The Woman Who Made van Gogh
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In 1885, a 22-year-old Dutch woman named Johanna Bonger met Theo van Gogh, the younger brother of the artist, who was then making a name for himself as an art dealer in Paris. History knows Theo as the steadier of the van Gogh brothers, the archetypal emotional anchor, who selflessly managed Vincent’s erratic path through life, but he had his share of impetuosity. He asked her to marry him after only two meetings.
Jo, as she called herself, was raised in a sober, middle-class family. Her father, the editor of a shipping newspaper that reported on things like the trade in coffee and spices from the Far East, imposed a code of propriety and emotional aloofness on his children. There is a Dutch maxim, “The tallest nail gets hammered down,” that the Bonger family seems to have taken as gospel. Jo had set herself up in a safely unexciting career as an English teacher in Amsterdam. She wasn’t inclined to impulsiveness. Besides, she was already dating somebody. She said no.
But Theo persisted. He was attractive in a soulful kind of way — a thinner, paler version of his brother. Beyond that, she had a taste for culture, a desire to be in the company of artists and intellectuals, which he could certainly provide. Eventually he won her over. In 1888, a year and a half after his proposal, she agreed to marry him. After that, a new life opened up for her. It was Paris in the belle epoque: art, theater, intellectuals, the streets of their Pigalle neighborhood raucous with cafes and brothels. Theo was not just any art dealer. He was at the forefront, specializing in the breed of young artists who were defying the stony realism imposed by the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Most dealers wouldn’t touch the Impressionists, but they were Theo van Gogh’s clients and heroes. And here they came, Gauguin and Pissarro and Toulouse-Lautrec, the young men of the avant-garde, marching through her life with the exotic ferocity of zoo creatures.
Jo realized that she was in the midst of a movement, that she was witnessing a change in the direction of things. At home, too, she was feeling fully alive. On their marriage night, which she described as “blissful,” her husband thrilled her by whispering into her ear, “Wouldn’t you like to have a baby, my baby?” She was powerfully in love: with Theo, with Paris, with life.
Theo talked incessantly — of their future, and also of things like pigment and color and light, encouraging her to develop a new way of seeing. But one subject dominated. From their first meeting, he regaled Jo with accounts of his brother’s tortured genius. Their apartment was crammed with Vincent’s paintings, and new crates arrived all the time. Vincent, who spent much of his brief career in motion, in France, Belgium, England, the Netherlands, was churning out canvases at a fanatical pace, sometimes one a day — olive trees, wheat fields, peasants under a Provençal sun, yellow skies, peach blossoms, gnarled trunks, clods of soil like the tops of waves, poplar trees like tongues of flame — and shipping them to Theo in hopes he would find a market for them. Theo had little success attracting buyers, but Vincent’s works, three-dimensionally thick with their violent daubs of oil paint, became the source material for Jo’s education in modern art.
When, a little more than nine months after their wedding night, Jo gave birth to a son, she agreed to the name Theo proffered. They would call the boy Vincent.
As much as he looked up to his brother, Theo also fretted constantly about him. Vincent’s mental state had already deteriorated by the time Jo came on the scene. He had slept outside in winter to mortify his flesh, gorged on alcohol, coffee and tobacco to heighten or numb his senses, become riddled with gonorrhea, stopped bathing, let his teeth rot. He had distanced himself from artists and others who might have helped his career. Just before Christmas in 1888, while Theo and Jo were announcing their engagement, Vincent was in Arles cutting off his ear following a series of rows with his housemate Paul Gauguin.
One day a canvas arrived that showed a shift in style. Vincent had been fascinated by the night sky in Arles. He tried to put it into words for Theo: “In the blue depth the stars were sparkling, greenish, yellow, white, pink, more brilliant, more emeralds, lapis lazuli, rubies, sapphires.” He became fixated on the idea of painting such a sky. He read Walt Whitman, whose work was especially popular in France, and interpreted the poet as equating “the great starry firmament” with “God and eternity.”
Vincent sent the finished painting to Theo and Jo with a note explaining that it was an “exaggeration.” “The Starry Night” continued his progression away from realism; the brush strokes were like troughs made by someone who was digging for something deeper. Theo found it disturbing — he could sense his brother drifting away, and he knew buyers weren’t likely to understand it. He wrote back: “I consider that you’re strongest when you’re doing real things.” But he enclosed another 150 francs for expenses.
