Josef Oskar Müller was a son of prominent Swiss industrialist Josef Adolf Müller (1834-1894). Although trained as an engineer, he devoted his life to art. He was a painter, curator, and collector of modern and non-Western art. He was also an active member of the art community in his native Solothurn, the site of his family’s manufacturing firm, Müller and Schweizer, in northwestern Switzerland. He began acquiring art in 1907, also the year of his first visit to Paris, and gradually assembled an extensive collection of work by modern artists with particular strength in Swiss art.
Müller received an engineering degree from Zürich Polytechnic in 1912, and carried out a two-year apprenticeship on the East coast of the United States at the Singer Manufacturing Company based in Elizabeth, New Jersey. While in the United States, he attended the 1913 Armory Show, which piqued his interest in art. When he returned to Switzerland in 1914 he studied painting in Geneva with the artist Cuno Amiet. He moved to Paris in 1922, then returned to Solothurn in 1942 and worked as a curator at Kunstmuseum Solothurn (1943–1967).
Müller’s collection included work by the Swiss artists Amiet, Giovanni Giacometti, and Ferdinand Holder, all of whom Müller knew personally, as well as paintings by Georges Braque, Paul Cézanne, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. He first encountered Cubism during a 1910 visit to Gertrude and Leo Stein’s residence in Paris. He acquired his first Cubist work by Pablo Picasso, The Rack (1911-1912; current location unknown, Daix and Rosselet 1979, no. 448) at the 1923 sale of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler’s sequestered stock. Around the same time he purchased his first of eight works by Braque, The Bridge at La Roche-Guyon (1909; current location unknown, Worms de Romilly and Laude 1982, no. 43). In addition, Müller’s collection included 3 works by Gris and 10 by Léger. During the 1920s, Müller frequented well-known Parisian galleries: Bernheim-Jeune, Simon, L’Effort Moderne, Pierre Loeb, Druet, and Paul Guillaume. He also had extensive holdings of antiques and non-Western art, including African, Asian, and pre-Columbian works. Müller acquired works from the latter category mainly after 1938. Part of Müller’s collection is now housed at the Kunstmusem in Solothurn. His non-Western collections are exhibited at the Museum Barbier-Müller in Geneva, which was established by his children.
For more information, see
Barbier, Jean-Paul et al. A Life of Collecting: Josef Müller 1887–1977
. Geneva: Musée Barbier-Müller, 1989.
Daix, Pierre, and Joan Rosselet. Picasso: The Cubist Years, 1907–1916. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings and Related Works. London: Thames and Hudson, 1979.
Worms de Romilly, Nicole, and Jean Laude. Braque: Cubism, 1907–1914. Paris: Maeght, 1982.