Helene Kröller-Müller: The Prestigious Patron


As noted by Piet de Jonge in “Helene Kröller-Müller” in Van Gogh to Mondrian, Helene’s name at birth was Julie Emma Laura Helene Müller. She was born on February 11, 1869 in Horst near Essen, Germany.  She was a slight, slender girl possessing fine features, dark hair and  dark, inward-looking eyes. She was the third child of a prestigious German couple: Wilhelm Heinrich Müller and Emilie Neese.  Her father Wilhelm was the founder/president of the  industrial corporation Müller & Company.

Helen Müller at age 5
Kröller-Müller Museum
Otterlo, Netherlands

As a young child, Helene was described by her observant father as “stormy, wild and volatile.” Yet her unbridled spirit both amused and concerned Wilhelm. In his diary, he recorded that Helene was (like her brother) a poor student and in need of structure, so he sent her to a private school overseen by the famous German educator Frau Schubeck. Under Schubeck’s disciplined guidance students were taught to strive for “Nobility, Beauty and Truth” in all their endeavors. This idealistic curriculum took hold of Helene and transformed the wild, passionate child into an aspiring scholar in the spirit of her great-grandmother and namesake. Great-grandmother Helene had been a remarkable, theologically minded woman who is said to have written the sermons of her pastor husband.

Living up to the school motto Helene began to embody “unquestioning devotion”, a characteristic for which she was known for the rest of her life.  By age fourteen, Helene was studying 15 hours a day_from 5:00 in the morning to 11:00 at night. She showed little interest in the typical amusements of her age such as the theatre or boys. And instead of reading popular novels, she pondered the metaphysical writings of 18th-19th century German philosophers including  Spinoza, Goethe, Lessing, Schiller and Rilke. 

As quoted by De Jonge, she wrote in her diary:

“To read the writings of great men, to absorb their lives and characters, remains for me the highest achievement” .

Where her father had once been concerned with her wild behavior, he now worried that her compulsive, scholarly zeal might be her undoing. He had Helene’s course load at school reduced in an effort to curb her obsessive fervor. However, cutting back on her assigned studies only emboldened her to fill in the spaces. So she doubled down on the classes she was still allowed to take. Soon she was able to challenge the competence of her teachers.

One of the results of Helene’s new found love of learning was that she began to question some of the traditional religious views of her family.  Wresting with spiritual issues is typical of adulthood but Helene was a teenager and unprepared for the tension created and the ensuing  disagreements with her parents.  Doubt and disapproval began to plague Helene for she had a strong need for her family’s approval. And it didn’t help that she bore the name of her pious great-grandmother.

Helene Müller, ca. 1887
Kröller-Müller Museum
Otterlo, Netherlands

Teenage Helene was far from the only young person in the 19th century who wrestled with traditional religious practices.  Vincent van Gogh, too, struggled with many of the sectarian religious conventions of his time.  He also had faced disapproval by his father, a Protestant pastor in a rural community. In 19th century Europe, many young adults struggled with unresolved spiritual questions and yearnings.

In his book Consciousness and Society, H. Stuart Hughes comments on the religious atmosphere in the late 19th century:

“In Germany there had lingered on from the early nineteenth century a non-dogmatic religiosity, an emphasis on the spiritual and a distrust of the material world. German social thinkers characteristically came from conservative, religiously oriented families: clergymen’s sons were not infrequent. In this tradition it seemed natural to set emotion against reason, community sentiment against technological change  . . . ” .

As a result, these unrequited spiritual yearnings found expression in artistic ways. For instance, German novelists including Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse and painters such as Emile Nolde, Franz Marc, August Macke and Piet Mondrian expressed forms of non-dogmatic religiosity in their work. The novelists often portrayed young men is search of spiritual enlightenment as in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, Steppenwolf and Damian. The painters frequently used religious symbols or portrayed scenes from the Bible. Emile Nolde for example, painted the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ, while others evoked less specific sacred themes and metaphysical moods in their work.

Helene fit this pattern perfectly as a progressively minded German woman at the dawn of the 20th century.  She came from a “conservative, religiously oriented family“ which inspired her to serve others. Later in life, and possessing great wealth, she would express her “community sentiment” by creating summer camps for disadvantaged children, volunteering as a nurse during the First World War, and donating to worthy causes. And at mid-life, she created an important public art collection.

In spite of her unsettling religious questions, her father was encouraged when Helene took over household duties during her mother’s absence. Wilhelm was amazed that Helene was able to carry out the demanding duties of the large household as efficiently as her mother. She was highly observant, disciplined, and resourceful beyond her years. As quoted by De Jonge, her father wrote:

“I can assure you that the household is in excellent hands. Helene goes about the task with the certainty of one who has done it for a year and a day. She presides over the coffee table, convinces herself that the dinner menu she has assembled meets my approval, interrogates the cook about the accounts, gives the latter her instructions, and indeed today, because it is washday, took charge of the cooking herself. For the rest, she is not idle for a moment—embroidering during breakfast, darning stockings after lunch and mending the washing in the evenings. I think that she gets it from her mother”.

Continued …