Then, in the spring of 1890, news: Vincent was coming to Paris. Jo expected an enfeebled mental patient. Instead, she was confronted by the physical embodiment of the spirit that animated the canvases that covered their walls. “Before me was a sturdy, broad-shouldered man with a healthy color, a cheerful look in his eyes and something very resolute in his appearance,” she wrote in her journal. “ ‘He looks much stronger than Theo,’ was my first thought.” He charged out into the arrondissement to buy olives he loved and came back insisting that they taste them. He stood before the canvases he had sent and studied each with great intensity. Theo led him to the room where the baby lay sleeping, and Jo watched as the brothers gazed into the crib. “They both had tears in their eyes,” she wrote.
What happened next was like two blows of a hammer. Theo had arranged for Vincent to stay in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise to the north of Paris, in the care of Dr. Paul Gachet, whose homeopathic approach he hoped would help his brother’s condition. Weeks later came news that Vincent had shot himself (some biographers dispute the notion that his wound was self-inflicted). Theo arrived in the village in time to watch his brother die. Theo was devastated. He had supported his brother financially and emotionally through his brief, 10-year career, an effort to produce, as Vincent once wrote him, “something serious, something fresh — something with soul in it,” art that would reveal nothing less than “what there is in the heart of … a nobody.” Less than three months after Vincent’s death, Theo suffered a complete physical collapse, the latter stages of syphilis he had contracted from earlier visits to brothels. He began hallucinating. His agony was tremendous and ghoulish. He died in January 1891.
Twenty-one months after her marriage, Jo was alone, stunned at the fecund dose of life she had just experienced, and at what was left to her from that life: approximately 400 paintings and several hundred drawings by her brother-in-law.
The brothers’ dying so young, Vincent at 37 and Theo at 33, and without the artist having achieved renown — Theo had managed to sell only a few of his paintings — would seem to have ensured that Vincent van Gogh’s work would subsist eternally in a netherworld of obscurity. Instead, his name, art and story merged to form the basis of an industry that stormed the globe, arguably surpassing the fame of any other artist in history. That happened in large part thanks to Jo van Gogh-Bonger. She was small in stature and riddled with self-doubt, had no background in art or business and faced an art world that was a thoroughly male preserve. Her full story has only recently been uncovered. It is only now that we know how van Gogh became van Gogh.
Long before Covid-19, Hans Luijten was in the habit of likening Vincent van Gogh to a virus. “If that virus comes into your life, it never goes away,” he said in his bright, modern Amsterdam apartment when we first spoke in April 2020, and added with a note of warning in his voice: “There’s no vaccine for it.” Luijten is 60, slim, with wire-rimmed glasses, floating tufts of gray hair and a strong penchant for American roots music: gospel, Dolly Parton, Justin Townes Earle. He was born in the southern part of the Netherlands, near the Belgian border. Both his parents made shoes for a living — his father in a factory, his mother with a sewing machine in their home — which gave him a respect for hard work and an eye for footwear: “I can’t meet a person without looking down at the feet.”
Despite the fact that there wasn’t a single book in the family house, his parents encouraged Luijten and his brother to follow their highbrow dreams, which turned out to parallel each other. Ger Luijten, five years Hans’s senior, studied art history and is now director of Fondation Custodia, an art museum in Paris. Hans majored in Dutch literature and minored in art history. After getting his doctorate, he heard that the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam wanted to develop a new critical edition of the 902 letters in the Vincent van Gogh correspondence, including those that he and Theo exchanged. In 1994 he was hired as a researcher and spent the next 15 years on that work.
In the process, Luijten developed a particular affinity for the artist. He can speak fluently about the paintings, but it’s in Vincent’s letters that he found another layer of insight. “He worked them very carefully. If you read the published letters, he might say, ‘The deep gray sky. … ’ But if you look at the handwritten letter, you see he added ‘gray’ and then ‘deep.’ Like he was adding brush strokes. You can see in both his art and writing that he looked at the world as if everything was alive and aware. He treated a tree the same as a human being.”
Luijten is a dogged researcher, the kind who will hunt down slips of paper moldering in archives from Paris to New York, who derives meaning not just from what words in a document say but also from how they are written: “You can see emotion in Van Gogh’s handwriting: doubt, anger. I could tell when he had been drinking, because he started with huge letters, and they would become smaller and smaller as he got to the bottom of the page.”
The end result of this exhaustive research project, which went on far longer than Vincent’s career did, is “Vincent van Gogh: The Letters.” It runs to six volumes and more than 2,000 pages and was published in 2009. An online edition features the original Dutch or French together with an English translation, annotations, facsimiles of the original letters and images of artworks discussed. Leo Jansen, who toiled alongside Luijten for all of those 15 years and who now works at the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands, told me that as they neared the end of the van Gogh project, he sensed that Luijten was beginning to formulate a new idea. “I think Hans realized that, while we were at last delivering Vincent’s letters, that project was only just a start, because Vincent wasn’t even known at the end of his life.”
