Cycling, Van Gogh & the Kröller-Müller Museum

Stuart Forster views Van Gogh paintings and goes cycling during a visit to the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands.

My hands are freezing, throbbing with pain. Sleety rain is lashing against my half-numb face. I can barely see the road ahead as I navigate my bicycle through Hoge Veluwe National Park, near Otterlo in the Netherlands.

What did I expect going cycling in February? And why did I forget my gloves?

To be fair, a member of staff in the heated foyer of the nearby Kröller-Müller Museum did suggest that I’d be better off returning in summer if I wanted to go cycling. In the practical, direct manner of the Dutch, he gestured to the grey sky and wet footpath and said I should stay indoors to browse the artworks.

The Kröller-Müller Museum Collection

There is lots to see. The museum has more than 20,000 modern and contemporary artworks. The Kröller-Müller’s collection of 91 paintings and 182 drawings by Vincent van Gogh constitutes the second largest in the world (after Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum). It also holds works by the likes of Piet Mondriaan, Pablo Picasso and Auguste Renoir. Pieces by Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin and Barbara Hepworth stand among those displayed in the museum’s 25-hectare sculpture garden.

Still, I needed some exercise. Above all, I really wanted to have a go on one of the white bicycles that hang from stands at various locations around the national park. The bikes are free to use and I was bursting to gain an impression of the dunes and forestation of the Hoge Veluwe. With my thigh muscles burning I’ve just about made it back to the stand by the museum. What’s a little cold and a bit of pain? It was good to get out, despite the bracing weather.

The Kröller-Müller’s History and Architecture

Thankfully the gentleman who made the helpful remarks prior to my departure is no longer present when I step back through the doors of the Kröller-Müller Museum – they first opened to the public back in 1938.

The oldest part of the museum was designed by the Belgian architect Henry van de Velde, to house a collection of around 11,500 artworks put together by the industrialist Anton Kröller and his wife Helene Kröller-Müller. A further wing, designed by Wim Quist, was added in the 1970s. Even on an overcast day plenty of natural light floods into the museum, thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows and skylights.

Van Gogh's 'Terrace of a Café at Night' and Angeline the guide in the Kröller-Müller Museum.
Van Gogh’s ‘Terrace of a Café at Night’ and Angeline the guide in the Kröller-Müller Museum.

“Most people come here especially for the Van Gogh collection and the sculpture garden,” says Angeline, a guide who works at the museum and has more than 25 years of experience.

As we view the Van Gogh collection together Angeline provides titbits of information that I find fascinating. “The paintings that are signed are when it is a gift or he thinks they are well done,” she says.

Sure enough, looking around I see that not all of them bear the Vincent signature. I’d assumed he added them to all of his works.

Building the Vincent van Gogh Collection

One of the walls has a graphic showing the prices Helene Kröller-Müller paid to acquire Van Gogh’s works. The first – The Edge of the Wood, painted in September 1883 – cost just 110 guilders. Even the outlay of 100,000 guilders for a collection of drawings, in 1928, seems a remarkably savvy investment given the prices paid for Van Gogh artworks today.

Angeline points out how the family depicted in the famous painting The Potato Eaters can be seen with a coffee pot. “The family drank coffee because they had to stay awake,” she explains of the work created at Nuenen during the spring of 1885. “He did it in three evenings.” Apparently the female in the centre of the painting was a later addition.

As we continue to look at the collection, Angeline points out how Van Gogh varies his angle of perspective and draws on her deep knowledge of his influences.

Renowned Van Gogh Paintings

We pause in front of Terrace of a Café at Night. The famous painting from 1888 depicts the warmly lit exterior of a café on the Place du Forum in Arles. Angeline points out subtle details that many people simply don’t register. I let out a knowing ah! in acknowledgement that the area of light under café’s canopy is orange and green rather than yellow. Many people assume the latter.

Maybe the attendant in the foyer had a point. As I look at the textures and use of colours on Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed I realise there really is no need to step outside of the Kröller-Müller Museum on a cold, rainy day.

Further information

See the Kröller-Müller Museum (Houtkampweg 6; tel. +31 (0)318 591241) website for up-to-date information regarding opening times, entry prices and exhibitions. The museum is closed on Mondays.

Until 27 September 2015 the Van Gogh & Co. Criss-Crossing the Collection exhibition will be displayed, coinciding with commemorations to mark the 125th anniversary of Vincent van Gogh’s death on 29 July 2015. More than 50 works by Van Gogh will be shown along with pieces by his contemporaries.

Find out more about Vincent van Gogh on the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions website.

Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.

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Vincent van Gogh's signature on a painting in the Kröller-Müller Museum.
Vincent van Gogh’s signature on a painting in the Kröller-Müller Museum.

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