The Woman Who Brought Van Gogh to the World

Art lovers have Vincent van Gogh’s sister-in-law to credit for introducing the impressionist’s work to the world

In his last ten weeks of life, Vincent Van Gogh experienced a period of unprecedented productivity. A new book compiles paintings produced during that time. (Collection particulière, © D.R.)

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Of the people who saw what he made, there was only one who said, “This is the work of a lunatic,” who actually wrote about it. Even that says something, I mean, an important guy saying this is the work of a lunatic means it’s worth writing about. But other people and art critics and his peers, people like Monet, people like Gauguin, who were not unknown or unimportant even then, said this guy is a genius. And of course, Theo knew about that because Theo was the art dealer who sold Gauguin and Pizarro, and those were the guys who admired the work by Vincent. So of course the family and Johanna knew that this was important work.

Were the paintings literally not dry when he died?

No. The sunflowers paintings were made in [18]88, so they were probably almost dry. But look at the thickness of the Van Gogh paintings. If you have ever tried to paint with oil paints, it takes an amazing time to dry. That’s why Van Gogh watched all his paintings constantly, and he stuck them in piles under his bed, and even when the canvases touched each other, even months after, when the paintings were finished, still from one canvas to another, the paint is transferred. It’s so thick it can really take a year or 18 months to dry.

Would you say that Johanna was perhaps the single most important figure, perhaps aside from the artist himself, who contributed to making Van Gogh a household name over a century later?

I’m absolutely confident; I really am 100 percent sure. I think the fact that she was a woman was actually an advantage, because nobody saw her coming. Like nowadays, the main issue is money, and when something smells like money, a lot of greedy people come and try to get a piece of it. But this innocent-looking young woman with a little baby on her arm, nobody took her seriously, so that kind of kept the collection together for a longer time than if Theo was still alive, I think. She was able, still in 1906, to show a complete set of Van Gogh works.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

The book started as a catalog of Van Gogh’s work in the last ten weeks of his life. And then we started to wonder, what happened with the works? I mean, it’s OK to have them lined up and that’s great, but what happened with them and who took the collection so far? We started to get interested in Johanna van Gogh, and the only person we met was “Jo.” The pictures we saw were always of this innocent young lady, and when we started digging we started to find pictures where you could see this woman, and even in her eyes, I would have loved to talk to her, because she inspires something very deep, very thoughtful, very smart, very clever. I hope I can contribute to the fact that people will remember her, this fantastic woman, as Johanna Bonger, and not “Jo van Gogh.” She really deserves her full name, her own name.


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