One of the best aspects of expat life is traveling to places you’ve never even heard of, much less knew you simply had to visit. Earlier this year, my wife and co-CEO Cheryl and business partner Nancy Wellendorff Church announced we were going to spend a Saturday at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands.
Where? And more importantly, why?
Once I looked it up, the “why” was obvious even to me … Vincent Van Gogh. Not just Van Gogh, but the good stuff!
I have to admit up front to being a bit disappointed in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, because the majority of the museum’s collection is from his early period including when he lived in Nuenen, a few minutes from our home in Leenderstrijp. (Small world.) But the dark and desolate “Potato Eaters” period has limited appeal for me.
The Vincentre in Nuenen, while it has assembled a super-interesting and detailed account of Van Gogh’s life in Nuenen and an intimate look at the world that shaped the artist, doesn’t actually have any of his paintings.
The most interesting Van Goghs (in my opinion) from the end of his life such as “The Starry Night” were sold by his sister-in-law, Theo’s wife Jo, after Theo’s death. “Starry Night” ended up at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and other examples of Vincent’s best work are in the hands of private collectors including the now disappeared “Dr. Gachet.”
The only museum I’ve visited that has the magical Van Goghs from the Arles period in Provence is the Kröller-Müller. (And yes, I’m sick of adding umlauts with my Mac keyboard, so it’s going to be the KM from here on out.)
There are several reasons you MUST go:
• First, the KM has paintings from the aforementioned Arles period including “Country Road in Provence by Night” and “Café Terrace at Night” in their Van Gogh gallery. I could go on here about seeing them in person and indulge in the pseudo-intellectual artsy-fartsy jargon I’ve picked up spending way too much time in museums. But there’s nothing like the actual experience of seeing absolutely transcendent works in person and I don’t want to ruin that for you with my pithy (and pointless) insights.
As we would simply say in Kentucky: Van Gogh might have been a crazy man who irritated the daylights out of folks, but that feller sure could paint.
• Second, you should go to see the rest of the collection, which is – to say the least – eclectic. For Anton and Helene Kröller-Müller, money was an afterthought. When Helene, a wealthy German heiress married to an equally wealthy Dutch mining tycoon, started collecting, she was one of the wealthiest women in the Netherlands. She was also one of the first collectors to recognize Van Gogh’s genius, and she didn’t just buy onesies and twosies. She acquired complete collections from other art lovers.
So the KM has the second-largest collection of van Goghs in the world – more than 90 paintings, only a fraction of which were on display when we went in June. And there are about 4,000 other pieces in the collection.
Helene Kröller-Müller was also an advocate for modern artists whose works were considered revolutionary (and sometimes revolting). By the way, it’s one of the craziest collections ever. Anyone who buys Donald Judds and Joseph Mendez de Costas has an interesting aesthetic.
• Third, go for the setting. The KM – which is actually two single-story Modernist buildings – is surrounded by 75 acres of modern art in multiple sculpture-garden settings. Just as with the interior, the grounds are resplendent in important works including sculptures by Barbara Hepworth, Mark di Suvero and Aristide Maillol. (I looked this up because I know bupkus about sculpture.)
• Fourth, all this sits in the middle of the National Park de Hoge Veluwe, 55 square kilometers of sand dunes, heath, forest and wildlife roaming free on one of the largest parcels of open land in the Netherlands. To give you some idea of how wealthy the Kröller-Müllers were, this was their estate. This is a great place to explore by bike or hike. Though we saw wild boar, which gave us pause.
Obviously, this is all subjective, but just as exciting as the van Goghs was seeing artists with whom I was not all that familiar, including the shimmering pastels of Odilon Redon and era-defining works from Dutch Impressionist Isaac Israels and art-deco/art nouveau painter Bart van der Leck. And there are plenty of “names” for the art tourists including Seurats, Signacs, Picassos, Monets, Manets and Mondrians.
Was there some crap? Yeah, quite a bit. But anyone who goes out with a bottomless checkbook and buys everything they see is going to end up with some duds.
The most amazing thing about the KM is there are virtually no crowds compared to the museums in Amsterdam. Standing in the momentarily empty Van Gogh gallery, then moving on to the Redon exhibition and wandering leisurely from work to work, it struck me that I’d never had that unimaginable luxury of intimate viewing at any major museum.
• The Kröller-Müller Museum and the National Park Hoge Veluwe are just north of Arnhem, and an hour’s drive east of Amsterdam. The tagline for the KM is “Unique in Every Season,” and this is a destination that will not disappoint in winter or summer.
• We came from Eindhoven via the A50 and spent quite a while driving through the wilderness to get to the KM after we entered the park. And by the way, you pay for the museum at the entrance to the Hoge Veluwe park. Day tickets are 19 euros for adults and 9.50 euros for kids. Parking inside the park is 6.75 and 3.40 outside the park. And definitely bring the kids because there’s lots to see and do. Also, you can also get one of the park’s famous white bikes to ride for the day … for free!
• We ate at the Restaurant Monsieur Jacques, which is affordable and tasty. Sandwiches are 8.50 euros, and soups 7 euros. Salads are a bit pricey at 14 euros, but the food is fine and the cafe is beautiful. Coffees, juices, wines and beer are available and you can download the menu here.
• We have to go back because we never made it to Jachthuis Sint Hubertus, the Kröller-Müller mansion which is on the edge of the park in the city of Otterlo.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.