The Van Gogh Collection Begins

In 1911, once the plan to create a public collection had been agreed upon, Helene’s collecting assumed fever pitch. But in order to find the most worthy art she needed a trustworthy guide. She found the ideal mentor in the famed art educator H.P. Bremmer. He was convinced that Van Gogh should be the primary artist in Helene’s collection for he believed that Van Gogh’s art best exemplified the spiritual tenor of their era and would have the most lasting public benefit.

One of her first and greatest purchases was Van Gogh’s Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed,  1887.  This painting, the first in a series of now iconic Van Gogh sunflowers had been much admired by Paul Gauguin when he saw it in Paris shortly after it was painted. Within a few years Helene would acquire nearly 100 Van Gogh paintings and 180 drawings—the second-largest collection of Van Gogh’s in the world! From the start she was extremely generous in loaning her collection to other institutions and offered free admission to the public. As Piet de Jonge noted.

“Beginning 1 September 1913, in the building adjacent to Wm. H. Müller & Co., the collection could be viewed upon written application. Until 2 November 1933 Helene organized exhibitions there. Museums in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, and Arnheim also regularly exhibited selections from the collection. In 1927 the entire Van Gogh collection traveled to Basel and Bern, four cities in Germany, and the Musée d’Art Moderne in Brussels. “

Taking advantage of the interest that would be generated by these large exhibits a number of biographies of Van Gogh were published which made use of Vincent’s published letters.  Johanna Van Gogh released the first Dutch edition of letters in 1914 and a second edition in German shortly after. The growing interest in Van Gogh which inspired other biographies and documentary studies of his life.  In 1933 Julius Meier-Graefe released Vincent Van Gogh A Biographical Study and in 1934 Irving Stone published his popular book Lust for Life. This was the beginning of a legion of studies of the Vincent.

By the mid-nineteen thirties with so many Van Gogh related books in circulation, major exhibitors of his paintings were in great demand. One of the largest of these took place in America.  “Sixty of Helene’s Van Goghs formed an important part of the Van Gogh exhibition held in the United States in 1935-1936” (p. 22-23). The touring exhibitions  in America supported by catalogues, books and studies of Van Gogh catapulted him into international prominence. From this point on there was steadily growing interest in Van Gogh further enhanced by films and plays based on his life.

Piet de Jonge reports:

“Within fourteen years Helene Kröller-Müller assembled almost 100 paintings and 180 drawings by Van Gogh. In addition to a self-portrait, her collection includes depictions of the peasants and weavers in Brabant and the Dutch and French landscapes that inspired him. Van Gogh’s immediate surroundings are represented by portraits of friends and the garden of the asylum to which he had himself committed. These works give an overview of the life of her favorite painter” (p. 50).

The Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed (1887) was one of the finest of Van Gogh’s work— prompting Anton to boast that they didn’t have the largest number of Van Gogh’s art but had “the cream of the crop.” With so much of Vincent’s work available at the beginning of the 20th century they bought aggressively, taking full advantage of the opportunity.  Dozens of his iconic works fell into their hands including such well known works as: Wheat Field with Reaper and Sun (1889), La Berceuse (1889), Loom with Weaver (1884), The Ravine—Les Peyroulets (1889), Olive Grove (1889), The Lover (Portrait of Lieutenant Milliet) (1888),  Portrait of Joseph Roulin (1889), The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix) (1890), Road with Cypress and Star (1890), Flowers in a Blue Vase (1887), Cafe Terrace at Night (1888), Cypresses with Two Figures (1889).

Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed was purchased in 1908, one of Helene’s first acquisitions.  This work had profound associations for Helene who stipulated that it be the centerpiece for her funeral.  She also wrote a eulogy about this powerful painting which expressed her unattainable yearnings.  It is an intense work—yellow, orange, ochre, pale green, and brown depict four sunflowers set on their sides with upturned, savagely cut off  stems. Warm harvest hues glow inside the flowers which is intensified by contrasting cool surrounding colors. As many as three blues make their appearance in the fore and background— cobalt, ultramarine and cerulean. The leaves of the sunflowers are uplifted, flame-like with their upward motion echoed in the vertical strokes at the top of the painting.  There the blues merge into viridian green enriched in turn by touches of orange, red and light-green. 

The whole surface pulsates with the broad motion of the brush while a central focus is established around the delicately-rendered intricate seeds of the flowers. Here the swirling pattern of the whole is silenced and one is invited to pause and admire the network of tiny dots and patterns making up the seeds This concentrated focus offers relief for the eye on one hand and is a symbolic gesture on the other. Symbolically it reminding one of the unity of life and death. The life of the plant has gone to seed with the potential of new life residing within them.  Van Gogh often spoke of his belief that death results in spiritual rebirth and resurrection.  This transcendent symbolism explains why this cherished painting was to play a primary role in Helene’s funeral.  