Which raised a question that had never been completely answered: How exactly did the tortured genius, who alienated dealers and otherwise thwarted his own ambition time and again during his career, become a star? And not just a star, but one of the most beloved figures in the history of art?
Jo van Gogh-Bonger was previously known to have played a role in building the painter’s reputation, but that role was thought to have been modest — a presumption seemingly based on a combination of sexism and common sense, since she had no background in the art business. There were intriguing indications for those interested enough to look. In 2003, the Dutch writer Bas Heijne found himself in the Van Gogh Museum’s library and stumbled across some letters, which prompted him to write a play about Jo. “I just thought, This woman’s life is a great story,” he says. Luijten likewise told me that the letters between the brothers, and those exchanged with other artists and dealers, were littered with clues. He searched the museum’s library and archives and found photographs and account books that contained more hints. He corresponded with archives in France, Denmark and the United States. He began to formulate a thesis: “I started to see that she was the spider in the web. She had a strategy.”
There was another source, a potential holy grail, which he believed might advance his thesis but to which researchers had been denied access. Luijten knew Jo had kept a diary. His interest was piqued in part by the very fact that he hadn’t been able to read it — the van Gogh family had kept it under lock and key since her death in 1925. “I don’t think they were unwilling to acknowledge her role,” Luijten told me. “I think it was out of modesty.” Jo’s son, Vincent, didn’t want the world to know of his mother’s later relationship with another Dutch painter, didn’t want her privacy to be violated. The diary remained under embargo until, in 2009, Luijten asked Jo’s grandson, Johan van Gogh, if he could see it, and Johan granted his wish. (Jo’s diaries and other materials are now available via the Van Gogh Museum’s website and library.)
The very first entry in the diary — which turned out to be a collection of simple lined notebooks of the kind used by schoolchildren — intrigued Luijten. Jo started it when she was 17, five years before she met Theo. A young woman of that era could look forward to only very narrow options in life, yet here she wrote, “I would think it dreadful to have to say at the end of my life, ‘I’ve actually lived for nothing, I have achieved nothing great or noble.’” “That, to me, was actually very exciting,” Luijten says. It was a clue: She was not content to follow her family’s maxim after all.
In 2009 Luijten began writing a biography of Jo, working in an office in a former schoolhouse opposite the greensward of Amsterdam’s Museum Square. It took him 10 years. In all, he has devoted 25 years, his entire career, to the lives of these three people. The book, “Alles voor Vincent” (“All for Vincent”), was published in 2019. Because it’s still available only in Dutch, it is just beginning to percolate into the world of art scholarship. “It’s massively important,” says Steven Naifeh, co-author of the best-selling 2011 biography “Van Gogh: The Life” and author of the forthcoming “Van Gogh and the Artists He Loved.” “It shows that without Jo there would have been no van Gogh.”
Art historians say Luijten’s biography is a major step in what will be an ongoing reappraisal — not only of the source of van Gogh’s fame but also of the modern notion of what an artist is. For that, too, is something Jo helped to invent.
Jo was at a loss over what to do with herself after Theo died. When a friend from the genteel Dutch village of Bussum suggested she come there and open a boardinghouse, it seemed soothing. She would be back in her home country yet at a comfortable distance from her family, which suited her, because she valued her independence. Bussum, for all its leafy sedateness, had a lively cultural scene. And having income from guests would be important — she would be able to provide for herself and her child.
Before leaving Paris, she corresponded with the artist Émile Bernard, one of the few painters with whom Vincent had had a relationship that was both close and free of discord, to see if he might be able to arrange an exhibition in Paris of her late brother-in-law’s paintings. Bernard urged her to leave Vincent’s canvases in Paris, reasoning that the French capital was a better base from which to sell them. There was sense in this. While Vincent had not generated enough of a following to warrant a one-man show, he had had paintings exhibited in a few group shows just before his death. Perhaps, over time, Bernard would be able to sell his work.
Had that happened, Vincent might have developed some renown. He might have become, say, an Émile Bernard. But Jo’s instincts told her to keep the paintings with her. She declined his offer. This was remarkable in itself, because time and again her diary entries show her to be riddled with insecurities and uncertainty about how to proceed in life: “I’m very bad — ugly as I am, I’m still often vain”; “My outlook on life is utterly and completely wrong at present”; “Life is so difficult and so full of sadness around me and I have so little courage!”
Over the next weeks, dressed in mourning, she settled into her new home. She unpacked linens and silverware, met her neighbors and prepared the house for guests, all the while caring for little Vincent. She seems to have spent the greatest amount of her settling-in time — months, in fact — deciding precisely where to hang her brother-in-law’s paintings. Eventually, virtually every inch of wall space was covered with them. “The Potato Eaters,” the large, mostly brown study of peasants at a humble meal that scholars consider Vincent’s first masterpiece, was hung above the fireplace. She festooned her bedroom with three canvases depicting orchards in vibrant bloom. One of her guests later remarked that “the whole house was filled with Vincents.”
