Project archive

Biography of Helene Kröller-Müller

From September 2006, art historian Eva Rovers did her doctoral research in preparation of a biography of Helene Kröller-Müller. The Institute of Biography of the University of Groningen commissioned the project and the Kröller-Müller Museum and National Park De Hoge Veluwe are providing the financial backing. On November 18th 2010, the long awaited biography of Helene Kröller-Müller has been published; reason for the exhibition Helene’s men in which an intimate and personal insight is given into this intelligent, ambitious and energetic woman, who, with her collection, laid the foundations for the museum that bears her name. The exhibition is on show from November 19th, 2010 until February 27th, 2011.

Information about the biography

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The research

Researcher and biographer Eva Rovers on Helene Kröller-Müller:

“In the winter of 2005, the Kröller-Müller museum received a chest full of personal documents that belonged to Helene Kröller-Müller from the heirs of Sam van Deventer. They were mostly letters sent by Helene to her confidant Van Deventer. The thousands of pages of letters are a treat for any biographer and provide a wonderful picture of Helene Kröller-Müller’s everyday life whilst at the same time revealing how extraordinary that life was. The most precious document in the chest was probably the little green book filled with unintelligible handwriting. It turned out to be the diary kept by Helene in Düsseldorf during the period 1882-1885, from her thirteenth to her sixteenth year. As a biographer, you seldom feel more of a voyeur than when you’re reading the protagonist’s childhood diary. A diary is by definition disarming because it is not written with a rhetorical purpose. It is a window into a teenager’s soul with all the characteristic unrest and doubt and without the knowledge of what life will bring. Knowledge that the biographer does have at the moment of reading.















Helene Müller’s diary did not reveal the secrets of its writer just like that; the biographer had to put some effort into the matter first – and rightly so. The Gothic ‘Kurrentschrift’ handwriting that Helene learned at school was replaced around 1915 and there are only a handful of Germans still alive who can read it. One of these was a friendly archivist from Essen who was prepared to translate a page of the diary. With this page as a key I set about deciphering the diary. First I did so letter for letter, then word for word and eventually the story itself took over and it was no longer a matter of deciphering but of reading and identifying with the writer.

Helene’s diary is a typical example of a ‘coming of age’ story. At the age of thirteen, Helene was a carefree child. In a highly enthusiastic manner, she writes about her French teacher Fräulein Rogge for whom she was ‘bis über die Ohren verliebt’ and about Gerresheim, a village outside Düsseldorf where her father had bought a villa with a lovely garden.[1]. When Helene was fourteen though, she had to bid farewell to her sister Martha, who was moving to boarding school in Aken. She also noticed that she was different than the rest of her classmates who considered her serious behaviour as rather ‘amusing’, something she couldn’t really hold against them. Furthermore, young Helene would have liked to continue learning but she knew that her parents would not consent to this.

Her love for literature led to serious religious doubts. Helene devoured the works of Goethe and Lessing. Their liberal religious ideas made her start to doubt the infallibility of the Bible. Both writers rejected the dogmatic character of institutionalised religion and opposed a literal interpretation of the Bible. Fifteen-year old Helene adopted these critical viewpoints which led to her refusal to receive Confirmation, marking the beginning of a lengthy confrontation with her parents.

By the time she did eventually succumb to her parents’ pressure and agree to be confirmed, the open-minded girl had developed into a serious young woman resigned to accept her fate. She was jealous of her brother Gustav who, at the age of twenty, had his whole life ahead of him and held his fate in his own hands. Helene regarded herself, on the other hand, as constrained and anything but free to do as she pleased. She had no choice but to submit herself to the will and conventions of others, ‘so herzlos & falsch sie auch sind’. Resignedly, she reconciled herself to the wishes of her parents and after her confirmation left home to go to a boarding school in Brussels. She knew only too well that upon her return she would be grown up and the big wait for a husband would begin. It was the prospect of that ‘ewige Nichtsthun’ which made her feel particularly dejected.
As it turned out, it was that very husband who would give her the space to develop herself further and offer her more ‘Lebensraum’ than sixteen year-old Helene could have dared to hope. Sometimes I felt the urge to say this to the diary”.

[ ] Quotes taken from Tagebuch, 1882-1885, archives Kröller-Müller Museum Otterlo, doc. no. HA502326.

Also see: Institute of Biography

Duration: Jun 17, 2008 - Nov 30, 2010