Mrs. van Gogh
New book shows how Vincent’s art gained renown after his death. It was all his sister-in-law.
Jo van Gogh-Bonger: The Woman Who Made Vincent Famous by Hans Luitjen just came out in English on November 3, 2022. Jo van Gogh was a sister-in-law to Vincent, married to his brother, Theo. After both brothers died she single-handedly made Vincent a household name and redefined the world’s definition of an artist at the same time. The world is still learning about Jo; her family only released her diaries to the public in 2009.
Born in 1862, Jo was an English teacher at girls’ schools. She was passionate about social justice, a deep value that would motivate her to promote Vincent’s works, painted for the ordinary working man. Jo met Theo in 1885; they married and moved to Paris, where Jo was immersed in a new world of culture. Theo was an art dealer who believed in the Impressionists ahead of their time: Gauguin, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec and, of course, Vincent. Their apartment was full of Vincent’s paintings and when Jo and Theo had a baby boy, they named him Vincent.
The person behind the art
That same year, Vincent shot himself. Theo died of syphilis less than three months later. Jo wrote, “For a year and a half I was the happiest woman on Earth. . . Theo taught me to see, taught me to live – is everything over for me now?” Theo had left Jo with a baby, around 400 paintings, several hundred drawings and a bundle of correspondence between the brothers. Jo moved back to the Netherlands and opened a boarding-house in Bussum.
Jo’s journals are full of love for Theo, the man who opened her eyes. But as she read and re-read the letters between the brothers and hung Vincent’s paintings all over her walls, she began to understand Vincent better in his sorrow and loneliness. “Sometimes there were dark days,” she wrote, “late in the evening as I walked outside. I saw the lights in other people’s houses and I felt so dreadfully lonely and abandoned – how often must he have felt like that!”
Jo’s journal records books of art criticism and artist biographies she read, trying to make sense of Vincent’s life and work. Jo, who had only met Vincent once, became convinced that his letters had to accompany his paintings. People had to know the man behind the art.
Menus & exhibits
Her approach was unconventional and unprofessional, and the art critics put her off. The first critic she approached “told me frankly that he didn’t see anything in them. But now, slowly but surely, more and more enthusiasts are appearing.” As she prepared for an exhibition in The Hague she wrote, “We’ll have to summon up all our courage before then – and be strong in the face of the attackers – because there’ll certainly be many of them!”
In reading the biographies of artists, she began not only to understand Vincent but herself: “The life of George Eliot and her letters are keeping me occupied. I’m finding thousands of things in them that I also felt and lived through myself – everything – including the urge to create – but the creation itself, alas – will probably never come to me.” With perhaps a trace of irony, Jo moved from Eliot to the busy season in the boarding-house, “I have to keep devising meals the whole time – and get cross with the maids – those are my two main occupations.”
In 1914, 24 years after the brothers’ deaths, Jo published their letters in a book entitled Brieven aan zijn broeder, later retitled Dear Theo.
Jo raised her son, joined the Dutch Social Democratic Workers’ Party and eventually remarried. She never stopped promoting Vincent. She brought his art to galleries and museums throughout Europe in over 100 shows. Because of Jo’s persistence, viewers merged Vincent’s life and story with his art. Jo was smart; she showed what she considered to be Vincent’s best work but wouldn’t sell it. She only put a portion of his paintings for sale at each exhibition. In 1905, Jo singlehandedly organized the largest van Gogh exhibition of all time at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, taking charge of every detail. Almost 500 of Vincent’s works were displayed and critics came from all over Europe. His name, and the price his paintings sold for, rose drastically. “The fact that he’s becoming more and more well-known gives me indescribable satisfaction,” Jo wrote.
The van Gogh legacy
Jo died in 1925 at the age of 63, promoting Vincent to the very end. Through pushing the publication of Vincent’s letters alongside his art, Jo created the myth of the lonely, tortured artist. She also told the world about Theo, saying “it was always Theo alone who understood him and supported him.”
Her son Vincent inherited 220 paintings and hundreds of drawings that Jo had kept, as well as her journals. In 1959 he arranged with the Dutch government to create the Vincent van Gogh Foundation and transferred all the family’s art to the public realm. Today, Jo’s grandson Vincent Willem van Gogh is an advisor to the board of the Van Gogh Museum.
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