Helene Kröller-Müller: The Prestigious Patron

MARRIAGE & CONFORMITY

On May 15, 1888, at her father’s urging, 18 year old Helene Müller married 26 year old Anton Kröller becoming Helene Kröller-Müller (it was common practice at that time for a woman to list her maiden name after her married name). Her husband, Anton, was her fathers most-valued employee, a brilliant young businessman, and a key stakeholder in the company.

Helen Müller and Anton Kröller, ca. 1888
Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands

The match bolstered the financial strength of the company overnight, transforming Müller & Company into an international industrial empire. However, the transformation was not an easy one. In their first year of marriage, Anton was bed-ridden with a life-threatening infection, which required months of rest. Helene, with her vigilant care, helped save Anton’s life.

Following his recovery, Helene’s father suddenly died of a heart attack making Anton president of Müller & Company overnight. One of his first business decisions in the early 1890s was to move the company head office from Germany to Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The Dutch seaport was vital to the shipping services of Müller & Company and its multifaceted empire. With tentacles extended into mining, manufacturing, transportation and distribution of mining equipment, and the chemicals used to smelt steel and iron, it was at the dawn of the 20th century at the center of the world’s economic and industrial growth .

In 1900, the couple moved a second time to The Hague where the company headquarters were firmly established.  In this important Dutch city, Anton would harness a great deal of influential, political backing by deploying his adroit diplomatic skills. The international neutrality of the Netherlands during the First World War allowed Anton to freely negotiate the sale and shipping of steel and iron. His profits skyrocketed both during and after the war since both steel and iron was desperately needed to rebuild the ravaged cities of Europe. He thus made enormous profits both during war and during peacetime.

Helene Müller, ca. 1902
Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands

Now firmly transplanted in the Netherlands, one of Helen’s first tasks was to transform herself into a Netherlander. She quickly converted her German Gothic script into an urban Netherlandish Cursive. Her handwriting makeover was indicative of her nature—she was a compulsive perfectionist. And her motto unquestioning devotion was soon put into into action.    

Sample pages of her diary and letters show few if any corrections. Even informal messages were crafted with impeccably slanted characters in an unerring pattern from left to right—quite remarkable given the thousands of letters she drafted during her lifetime, beginning with her diaries at age of 14. Her self-mastery was extraordinary and, as with her writing, she taught herself to speak in a perfect, accent-free cultivated Dutch. She developed in herself  the public persona she thought necessary for a German-born woman whose husband had great ambitions in the Netherlands. And she accomplished all of this through four pregnancies.

But for Helene, this transformation from her native German to a Dutch persona was merely for external effect; beneath the surface she remained resolutely German.

As quoted by de Jonge, Helene wrote:

“I was a woman born and raised in Germany, with a German heart, even if the law bestowed Dutch nationality upon her when she married”.

And because her new identity was obsessively formed, those who encountered Helene may have sensed a tautness in her manner. In fact, she was never fully accepted into Dutch society. Her apparent transformation from German to Dutch made her dubious to the locals, especially with Germany’s central role during the First World War. Many in their community viewed the Kröllers as nouveau rich with their fleet of chauffeur driven cars, multiple houses and estates, and this deepened the disdain for them as rich interlopers.

In many ways, the couple complimented one another. Anton was a driven businessman (some described him as ruthless) and Helene was disciplined, able to deal with obstacles, and proud of her German ancestry. The couple celebrated their new found wealth in a flurry of architectural projects. They erected villas, farms and factories and secured the services of top European architects and designers. They hired the young Mies van der Rohe and other prominent architects versed in the contemporary styles and technical innovations of the era. Müller buildings included up-to-date central heating systems, elevators, phone systems and other state-of-the-art communication systems.

The couple’s passion for architecture and design was where their strenuous marriage found a common bond. Four children provided some domestic roots but at a price: Helene Jr. was born in 1889, Toon in 1890, Wim 1891 and Bob in 1897. With Anton absorbed in his empire and his attractive wife pursuing a wide range of interests outside the home their children had far from an ideal childhood. Wealth meant servants and nannies which freed Helene from domestic duties. And because of his own frequent absence from home Anton encouraged Helen to pursue her own interests: overseeing the interior design of their villas and homes, horse riding, organizing summer camps for German children, attending lectures and traveling.  Helene was not an ideal mother, but she was unquestionably a phenomenal and formidable person.  

The following letter as quoted by Johannes van der Wolk in “Kröller-Müller: One Hundred Years” (in Kröller-Müller: The First Hundred Years) was written on September, 7, 1911 as Helene recovered from a life-threatening cancer operation (her illness kept secret from her children).  Having survived the ordeal and looking toward the future she shared the following  life changing dream— she wrote:

“I am building my new house and it will be a museum and will later belong to the general public. You see, that is what I have been carrying around with me for a long time […] and the Master [her husband] also said: ‘I think that is a good idea and I am glad I know about it, and then you can build on it a bit’. . . .  I said to the Master I wanted to build a house and that I wanted to live in it and that I wanted to make it so beautiful, that is, as good and as honest as I ever could, and that I had the great wish that it would continue to exist like that. Then in a hundred years’ time it would be an interesting monument of culture, a great lesson in how far a merchant’s family from the start of the century had gone in terms of inner civilization”.

On November 14, 1911 she again wrote:

“I am pleased that the Master is also beginning to like my idea and he will also gradually take more notice of the paintings. It will also attract him to convert what he earns materially by his work, knowing that all the children are cared for, into a spiritual good for the general public. It will add to his works such a different glory, so much greater charm, and his greater interest will relieve me to some extent of the feeling of arbitrarily using his money for things which do not appeal to him. And he is starting to favour the idea, as you saw from what he said about the house: it must be elegant and fine . . . .”.

Helene referred to Anton as “the Master,” a highly formal term. The children were also required to lower their heads when speaking to their mother, a behavior noted by biographers that continued into adulthood. This regal behavior is strange in view of Helene’s and Anton’s upbringing which appears to have been more informal. Perhaps the newly acquired wealth and prestige accounts for this; but whatever the cause these affectations didn’t set well with the children. But more unsettling was the imposing distance implied in calling her husband “the Master.” As later biographers have shown this would have serious repercussions. 

Helene announced in her letter that her house would be filled with art and become a monument of culture. She would create a museum that would grow out of her home collection “that we will erect as a monument which has grown from our lives and as a delight for so many others who will come after us, when we have long since departed”.  She follows the announcement of her monument of culture with the idea that Anton’s wealth could in this way serve as a great delight for those who will come after them. Helene also used a very unusual phrase—inner civilization—perhaps a concession to civilization itself for their vast wealth accrued at the cost of war.

Generally art collections are not assembled with a longterm concern for society. As the term implies private collections are acquired for private satisfaction. Helene however was not a typical collector from the start her goal was to raise a public art collection and museum. Helene came to believe that art played a central role in civilizing and cultivating life-giving awareness and emotions, what could be called non-dogmatic spiritual sentiments. She believed that elevated works of art engendered internal growth helping to bring about both personal and interpersonal inner civilization.

Continued …