Once all was more or less the way she wanted it, she picked up one of the lined notebooks and returned to the diary she began in her teens. She set it aside the moment she started her life with Theo; her last entry, from almost exactly three years before, began, “On Thursday morning I go to Paris!” During the whole mad period that followed, she was too busy to keep a journal, too swept up in another life. Now she was back. “It’s all nothing but a dream!” she wrote from her guesthouse. “What lies behind me — my short, blissful marital happiness — that, too, has been a dream! For a year and a half I was the happiest woman on Earth.”
Then, matter-of-factly, she identified the two responsibilities that Theo had given her. “As well as the child,” she wrote, “he has left me another task — Vincent’s work — getting it seen and appreciated as much as possible.”
Having no training in how to achieve this, she began with what was at hand. In addition to Vincent’s paintings, she had inherited the enormous trove of letters that the brothers had exchanged. In Bussum, in the evenings, with her guests taken care of and the baby asleep, she pored over them. Nearly all, it turned out, were from Vincent — her husband had carefully kept Vincent’s letters, but Vincent hadn’t been so fastidious with the ones his brother had sent him. Details of the artist’s daily life and tribulations — his insomnia, his poverty, his self-doubt — were mixed with accounts of paintings he was working on, techniques he experimented with, what he was reading, descriptions of paintings by other artists he drew inspiration from. He often felt the need to put into words what he was trying to achieve with color: “Town violet, star yellow, sky blue-green; the wheat fields have all the tones: old gold, copper, green gold, red gold, yellow gold, green, red and yellow bronze.” Repeatedly he sought to explain his objective in capturing what he was looking at: “I tried to reconstruct the thing as it may have been by simplifying and accentuating the proud, unchanging nature of the pines and the cedar bushes against the blue.” He described his harrowing mental breakdowns and his fear of future collapses — that “a more violent crisis may destroy my ability to paint forever,” and his notion that, should he experience another episode, he could “go into an asylum or even to the town prison, where there’s usually an isolation cell.”
She did a lot of other reading as well, undertaking what amounted to a self-guided course in art criticism. She read the Belgian journal L’Art Moderne, which advocated the idea that art should serve progressive political causes, and took notes. She read a book of criticism by the Irish novelist George Moore, jotting down a quote from it that seemed pertinent: “The lot of critics is to be remembered by what they failed to understand.” As if to steel herself for her task ahead, she also read a biography of one of her heroes, Mary Ann Evans, the English protofeminist and social critic who wrote novels under the pen name George Eliot. She described Evans in her diary as “that great, courageous, intelligent woman whom I’ve loved and revered almost since childhood” and noted that “remembering her is always an incentive to be better.”
She began to circulate in society. Some of the people she knew in the area were part of a community of artists, poets and intellectuals who had founded an arts journal called The New Guide. As the industrialization of the late 1880s and early 1890s spawned an anarchist movement and rising nationalisms, they were processing the ferment in Western society and sorting through how the arts should respond. Jo’s diary gives the impression of her attending their gatherings and not so much participating in conversations as listening while the intellectuals held forth on what was wrong with the art of the classical tradition, which followed prescribed rules and favored idea over emotion and line over color. Critics like Joseph Alberdingk Thijm, professor of aesthetics and the history of art at Amsterdam’s State Academy of Visual Arts, held that artists had a moral duty to uphold Christian ideals that undergirded society and to enhance the “representation of nature” in a way that “must be firm, clear, purified.”
By the end of her first year on her own — living with Vincent’s paintings and his words, reading deeply, immersing herself from time to time in these gatherings — Jo had experienced a kind of epiphany: Van Gogh’s letters were part and parcel of the art. They were keys to the paintings. The letters brought the art and the tragic, intensely lived life together into a single package. Jo would have appreciated the view of the French Impressionists she had met in Paris that the notion of following rules on how and what to paint had become impossibly inauthentic, that in a world lacking a central authority an artist had to look within for guidance. That was what Monet, Gauguin and the others had done, and the results were to be seen on their canvases. Bringing an artist’s biography into the mix was simply another step in the same direction.
