The Woman Who Made Van Gogh

“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. Neglected by art history for decades, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, the painter’s sister-in-law, is finally being recognized as the force who opened the world’s eyes to his genius.” Russell Shorto

I am so excited to finally have the time to share this story of a woman long neglected by art historians – the story of Jo van Gogh-Bonger – the woman who made Van Gogh.

I came across this article on New York Times earlier this year during our COVID lockdown when I was reading anything and everything that came across. I read a lot but the one story that I found to be a gem among many is this article by author Russell Shorto in the New York Times.

First off, the title of this story immediately caught my attention – The Woman Who Made Van Gogh. I love Van Gogh, and to find out that he became famous not because of his younger brother as was previously noted by art historians, but it was actually his sister-in-law who made his works world famous? This was truly intriguing.

The article was long, almost like a novel. But boy was it informative and fascinating. I had to read it a few times to be able to condense it down into a story that I could share here with all of you. A story of this amazing woman who was truly ahead of her time. A feminist, an entrepreneur, a mother, a wife, a sister-in-law, an art dealer, with a keen eye for art. All this at a time when women weren’t taken seriously. So how did she manage to make Van Gogh one of the most famous artists in the world? That is the story you will read here.

The story of Johanna Bonger
excerpt and condensed from New York Times Article by Russell Shorto

The beginning

In 1885, a 22-year-old Dutch woman named Johanna Bonger met Theo van Gogh, the younger brother of the artist Vincent van Gogh. Theo was making a name for himself as an art dealer in Paris and history knows that Theo was the steadier of the van Gogh brothers. He was the one who selflessly managed Vincent’s erratic life. But Theo also it seems had his share of impulsive actions as he asked Johanna 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, imposed a code of propriety and emotional aloofness on his children. Jo had set herself up in a safe career as an English teacher in Amsterdam and was not inclined to impulsiveness. Besides, she was already dating someone and so she said no to Theo’s proposal.

But Theo persisted. He was attractive in a soulful kind of way — a thinner, paler version of his brother. Beyond that, Jo also enjoyed the finer culture, and a desire to be in the company of artists and intellectuals and she saw Theo as someone who could provide her with a life in higher society. Eventually Theo won her over and in 1888, a year and a half after his proposal, she agreed to marry him.

Surrounded by young artists of the avant-garde Jo realized that she was in the midst of a movement

After her marriage to Theo 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 of it 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 these artists were all Theo van Gogh’s clients and heroes. And they came to him for guidance and fame.

Artists such as Gauguin and Pissarro and Toulouse-Lautrec, the young men of the avant-garde came to see Theo and through him Jo was able to appreciate the art of the new and upcoming art of the impressionists.

Jo soon realized that she was witnessing a change in the direction of things. At home too she was feeling fully alive. She was powerfully in love: with Theo, with Paris, with life. Theo talked incessantly — of their future, and of things like pigment and color and light, encouraging her to develop a new way of seeing the world and art.

Vincent Van Gogh – Jo’s brother-in-law

One subject dominated Jo and Theo’s marriage 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 would ship them to Theo in hopes he would find a market for them. But Theo had little success attracting buyers.

As much as he looked up to his brother, Theo 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.

Education in art through Van Gogh’s paintings

Vincent van Gogh, who spent much of his brief career 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 flames.

Vincent’s works three-dimensionally thick with their violent daubs of oil paint, became the source material for Jo’s education in modern art.

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.” Vincent van Gogh

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 knew buyers weren’t likely to understand it. He wrote back asking Vincent to paint real things.

A letter from Vincent to Theo, November 1882.
A letter from Vincent to Theo, November 1882.Credit…Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

First & Last Meeting with Vincent

When a little more than nine months after their wedding night, Jo gave birth to a son, she agreed to the name Theo suggested. They would call the boy Vincent.

Then, in the spring of 1890, two years after being wed Jo got news of Vincent coming to Paris to visit. Jo expected a mental patient but instead she was confronted by the physical embodiment of the animated figures on the canvases that covered their walls.

Jo wrote in her journal “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. He looks much stronger than Theo,’ was my first thought.” 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 I watched as the brothers gazed into the crib. They both had tears in their eyes,

A page from Jo’s diary, 1883-1885.
A page from Jo’s diary, 1883-1885.Credit…Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

What happened next changed Jo’s life forever

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 mental condition. Weeks later came news that Vincent had shot himself. 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 artistic career in an effort to produce something serious, something fresh — something with soul in it.

