When Vincent van Gogh tragically killed himself in 1890, many of the works that would later gain him posthumous fame and fortune were barely dry. In the last ten weeks of his life, which he spent in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, Van Gogh experienced a period of unprecedented productivity, often painting an entire canvas in a day. Van Gogh in Auvers: His Last Days, a new book written by Wouter van der Veen and Peter Knapp, compiles the paintings Van Gogh produced during that time, interspersed with correspondence and information about the artist later in his life.
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While other artists in Van Gogh’s social circle admired his work, most of the public had no knowledge of him until years after his death. When he died, Van Gogh left behind his brother Theodore (called Theo) and Theodore’s wife, Johanna. Theo died just two months after his brother. It was Johanna, the mother of a new baby boy named Vincent, who took it upon herself to introduce Van Gogh’s paintings to the world. I spoke with Wouter van der Veen about the last section of his book, a look at the life of Johanna van Gogh.
Tell me about Johanna’s life before the Van Goghs.
There’s not much known about her life before. She was the perfect spouse, and it was like she was bred for that. For a guy like Theo, who was a well-known art dealer, of course for him it was important to marry a wife who was well educated; not well educated in the sense that she would know so many things, but in the sense that she was well instructed, she had good manners and she would know how to do the household and how to keep everything tidy. Of course there was love between the two, but she was a girl who was getting prepared throughout her life to find a good husband.
She’s an unlikely figure to play this part in art history. In the whole research process, I wanted to find out who Johanna really was, and I couldn’t find her, she just wasn’t there. It’s as if she only starts to exist when the facts in her life put her in the position to make the right decisions and force her to blossom. And what comes out of this person is amazing, and the lessons she teaches us are incredible. She did better than all the guys around her could have ever dreamed.
Why did Van Gogh and his art become her cause?
First of all, I don’t really think she had a choice. She had all this art, and of course, Theo told her about it and it was part of her life. She had no choice but to go on with that. She had an amazing amount of art, and there were ongoing projects that Theo left behind. He wanted to organize an exhibition of Vincent’s works, and he wanted to publish the letters. He couldn’t do either of these because he died.
Johanna came from a wealthy family from Amsterdam, a family that was connected with the artists and the avant-garde there. So when she ended up being a widow, she was naturally in contact with all these people, who wanted to comfort her and who wanted to explain to her what she had, and what she should do. To start with, she listened and obeyed, like she was used to. Afterwards, that’s when she really starts to become an art dealer, because she is also not only doing this for the memory of her late husband, but also for the growing little Vincent, her son. And she wants to make his future secure, so she is trying to make a lot of money. She knows what Theo told her, never ever sell [the collection] piece by piece to whoever wants to give you money for it. Always act like it is what it is: very rare, very precious and very important art.
Was Van Gogh already fairly established in certain circles? How did Johanna and Theo know this art was so important?
Yes. That’s one of the main new insights, not only in my book but also in the latest research over the last ten years. The people who had access to his work admired it. Today, this is the era of information and Internet and Facebook, but if an artist has amazing work today and he starts to show it around, it will take him about three to five years before he is known. That would be normal. In his time, the important works Van Gogh made, let’s say Sunflowers, [the portrait of] Doctor Gachet, Wheat Fields, weren’t even dry when he died. So even if he had the Internet, it still would have taken three years, but he didn’t, so it is absolutely normal that a guy with this kind of talent, and who makes these kinds of masterpieces, would go unknown for so long.