the market price for Van Goghs,” says Rovers. “She could have paid less, but she wanted to show how important she thought Van Gogh was.” In a letter to Van Deventer, she described it as one of the “most beautiful, strongest, most crystal-clear” Van Goghs in her collection. (In the 1920s Kröller-Müller also bought some fake Van Goghs from the unscrupulous German art dealer Otto Wacker, whose deceptions took in many top experts, including Bremmer. Today, the museum still possesses those canvases, though it keeps them in storage.)
In promoting the artist, Bremmer emphasized his spirituality and heroic struggle against his emotional demons. These qualities appealed strongly to Kröller-Müller, who had been searching since adolescence for an alternative to conventional religion. In a 1912 letter to Van Deventer, she described the reasons for her purchase of Old Man in Sorrow (1890), a portrait that shows the subject in a chair, his head in his hands, his whole body contorted by grief. “When one paints suffering in such a way,” she wrote, “then one does not really feel it as suffering any more, one does not endure it any more but knows that it is a necessity, and the acknowledgment of that brings [repose].”
La Berceuse (1888), a portrait of a mother rocking a cradle, had a similar effect on Kröller-Müller. In a long, rather windy passage in a letter to Van Deventer, she imagines the painting hanging aboard a ship in rough seas providing motherly or wifely solace to the sailors. La Berceuse was purchased in 1912, at a time when Kröller-Müller herself needed comfort. The year before, she had been diagnosed with tumors in her uterus and had to undergo life-threatening surgery. The possibility that she would not live much longer accounts in part for her buying frenzy, which targeted not only Van Goghs but also works by Signac, Seurat, Redon, Gris, Picasso, Ensor and Mondrian.
“Before her operation,” says Rovers, “she made her husband promise that in case she didn’t survive he would support her plan to build up the most representative collection of modern art in Holland and build a museum for it as well.” The operation was successful, and the tumors turned out to be benign, which meant that the Kröller-Müllers would soon accelerate their art purchases and begin planning the museum.
The couple initially hired the famed Dutch architect H.P. Berlage to design both the museum and the St. Hubertus Hunting Lodge on their vast estate. The lodge, in neo-medieval style, sprawls in the shape of deer antlers with a tower in the shape of a cross rising from the center. It recalls the incident that converted the pagan hunter-warrior Hubertus to Christianity: While on a hunt in the forest, he came across a deer with a luminous cross between its antlers.
But the lodge was more a place for Anton and his hunting cronies than for Helene. “It is very much a work of art, but masculine, dark,” says Rovers. “Whoever lives there must adjust to the architecture.” When Helene tried to soften the harsh interior, she clashed with Berlage. The final falling out was his resistance to widening the window in her study to allow her a better view of the surrounding lake and forest. Berlage was allowed to complete the lodge—a six-year task that ended in 1920—but he did not proceed with the museum.
In any case, the project was postponed for almost two decades because the deep economic recession that swept Europe after World War I left the Kröller-Müller business empire on the verge of bankruptcy. By 1922, Kröller-Müller had virtually stopped acquiring major works of art, and she struggled for years to put together the financing for a much smaller museum than she had originally planned. Finally, with the help of government funds, the Kröller-Müller Museum opened in 1938, with Helene serving as its first director until her death a year later at the age of 70. Anton died in 1941. They are both buried at Hoge Veluwe, which they had turned over to the government as a park and nature reserve several years before.
The decision to place the museum at Hoge Veluwe, rather than in an urban setting, was not purely financial. Kröller-Müller became convinced that the former hunting ground was conducive to an understanding of modern art. “She feared that in a city environment people would be too distracted, too much in a rush,” says Rovers. “She thought that a natural surrounding would help create the peace of mind necessary to contemplate and appreciate difficult works of modern art.”