As quoted in the film Helene, a Woman Between Love and Art, Helene wrote the following about this powerful painting: 

“The moon was above the earth, higher and fuller than ever, it seemed. But suddenly, Sam, I saw something very odd. All of a sudden, close to the earth, I saw a second large, glowing ball. A haystack that had caught fire, with fiery flames breaking out on top. Oh Sam, those flames were like arms reaching out to the unattainable light . . . and, like Van Gogh’s sunflowers, they were burning their own heart . . . just like the fiery ball below, that will keep roaming the earth . . . until it finally surrenders to very, very strong arms that will embrace it firmly. “

Much that was unfulfilled in Helene’s life is referenced in this mysterious message. It contains several subjects found in Van Gogh’s art: a moon, haystack and sunflowers. Above all it 

links the legacy of suffering at the root of her existence to tragic life of the painting’s maker. Perhaps the reference to strong arms that will embrace —alludes to unrequited love but more likely it is an expression of inexpressible spiritual longing.  The flames that reach up like arms toward the unattainable light of the full moon evokes a yearning for transcendent release and relief.  One finds a similar set of symbols in Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night where a massive moon and  upsurging cypress tree set an earth/ heaven dialogue in motion. Van Gogh said of this painting that it expressed his terrible need for religious affirmation and sacred security.  Helene and Vincent expressed similar desires for spiritual transcendence and transformation in reference to these works.    

It is also a remarkable coincidence that one of the first major works she purchased should have as its theme sunflowers gone to seed. Seeds are for planting—and this painting would germinate into a harvest of nearly 100 collected works stemming from this Van Gogh painting.

Anton also independently purchased some works of art. There is the hauntingly beautiful Portrait of Eva Callimachi Catargi by Henri Fantin-Latour (1881) which Anton gave as a gift to Helene on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. This life-sized portrait of Eva Callimachi (a much admired Parisian beauty) strongly resembled Helene as Anton remembered her in her twenties.  The portrait is shrouded in shadow projecting an alluring sense of mystery which says a good deal about Aton’s feelings about his enigmatic wife. The choice of this superb Fantin-Latour showed he had an eye for fine work. 

Related closely to Van Gogh’s Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed (1887) is Wheat Field with Reaper and Sun (1889). Many of the same warm hues occur in both paintings. The reaper with sickle appears as a field worker doing his job amid the ripening wheat. Vincent said that the reaper was a symbol of death at the harvest of life. The connection with death and the reaper was ever-present in Van Gogh’s mind and which he brought up often in his letters and symbolized in in his art. 

The links between the two paintings was obvious to Helene who was in tune with Van Gogh’s symbolism and the meanings cited in his letters—letters which Helene read and reread,  with Johanna Van Gogh having published them in both Dutch and German in 1914. 

Another work of exceptional beauty was the Olive Grove of 1889.  As van der Wolk recorded, Helene said of it: “But the most beautiful one is an olive orchard, so tender and profound and such a complete, great painting. I cannot describe it to you, but in most people’s eye it will be the most beautiful painting of all because it does not disturb you in any way” (p. 22).   Helene recognized that Van Gogh’s work often dealt with the ever-present reality of death  and suffering but she cherished certain paintings where Vincent conveyed a sense of solace, resolution and release from pain.  The Olive Grove exudes a soft, gentle mood. It was made at San Remy Asylum in the comforting olive groves surrounding the hospital (and remain there to this day). As a collector she was highly aware of the state-of-mind of an artist (a modern concern after Freud and the advent of psychology).  She recognized each of her Van Gogh paintings as poetic responses to his life’s journey and conjoined it with her own sojourn.

She welcomed the repose of this work and hoped viewers would drink in the quiet spirit of it as well. Her concern over the response of her viewers was born from her belief that an  heartfelt work based of art can impacts a viewer in deeply personal ways.  Van der Wolk quoted her as saying “But art, however difficult it may be to unravel, does not have this element of concealment; in art it is different. It never threatens; it can never threaten, for art is emotion and emotion is always genuine. Art is a Self-Portrait and in this sense art is pure truth and that is precisely what makes it so valuable, especially for us modern people . . .” (p. 71).

Helene held the conviction that emotion can be embodied by the touch, tenor and theme of a work. However for this embodiment to exist it must first of all be motivated by an artist’s sincere desire to evoke such feelings in the work itself. It most be done in the most direct and transparent way. Her notion that art can be a Self-Portrait arises from this view. 

