Treasures from the Vault: Richard Müller

Elizabeth Goings, Exhibitions Content Manager

Our first official installment of Treasures from the Vault features one of FWMoA’s original treasures: Snails on Rhubarb. Painted in 1919 by German painter Richard Müller, Snails on Rhubarb is a whimsical study of foliage and the critters inhabiting this small ecosystem. Scattered over several large rhubarb leaves are snails, and a frog who seems to be mid-jump. A glimpse of a pond is seen in the background, which we can imagine as the home of our amphibious friend, his gastropod companions, and other creatures out of sight.

Snails on Rhubarb was part of a donation that was the catalyst for the founding of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. This donation was part of Theodore F. Thieme’s private collection. Thieme was an astute local businessman and founder of the highly successful Wayne Knitting Mills, and he was the first person outside of the arts community to see value in what the fledgling museum could do for Fort Wayne. He proposed a very significant and generous gift to officially launch a professional art museum in Fort Wayne, but only if those involved would pledge to adopt and adhere to professional standards going forward. This 1919 gift included Snails on Rhubarb, and in 1921 the Fort Wayne Museum of Art officially opened. Thanks to Thieme’s generous gift, he raised the bar for the early museum and built the foundation for the nationally accredited museum FWMoA is today.

However, the intrigue of Snails on Rhubarb doesn’t end with the founding of FWMoA. Even though Müller is virtually unknown in America today, he had quite a successful career in Germany. Müller was a precocious student and earned entry to the prestigious Dresden Art Academy in 1890 at just 16 years old. By 1895 his career as a painter was well established, and under the tutelage of Germany’s pre-eminent Symbolist Max Klinger, Müller began to incorporate hyper-realistic imagery in his artwork that was both macabre and lighthearted in turn—Snails on Rhubarb was clearly created when he was in a more playful mood.

This landscape painting features a muddy creek and bank in the background. Taking up most of the composition are large, green plant leaves. In the bottom left corner is a snail on one leaf, along with shells and rocks below. On the foreground to the right is a multicolored frog.
Richard Müller, German, 1874-1954. Snails on Rhubarb. Oil on canvas, 1919. Gift of Theodore Thieme and conserved with funds provided by the National Endowment of the Arts and the Arts United Renaissance Campaign, 1919.01. Image rights courtesy of © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Reproduction, including downloading of ARS licensed works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo courtesy of FWMoA. 

By 1900 Müller was a professor at the Dresden Art Academy, during which time he taught future well-known artists George Grosz and Otto Dix. He held this position until 1935 when Nazi officials dismissed his professorship due to “subversive themes” in his artwork. It is unclear what themes officials saw in his work that caused him to lose his position, but at this time individuals in the arts were often at the mercy of the Nazi government. However, regardless of his dismissal, Müller remained in high esteem as an artist. Müller’s popularity somehow saved him from military service throughout the entirety of World War II.

After Germany’s fall and subsequent occupation by Russia, Britain, and the United States, Müller unfortunately found himself in the Russian occupied zone. We know this because Müller’s son, Adrian Müller, sent letters to FWMoA and Thieme. After WWII ended in 1945, eastern Germany was in ruin (as was much of Europe and Asia), and food and other basic provisions were scarce. Aidan Müller contacted his father’s former patrons in Switzerland, Argentina, and the U.S. pleading for supplies for his starving father. His requests were simple: butter, beef, dried milk, sugar, and other supplies that today many would take for granted. He also asked for art supplies, as Russia refused to provide for artists and Müller senior was unable to buy them himself. As payment and thanks, Müller promised to paint a picture.

We have correspondence between Thieme and then FWMoA director Walter H. McBride showing that both men sympathized with conditions in Europe. Both Thieme and McBride agreed to send Müller not only food supplies, but oils and brushes as well. Müller would survive another 8 years until he passed away in 1954, at the age of 80.

Intrigue around Snails on Rhubarb continues! In delving through paperwork on Müller and the painting, we came across records of Snails on Rhubarb’s restoration in 1988. In these papers we learned that the painting was not only cleared of inactive mold on the back, but received a new stretcher (the wooden frame that supports the canvas), had the surface of the painting cleaned of decades of dust and grime, and pigment replaced areas where original paint had cracked and crumbled away.

Snails on Rhubarb holds a special place in FWMoA’s collection not just for its unique subject matter (Müller is showing us nature from a child-like vantage point not shared by other artists in the collection), but as an important link to the life of an artist who suffered from the destruction of WWII. The most exciting works of art link us to humanity in this way: they delight our senses and stoke our imaginations, and they are windows to the past filled with remarkable stories of not just the artist who made them, but the people who supported them when the creative life seemed impossible.

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