The letters also pointed to the audience Vincent had intended. Vincent, who once sought a career as a minister and lived among peasants to humble himself, had desperately wanted to make art that reached beyond the cognoscenti and directly into the hearts of common people. “No result of my work would be more agreeable to me,” he wrote to Theo, quoting another artist, “than that ordinary working men should hang such prints in their room or workplace.” Vincent’s letters and paintings seemed to reinforce Jo’s own longstanding convictions about social justice. As a girl, influenced by Sunday sermons, she longed for a life of purpose. Just before agreeing to marry Theo, she visited Belgium, and the minister whose family she was staying with took her to see the living conditions of workers at a nearby coal mine. The experience shook her, and helped fuel what became a lifelong dedication to causes ranging from workers’ rights to female suffrage. She counted herself as one of the “ordinary” people Vincent had written of, and she knew that he had considered himself one as well. After consuming her tortured brother-in-law’s words alone in her guesthouse one night during a storm in 1891, with the wind howling outside, she wrote in a letter, “I felt so desolate — that for the first time I understood what he must have felt, in those times when everyone turned away from him.”
She was now ready to act as agent for Vincent van Gogh. One of her first moves was to approach an art critic named Jan Veth, who in addition to being the husband of a friend was at the forefront of the New Guide circle. Veth was outspoken in his rejection of academic art and in promoting individual expression. At first, though, Veth dismissed Vincent’s work outright and belittled Jo’s efforts. He himself later admitted that he was initially “repelled by the raw violence of some van Goghs,” and found these paintings “nearly vulgar.” His reaction, despite his commitment to the new, gives a sense of the shock that Vincent’s canvases engendered at first sight. Another early critic found Vincent’s landscapes “without depth, without atmosphere, without light, the unmixed colors set beside each other without mutually harmonizing,” and complained that the artist was painting out of a desire to be “modern, bizarre, childlike.”
Jo found Veth’s reaction disappointingly conventional. He must also have said something disparaging about a woman seeking to enter the art world, because she complained to her diary after an encounter with him: “We women are for the most part what men want us to be.” But she realized his importance as a critic and believed that his openness to new ideas meant that she could persuade him to appreciate the paintings, telling her diary, “I won’t rest until he likes them.”
She pressed an envelope full of Vincent’s letters on Veth, encouraging him to use them, as she had, as a means to illuminate the paintings. She didn’t try to come across like an art critic but instead poured her heart out to the man, trying to guide him toward the shift in thinking that she felt was needed to perceive a new mode of artistic expression. She explained to Veth that she had begun reading the correspondence between the brothers in order to be closer to her dead husband, but then Vincent stole his way into her. “I read the letters — not only with my head — I was deep into them with my whole soul,” she wrote to Veth. “I read them and reread them until the whole figure of Vincent was clear before me.” She told him that she wished she could “make you feel the influence that Vincent has had on my life. … I’ve found serenity.”
Her timing was good. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga later characterized the “change of spirit that began to be felt in art and literature around 1890” as a swirl of ideas that coalesced around two poles: “that of socialism and that of mysticism.” Jo saw that Vincent’s art straddled both. Jan Veth was among those trying to process a shift from Impressionism to something new, an art that applied individualism to social and even spiritual questions. He listened to Jo and came around. He wrote one of the first appreciations of the artist, saying that he now saw “the astonishing clairvoyance of great humility” and characterized Vincent as an artist who “seeks the raw root of things.” In particular, Jo’s effort to bring her brother-in-law’s life to bear on his art seems to have worked with Veth. “Once having grasped his beauty, I can accept the whole man,” the critic wrote.
Something similar happened when Jo approached an influential artist named Richard Roland-Horst to ask him to help promote Vincent. She must have pestered him relentlessly, because Roland-Horst wrote to a friend, “Mrs. van Gogh is a charming woman, but it irritates me when someone fanatically raves about something they don’t understand.” But he came around, too, and assisted Jo with one of the first solo exhibitions of Vincent’s art, in Amsterdam in December 1892.
Veth and Roland-Horst complained at first about Jo’s amateur enthusiasm. Each man found it unprofessional to look at the paintings with the artist’s life story in mind. Such an approach, Roland-Horst huffed, “is not of a purely art-critical nature.” It’s not clear from her diary how consciously Jo used her lay status or her position as a woman to her advantage with these men of power, but somehow she got them to drop their guard and simply look and feel along with her. When Jo asked Roland-Horst to make a cover illustration for the catalog of Vincent’s first exhibit in Amsterdam, he crafted a lithograph of a wilting sunflower against a black background, with the word “Vincent” beneath and a halo above the sunflower: an aesthetic canonization. Shortly after, the organizers of another exhibition hung a crown of thorns over a portrait of Vincent. Time and again, critics at first resisted the idea of looking at Vincent’s life and work as one, then gave in to it. When they looked at the paintings, they saw not just the art but Vincent, toiling and suffering, cutting off his ear, clawing at the act of creation. They fused art and artist. They saw what Jo van Gogh-Bonger wanted them to see.
