Biography Anton and Helene Kröller-Müller

Eternity Collected. Helene Kröller-Müller (1869-1939)

Eva Rovers

An old metal chest filled with 3400 letters sparked the search for the true story behind the world’s greatest Van Gogh-collector, Helene Kröller-Müller. In this compelling biography, Eva Rovers unravels the forces which made Kröller-Müller succeed in opening one of the first museums of modern art in Europe, despite fragile health, great personal tragedy and dwindling personal fortune. Today, the Kröller-Müller Museum is still world famous for its varied collection of modern art, which consists of paintings by Picasso, Mondriaan and over three hundred works by Vincent van Gogh. No less unique is the museum’s location in the midst of a vast natural reserve in the east of the Netherlands near Helene’s native country Germany.

Some women buy hats and handbags when they visit Paris, but when Helene Kröller-Müller was there she bought paintings by Vincent van Gogh. After a three day visit to the French capital in the spring of 1912, she returned home with no less than fifteen paintings by the then little known artist. Among these purchases were La Berceuse, Olive Grove and Portrait of Joseph-Michel Ginoux, which matched perfectly with other masterpieces by Van Gogh in her collection such as Four Sunflowers gone to Seed and The Sower (after Millet). With these significant purchases she contributed greatly to the artist’s reputation. Remarkably enough, Helene had only been introduced to modern art shortly before.

Helene Müller was born in the German Ruhr area and moved to the Netherlands when she married the Dutch entrepreneur Anton Kröller. Initially she led the life which was expected of the wife of a wealthy director. In 1911, however, her escape from death during a dangerous operation prompted her to devote the rest of her life to establishing a ‘monument to culture’. During the decade that followed she collected work by (among many others) Signac, Seurat, Picasso, Braque, Mondriaan and of course Van Gogh. From 1913 onwards she opened her collection to the public by exhibiting it in the main office of her husband’s firm. For many years this was one of the very few places in Europe where such a large collection of modern art was permanently on display (Peggy Guggenheim for instance, would not open her London gallery until 1938 and it was even later that she started collecting herself.) Among the many visitors to Helene’s gallery was the future director of the MoMA Alfred Barr, who praised the courage with which she collected.

To Helene her collection was a way to develop her own identity, independent of her role as a mother and wife. However, her German background also influenced her collection. The anti-German sentiments that arose in her new home country during the First World War made her aware of her roots again. She decided to volunteer as a nurse in a field hospital in Liège and set herself the goal of rehabilitating the German image after the war. Her monument to culture should plant a little German pride on Dutch soil.

When the first foundations of her museum were laid, fate turned against her project: the global crisis pushed the Kröllers to the edge of bankruptcy. It was only because of Helene’s determination that in 1938 – a year before her death – she was finally able to open the Kröller-Müller Museum. However, the price she had paid for this had been high.

A compelling story about the realization of a world famous art collection, against the background of the turbulent historic developments of the early twentieth century.

Eva Rovers (1978) obtained a master’s degree in Cultural Studies at the University of Utrecht, specialising in early twentieth-century Dutch art. In 2010 she was awarded a PhD at the University of Groningen for her biography of Helene Kröller-Müller. In carrying out her research for that study, she was granted exclusive access to Kröller-Müller’s extensive surviving correspondence collection. She also produced, in cooperation with director Leo de Boer, a documentary film about Kröller-Müller’s turbulent life (an English version of this film is available).


Eternity Collected has received great critical acclaim: it was declared to be one of the best books of 2010 by the leading Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. It was awarded the Bookseller’s Decoration, the Dutch Foundation of Art Historians’ Jan van Gelder Award and the Hazelhoff Biography Award, an esteemed biennial prize for the best Dutch biography.


'Succeeds in captivating until the end, by cleverly weaving art, business affairs, private life and the spirit of the age together', Trouw.
'A more than interesting biography [...], an exceptional book. A pleasure to read, despite the density of information', De Groene Amsterdammer.
'A comprehensive portrait of a demanding, authoritarian but determined ‘Ma’am’', NRC Handelsblad.
'An exemplary and fascinating biography' and a 'compelling story',  Vrij Nederland.