When Vincent van Gogh was 8 years old, his parents pulled him out of primary school, unhappy with the quality of education he was receiving. The family then hired a governess of Scottish descent, Anna Birnie, to educate Vincent and his siblings. Not much has been known about Birnie, except for her name, Martin Bailey at The Art Newspaper reports. That’s why Ron Dirven, director of the Van Goghhaus in Zundert, the Netherlands, decided to dig into her story.
Dirven tracked down one of Anna’s descendants, Birgitte Birnie, who worked in another nearby museum. She, in turn, was able to contact relatives who produced a family album including a photo of the governess. They continued their research, and what emerged were the outlines of Birnie’s story.
As they learned, Birnie’s family had emigrated from Scotland to the Netherlands in the 1700s. She was born in 1844 in Kampen, near Amsterdam. The family owned a carpet factory and a tobacco plantation in East Java. Anna’s father, Steven Birnie, was the Kampen city draftsman and an art tutor between 1827 and 1848. At some point, he began pursuing art full time. Then, in late 1861, he went into an asylum for mental health issues.
Just a few weeks after, Anna Birnie arrived at the van Gogh home, likely referred by Bertha, Vincent’s aunt who ran a boarding house in Kampen. Vincent studied under her until he went away to boarding school in Zevenbergen in October 1864. Bailey reports that Anna stayed on for another three years continuing to teach Vincent’s siblings. She never married or had children. Eventually, she traveled to the family tobacco plantation in Java, where she died in 1917.
“There are several Annas in the family. Before this I'd never established a relationship with the Van Gogh’s governess,” Birnie tells Dutch news outlet BN DeStem.
According to a press release, a note in the diary of Maria van Gogh-Boon, known as “Aunt Mietje,” reveals that Vincent made a surprise drawing for his parent's wedding anniversary in 1863 under the tutelage of Birnie. A couple months later, Vincent drew a barn and farmhouse for his father’s birthday, an impressive piece of juvenilia that still exists (though it is now in a private collection).
There are no accounts or syllabuses of what Anna taught the van Gogh children, but she was hired to give the children singing lessons and teach them Protestant catechism. Her lessons undoubtedly included some art as well. “Anna almost certainly played a significant role in the creation of Vincent’s first sketches,” Dirven tells Bailey.
During the research, Dirven adds, “Anna started to become ‘alive’ and it became clear that the role she played in Vincent’s childhood was much more important than we had presumed.”
It’s hard to say how much Birnie influenced Vincent’s artistic development and style. But having a live-in art teacher certainly didn’t hurt. Beyond Birnie, Vincent’s formal art education was sparse. He had short stints at the art academies in Brussels and Antwerp, but clashed with his teachers. He also studied for three months at a studio in Paris where artists worked from models and received a critique once a week from a teacher.