Jo worked doggedly to build on her early successes with critics. She did much else in her life, of course. She raised her son. She fell in love with the painter Isaac Israëls, then broke it off when she realized he was not interested in marriage. She eventually remarried: yet another Dutch painter, Johan Cohen Gosschalk. She became a member of the Dutch Social Democratic Workers’ party and a co-founder of an organization devoted to labor and women’s rights. But all these activities were woven around the task of managing her brother-in-law’s post-mortem career. “You see her thinking out loud,” Hans Luijten told me. In the early days, he said, she went about it as modestly as one could imagine: “She identifies an important gallery in Amsterdam and she goes there: a 30-year-old woman, with a little boy at her side and a painting under her arm. She writes to people across Europe.”
Her training as a language teacher — she knew French, German and English — came in especially handy as she expanded her reach, attracting the interest of galleries and museums in Berlin, Paris, Copenhagen. In 1895, when Jo was 33, the Parisian dealer Ambroise Vollard included 20 van Goghs in a show. Vincent’s intensely personal and emotion-filled approach had been ahead of its time, but time was catching up; in Antwerp, a group of young artists who saw him as a trailblazer asked to borrow several van Goghs to exhibit alongside their own work.
Jo learned the tricks of the trade — for example, to hold onto the best works but to include them as “on loan” alongside paintings that were for sale in a given show. “She knew that if you put a few top works on the wall, people will be stimulated to buy the works next to them,” Luijten says. “She did that all over Europe, in more than 100 shows.” A key to her success, says Martin Bailey, an author of several books on the artist, including “Starry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum,” was in “selling the works in a controlled way, gradually introducing van Gogh to the public.” For an exhibit in Paris in 1908, for instance, she sent 100 works but stipulated that a quarter of them were not for sale. The dealer begged her to reconsider; she held firm. Bucking her tendency to doubt herself, she proceeded methodically and inexorably, like a general conquering territory.
In 1905, she arranged a major exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam’s premier modern-art showcase. She reckoned that it was time for a grand statement. The success she had had in promoting her brother-in-law’s art boosted her self-confidence. As more and more people in the field came to agree with her assessment of Vincent, she shed her youthful hesitancy. Rather than hand over the task of organizing the show, she insisted on doing everything herself. She rented the galleries, printed the posters, assembled names of important people to invite, even bought bow ties for the staff. Her son, Vincent, now 15, wrote out the invitations. The result was, and remains, the largest-ever van Gogh exhibition, with 484 works on display.
Critics came from all over Europe. The hard work of translating the artist’s vision into the vernacular was mostly done by this time. Fourteen years after she was handed her task and had the epiphany to sell the art and artist as a package, everyone in the art world seemed to know Vincent personally, to know his tragic lifelong struggle to find and convey beauty and meaning. The event cemented the artist’s reputation as a major figure of the modern era. Prices for his paintings rose two- to threefold in the months after.
There was one caveat. The work of Vincent’s later period, when he was in an asylum in the South of France and after, which today is probably the most beloved part of his oeuvre, made some people uncomfortable. To some early critics, these paintings seemed clearly the product of mental illness. The unbridled intensity that Vincent brought to a lone mulberry tree, or a stand of cypresses, or a wheat field under a blazing sun, was off-putting. As one critic wrote, in response to the Amsterdam show, Vincent lacked “the distinctive calm that is inherent in the works of the very Great. He will always be a tempest.”
One painting in particular, “The Starry Night,” which many today consider one of Vincent’s most iconic works, was singled out for criticism. The discomfort over its distortions began with Theo, after Vincent sent the painting to him and Jo from Saint-Rémy. Jo may have initially shared her husband’s uneasiness toward it. She didn’t include it in any of the early exhibitions she arranged, and she eventually sold it. Throughout her life she mostly held onto what she believed to be Vincent’s best work. But she got the owner of the painting to lend it for the Amsterdam show, suggesting that she had come to embrace its intensity.
One reviewer — who had a fit over the whole exhibition, calling it a “scandal” that was “more for those interested in psychology than for art lovers” attacked “The Starry Night,” likening the stars in the painting to oliebollen, the fried dough balls that Dutch people eat on New Year’s Eve. That kind of criticism, however, only seemed to bring more attention to the painting, and ultimately to give further validity to the idea of art as a window into the mind and life of the artist. It may also have confirmed for Jo her reappraisal of Vincent’s more stylized work. She bought the painting back the next year. It eventually ended up at the Museum of Modern Art, becoming the first van Gogh in the collection of a New York museum.
When Emilie Gordenker, a Dutch-American art historian, took over as director of the Van Gogh Museum at the beginning of 2020, the staff greeted her with a copy of Hans Luijten’s biography of Jo van Gogh-Bonger. Gordenker’s background was in 17th-century Dutch and Flemish art; since 2008 she had been the director of the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague, the storied home of many Vermeers and Rembrandts. She knew she had to get up to speed on van Gogh, so she read the book immediately.