Her elevated view of a work of art along with her belief in artistic genius seems confirmed by the great number of viewers who have strong empathetic responses to Van Gogh’s art. One explanation for this phenomena is that he was so transparent in the transmission of his state-of-mind in his artistic projection. 

Recent research in the field of neuroaesthetics has proven that humans are effected at subliminal homeostatic levels by the emotional state of another. These emphatic responses including the heart rate and breathing can be reset or ‘entrained’ by direct bodily contact with another person. Other examples of entrainment include exposure to the rhythm of waves where after a short time ones breathing and heart rate are entrained by these natural patterns. The explanation of entrainment begins in the womb where as infants are in direct contact with the  the mothers heartbeat and breathing. 

Being in the presence of a work of art also exposes one to rhythms of brushwork, color patterns as records of the artist’s psychological state. This rhythmic patterning is similar to the impact of waves in entraining our central nervous system. This effect may account for the conviction by nonfigurative artists that viewers are emotionally impacted by their work in the same way that music can effect mental states. Proof of this has been shown in MRI scans and occurs in the film Musical Minds by Oliver Sacks. 

When a narrative subject is offered along with the entrained effects of a highly expressive work (as in the case of a Van Gogh) the impact is very stronger on a viewer.   A candidate for such a strong empathetic response would be Van Gogh’s “The Good Samaritan” a painting he made to speed up his own recovery from severe epileptic episodes. One can surmise that the entrainment transmission of this work would be unusually strong on a viewer. 

The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix) was painted in the last months of Van Gogh’s life. It is based on a Parable of Jesus in which the beatitude of compassionate love is shown by caring for another and in this parable an enemy. This work, like the Olive Grove suggests a respite and rescue from danger. The good Samaritan is saving a gravely injured man whom others have ignored and passed by. Van Gogh said this painting was a tribute to the doctors and nurses at San Remy who he credited with saving his life. He created this work in gratitude and as a healing aid in his own recovery.  This strong desire to express a deeply felt emotion is typical of Van Gogh and why his work impacts viewers so much. Had his work been produced for purely commercial purposes that would be sensed by an attuned viewer. 

As Piet de Jonge observed, Helene had good reason for her emotional connection with Van Gogh.  In 1924 she was a patient in Dr. Dengler’s psychiatric Sanatorium in Baden-Baden and periodically sought healing in a sanatorium in the Black Forest (p. 30). She could identify withVincent’s themes of death, deliverance and healing. The mood of The Good Samaritan is the aftermath of a trial; it is consoling and redemptive and—like the Olive Grove—uplifting and reassuring.  Such works spoke directly to her and likely “entrained” her own mental states.

Other great Van Goghs in the collection include: Country Road in Provence by Night (1890), Flowers in a Blue Vase (1887), Terrace of a Cafe at Night (1888), Cypresses with Two Figures (1889). Each of these paintings are restorative in mood and were produced at vital periods in Van Gogh’ s life. Cypresses, flowers, and cafes have positive connotations and remain among his most popular works. Many of these are powerfully restorative works filled with hope and gentle persuasion.  For Van Gogh they were a response to the healing properties of nature and its ability to reach all of the human senses. One can walk, smell, see, hear, imagine and taste the sensory output of nature and nothing is as restorative as the entrainment power of field, forest, sky and ocean. 

Cypresses with Two Figures, is perhaps the most tender of all.  It features two women in elegant dresses strolling in a field of flowers with majestic cypress trees rising protectively over them. This poetic, eulogy must have appealed to Helene for multiple reasons. It embodied a poetic feminine motif wedded to supremely fine craftsmanship. Van Gogh labored over this work to make it as complete a painting as possible.  Using a word that was especially meaningful for Van Gogh the work evokes  ‘solace’.  A term Vincent repeatedly used for something he sought namely peace of mind. The feminine presence is a reminder of his oft repeated desire for a wife and family. 

As Helene shared in her private letters she also was in great need of solace and peace of mind. At the time of her hospitalization for what was described as ‘neuroses’ Anton was also plagued by great financial loss. Additionally problems with their children were occurring. Having comforting works of art to immerse herself which had been made by a fellow sufferer were restorative aids to her peace of mind. Something she hoped that visitors to her museum would one day also experience.  The surrounding solace of the HogeVeluwe “fallow lands,” National Park near the rural village of Otterlo provided an ideal location for the “entrained” impact of art and nature to soothe, assuage and provide solace from the tensions of city life.  

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Continued …