The Woman Who Made van Gogh

Historians in the News
tags: art history, Vincent Van Gogh

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.

Read entire article at New York Times

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