Gordenker said she found herself reacting to Jo’s story as a woman. “Though I’m not nearly the trailblazer Jo was, I can relate to some of the struggles,” she says. “For example, when I make a decision, I’m sometimes told what I am. ‘You’re a woman, so you do things differently.’ You want to be evaluated for your ideas, but you’re sometimes pigeonholed. Of course, it was so much worse for her, being told you can’t do this because it’s not for women.”
She says she was struck by Jo’s self-taught approach to marketing an artist. “She had to make it up as she went along,” she says. “She didn’t have any background in this. But she was forthright and direct and at the same time very unsure of herself. That turns out to be a very productive combination of traits.” Gordenker says she believes it was a simple gut feeling that led Jo to her epiphany. “That informed her decision to make one package of the work and the person. Of course, she could only do that because of the letters. She found them to be a unique selling point. She sold the package to the critics, and they bought it.”
Gordenker stresses that Jo’s approach worked because it suited the times. “It was a moment when everything came together. There was a return to romanticism in art and literature. People were open to it. And her achievement informs our image to this day of what an artist should do: be an individual; suffer for art, if need be.” It takes some effort today to realize that people did not always see artists that way. “When I was studying art history, I was told to unthink that notion of the starving artist in the garret,” Gordenker says. “It doesn’t work for the early modern period, when someone like Rembrandt was a master working with apprentices and had many wealthy clients. In a sense Jo helped shape the image that is still with us.”
Jo also set in motion a family legacy of carrying on her work. Gordenker put me in contact with Jo’s great-grandson Vincent Willem van Gogh. At 67, he gives off an air of easy elegance. He spoke fondly of his grandfather Vincent — Jo and Theo’s son. He told me that he and his grandfather both tried to distance themselves from the burden of their ancestor’s legacy (and by extension of Jo’s obsession): his grandfather by becoming an engineer, he by becoming a lawyer (and by deciding to go by his middle name). But eventually each man came around and accepted his role as a custodian of what Jo began.
Jo’s great-grandson says he remembers spending summers at the house in Laren, the town where his grandfather lived. After Jo’s death, the Engineer (as Jo’s son is referred to in the family, to distinguish him from the other Vincents) made it the temporary home of the collection: the 220 original Van Gogh paintings, as well as hundreds of drawings, that Jo, even after a career of selling Vincent’s works, had kept, and that she left to him.
The artist’s namesake told me he spent many childhood holidays at that house. He remembers that there was a “Sunflowers” hanging in the living room (one of five major renderings of the subject that Vincent painted) and a small painting of an almond-blossom branch in a vase at the end of a corridor, and that his grandfather kept his favorite, a view of Arles, on his desk, leaning against a stack of books. But only a fraction of the collection was displayed. “There was a walk-in closet in an upstairs bedroom,” he told me. All the art was there, everything that Jo had not sold, which today would surely be valued in the tens of billions of dollars. “I remember I would help him to get ready for an exhibition at, say, MoMA, or the Orangerie in Paris. He might be looking for flower paintings. We would go through the closet. I’d locate something and say, ‘This, Grandpa?’” The former lawyer, who is now on the board of the Van Gogh Museum, gave a chuckle at the memory: “You could never do that now.”
But Jo’s son did not plan on keeping the art in his closet forever. In 1959 he entered into negotiations with the Dutch government to create a permanent home for it. All the art that Jo had kept was transferred to the Vincent van Gogh Foundation. The three living descendants of Jo and Theo’s only son sit on the foundation’s board; the fourth board member is an official with the Dutch ministry of culture. The government built the Van Gogh Museum to house the work and assumed the responsibility of making it public. “There’s not a single painting or drawing by Vincent in the family anymore,” Jo’s great-grandson told me with some pride. “Thanks to Jo, and to her son, it’s no longer ours. It’s for everyone.”
Thus the museum itself is another product of Jo van Gogh-Bonger’s efforts to realize Vincent’s ambition of democratizing his art. By numbers alone it has succeeded spectacularly. When the original building was opened, in 1973, it was with an expectation of receiving 60,000 visitors a year. In 2019, before the pandemic, more than 2.1 million people jostled for the chance to spend a few moments before each of the master’s canvases.
In 1916, at age 54, Jo confronted the most formidable challenge in her campaign to bring Vincent to the world. For all the success she had had in Europe, the United States, with its conservative and puritanical society, lagged in appreciating the artist. She left Europe — left her whole world — and moved to New York with a goal of changing that. She spent nearly three years in the United States, living for a time on the Upper West Side and then in Queens, networking, explaining the artist’s vision and, in her spare time, translating Vincent’s letters into English.