Less than three months after Vincent’s death, Theo suffered a complete physical collapse from the latter stages of syphilis he had contracted from earlier visits to brothels. He began hallucinating and died in January 1891.

Alone at 24 and left with 400 paintings and hundreds of drawings

Twenty-one months after her marriage Jo was stunned, alone, and with a baby.

What was left to her from her brief life with Theo were approximately 400 paintings and several hundred drawings by her brother-in-law Vincent van Gogh.

There’s no vaccine for Van Gogh – How Hans Luijten discovered the story of Jo in 2010

Long before Covid Hans Luijten an art historian was in the habit of likening Vincent van Gogh to a virus. “If that virus comes into your life, it never goes away,” and added with a note of warning in his voice: “There’s no vaccine for it.

Hans Luijten 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.

The end result of this exhaustive research project, which went on far longer than Vincent’s career did, is “Vincent van Gogh: The Letters.”   Leo Jansen who worked alongside Luijten for all of those 15 years saw that Luijten was beginning to formulate a new idea.

I think Hans realized 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 time again during his career, become a star? And not just a star, but one of the most beloved figures in the history of art?” Leo Jansen

Hans Luijten Researches the Forgotten Story of Jo van Gogh-Bonger

Jo van Gogh-Bonger was previously known to have played a role in building Van Gogh’s reputation, but that role was thought to have been minor at best — a presumption seemingly based on a combination of sexism and common sense since she had no background in the art business.

Luijten researched the letters between the brothers and those exchanged with other artists and dealers, and saw clues to an alternate theory to Theo being the art dealer for Van Gogh’s paintings. . 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 and began to formulate a thesis:

I started to see that SHE was the spider in the web. She had a strategy.” Hans Luitjen

The diary of Jo. The Holy Grail of her Story

There was another source, a potential holy grail which Luitjen believed might advance his thesis that Jo was the mastermind behind Van Gogh’s success, but to which researchers had previously been denied access – Jo’s diary!

The van Gogh family had kept her diary under lock and key since her death in 1925.

Jo’s son Vincent, didn’t want the world to know of his mother’s later relationship with another Dutch painter and didn’t want her privacy to be violated. The diary remained under lock and key until 2009 when Luijten asked Jo’s grandson, Johan van Gogh if he could see it, and Johan granted his wish.

The diary

The very first entry in the diary — 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.’ This was a clue that Jo was not content to follow in her family’s traditional path.

Jo’s Biography by Hans Luitjen

In 2009 Luijten began writing a biography of Jo that took him 10 years to complete. Art historians attribute Luijten’s biography as a major step in what will be an ongoing review of 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 van Gogh-Bonger and her son, Vincent Willem van Gogh, 1890.
Jo van Gogh-Bonger and her son, Vincent Willem van Gogh, 1890.Credit…Raoul Saisset, Paris. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Jo van Gogh-Bonger’s Biography by Hans Luitjen

How did Jo accomplish such a phenomenal feat?
Make Vincent van Gogh’s art world famous?

At a time when women weren’t considered equals, not allowed to work, or mingle in business circles.
How did she take over 400 of Van Gogh’s paintings and sell them worldwide?
How did she make them famous?
How did she change an entire way of thinking about art?

This is the fascinating story of Jo van Gogh-Bonger and the woman behind Van Gogh.

Jo van Gogh-Bonger at her desk in Amsterdam, sometime after 1909. Vincent van Gogh’s “Vase of Honesty” (1884, left) and Henri Fantin-Latour’s “Flowers” hang beneath Vincent’s “Landscape at Twilight” (1890).
Jo van Gogh-Bonger at her desk in Amsterdam, sometime after 1909. Vincent van Gogh’s “Vase of Honesty” (1884, left) and Henri Fantin-Latour’s “Flowers” hang beneath Vincent’s “Landscape at Twilight” (1890).Credit…Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

The original marketing genius: I will share part 2 of Jo’s story later. How she took an apartment filled with Van Gogh’s artwork and pedaled them with a little boy in tow and sold his artwork the old fashioned way by going door-to-door to art dealers and galleries in Paris and beyond. How she was the original marketing genius. How she created a market for Van Gogh’s paintings by changing the way people thought of art. The story of a woman of substance – Jo’s Story – The Woman Who Made Van Gogh.

4 thoughts on “The Woman Who Made Van Gogh”

Leave a Reply