She found it tough going at first. “I supposed the American taste in art was advanced enough, fully to appreciate van Gogh in which I have been rather mistaken,” she lamented at one point in a letter to the art promoter Newman Emerson Montross. But change came. She eventually arranged a show with Montross’s gallery on Fifth Avenue. Shortly after, the Metropolitan Museum featured an exhibition of “Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Paintings,” to which Jo contributed four canvases.
At about the same time, a professor from Columbia University delivered a public lecture in which he tried to interpret the works, which to American tastes seemed lurid and cartoonish. The New York Times covered the talk and furthered the explanation, asserting that the artist’s exaggerated colors were tapping into a “primitive symbolic language.”
Jo, meanwhile, continued to believe that the letters to Theo — in which Vincent came through as a romantic figure, a tragic figure — would open up his soul to America and beyond. Having the letters published in English was her last great objective.
It proved to be a race against time. Her health was failing — she had Parkinson’s disease — and the publisher she had contracted with, Alfred Knopf, wanted to produce only an abridged edition, to which she would not agree. She returned to Europe and lived her last years in a spacious apartment on Amsterdam’s stately Koninginneweg and in a country house in Laren. Her son, Vincent, and his wife, Josina, moved close to her, and Jo found happiness in the hour she spent each day with her grandchildren. Otherwise, she kept remarkably fixated on her life’s mission: shipping canvases to one exhibition after another, wrangling with the publisher, all the while coping with the pain and other symptoms of her illness.
If anything, her obsession seems to have grown as she neared the end of her life. She got into a friendship-ending argument over a modest amount of money with Paul Cassirer, a German dealer who had worked closely with her to promote van Gogh. When a romanticized novel about the van Gogh brothers appeared in German in 1921, she found the factual liberties it took deeply upsetting. Requests for paintings for possible exhibitions kept coming at a furious pace — Paris, Frankfurt, London, Cleveland, Detroit — and she remained closely involved, until she no longer could. She died in 1925 at age 63.
The first English-language edition of the letters, by Constable & Company in London and Houghton Mifflin in the United States, appeared two years later, in 1927. It contained an introduction by Jo, in which she furthered the myth of the suffering artist and highlighted her husband’s role as well: “It was always Theo alone who understood him and supported him.” Seven years later, Irving Stone published his best-selling novel “Lust for Life,” based heavily on the letters, about the relationship between the van Gogh brothers. It in turn became the source material for the 1956 movie starring Kirk Douglas. By then, the myth was ingrained. No less a figure than Pablo Picasso referred to van Gogh’s life — “essentially solitary and tragic” — as “the archetype of our times.”
There was one other homage Jo paid to her brother-in-law and her husband, possibly the most remarkable of all. Late in her life, while she was translating the letters into English, she arranged to have Theo’s remains disinterred from the Dutch cemetery where he had been laid to rest and reburied in Auvers-sur-Oise, next to Vincent. As with the Amsterdam exhibition, she undertook the operation like a general, overseeing every detail, down to commissioning matching gravestones. Hans Luijten told me he found it a striking manifestation of her single-minded devotion. “She wanted to have them side by side forever,” Luijten said.
A wife’s digging up her husband’s remains is such a startling image it yanks one back to the central question of Jo’s life: her motivation. Why, finally, did she fasten herself to this cause and carry it across the length of her life? Certainly her belief in Vincent’s genius and her desire to honor Theo’s wishes were strong. And Luijten noted to me that in promoting van Gogh’s art, she believed she was also furthering her socialistic political beliefs.
But people act from smaller, simpler motivations as well. Jo’s 21 months with Theo were the most intense of her life. She experienced Paris, joy, a revolution in color and culture. With Theo’s help she vaulted out of her careful, conventional world and gave herself over to passion. Moving today through the museum that houses all the paintings Jo couldn’t bear to part with, another notion surfaces: that, in devoting herself utterly to Vincent van Gogh, in selling him to the world, she was keeping alive that moment of her youth, and allowing the rest of us to feel it.
Russell Shorto is a contributing writer and the author, most recently, of “Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob.” He last wrote about the obsessive aristocrat Jan Six, who found two unknown Rembrandt paintings.
Vincent’s self portraits Clockwise from top left: ‘‘Self-Portrait,’’ Summer 1887; ‘‘Self-Portrait With Straw Hat,’’ August-September 1887; ‘‘Self-Portrait With Pipe and Straw Hat,’’ September-October 1887; ‘‘Self-Portrait,’’ July-August 1887; ‘‘Self-Portrait,’’ March-June 1887; ‘‘Self-Portrait,’’ March-June 1887.
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