The Amazing True Story of Johanna Bongerm, The Woman Behind Vincent van Gogh's Posthumous Success
How did Vincent van Gogh (1853 - 1890) become a household name and one of the most beloved figures in the history of art? After all, the renowned artist died young and, by all accounts, fairly unsuccessful. Well, the story of his rise to prominence has a lot to do with family ties, and one woman in particular.
In 1885, Johanna Gezina Bongerm (1862 - 1925), then a 22-year-old English teacher, met Theo van Gogh (1857 - 1891), a rising art dealer in Paris and the younger brother of the now-famous artist, whom she would go on to marry three years later. Mentally steadier than his older sibling, Theo was both Vincent’s emotional anchor and biggest fan.
“Aware of his older brother's struggles, Theo selflessly strived to financially support Vincent, helping him to buy art supplies. ‘You speak of money which you owe me, and which you want to give back to me,’ he wrote in 1888. ‘I won't hear of it. The condition I want you to arrive at is that you should not have any worries.’”
Although Jo, as she preferred to be called, was raised in a conservative household and had little interest in the opulent lifestyle of the French elite who made up her husband’s primary clientele, she was, nonetheless, introduced to fine dining, theater and, perhaps most importantly, the arts; the latter would become a huge part of her very interesting and unusual life.
“Vincent, who spent much of his career in motion, in France, Belgium, England, the Netherlands, was churning out canvases at a fanatical pace – olive trees, wheat fields, peasants under a Provençal sun – and shipping them to Theo in hopes he would find a market for them,” writes Russell Shorto for The Guardian. As such, Jo was always surrounded by Vincent’s work.
His mental health, however, had already begun to take a turn for the worse by the time Jo and Theo wed in 1888; working out of Arles, France, he would cut off his ear following a series of spats with Paul Gauguin (1848 - 1903) just before Christmas that same year. This shift was also affecting his painting; in love with the night sky, he'd start working on something new in 1889.
In a letter to Theo, Vincent attempted to put his interest into words: “In the blue depth the stars were sparkling, greenish, yellow, white, pink, more brilliant, more emeralds, lapis lazuli, rubies, sapphires.” Explaining that it was an “exaggeration,” The Starry Night (1889) was clearly a departure from his earlier approaches, and Theo found it disturbing.
“I consider that you’re strongest when you’re doing real things,” Theo wrote back, fearing that the work was too unusual for a market that was still struggling to move away from realism and embrace the emergence of impressionism. Jo, too, didn’t know how to evaluate the painting as it was unlike anything she’s ever seen before. Soon, though, she would become its primary champion.
“What happened next was like two blows of a hammer,” writes Shorto. “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. Weeks later came news that Vincent had shot himself. Theo arrived in the village in time to watch his brother die.” In a cruel twist of fate, he himself would be gone just six months later.
Theo was only 33 years old. Heartbroken after the death of his older brother at the young age of 37, the art dealer made it his life’s mission to preserve and publicize Vincent’s work, but “Theo's health declined. In November, he was admitted to a mental hospital; in December, he was diagnosed with dementia paralytica, a chronic psychosis; and, in January, he passed away.”
Widowed at 28-year-old with a newborn son, Jo took over her husband’s mission and approached it as if it were her own. Though Vincent van Gogh was in every way positioned to be forgotten by history, Jo’s persistence to ensure his legacy — and, therefore, Theo’s — would endure, was a massive effort that she diligently undertook and ultimately succeeded in.
We know this thanks to Hans Luijten, who majored in Dutch literature and minored in art history. After earning his doctorate, he became a researcher at Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum and was instrumental in developing Vincent van Gogh: The Letters (2009), a six volume edition of the 902 letters written by the now world-famous artist.
The project led Luijten to form a hypothesis: Vincent van Gogh became famous because of the effort put in by none other than Jo van Gogh-Bonger. He searched the museum’s library and archives for information, as well as corresponded with archives in France, Denmark, and the United States; he also reached out to Jo’s grandson, Johan van Gogh to access Jo’s diary and get the full picture.
Luijten began writing a biography of Jo in 2009. After ten years of effort, his book, Alles voor Vincent (All for Vincent), was finally published in 2019. In it, he revealed Jo’s astronomical resourcefulness and dedication to getting Vincent’s work in front of the right people, so that her brother-in-law could finally get the recognition Theo always believed he deserved.
After Theo passed, a friend of Jo’s suggested she come to the Dutch village of Bussum to open a boarding house. Not only did the location offer a lively cultural scene, she would be able to support herself and her child from the income she would receive from the guests. She did exactly that and settled into her new home, which she strategically decorated with Vincent’s beautiful work.
She also spent time pouring over the enormous trove of letters that the brothers had exchanged, many of which detailed the artist’s daily life and tribulations – his insomnia, his poverty, his self-doubt. The letters, though, also touched on Vincent’s techniques, descriptions of paintings by artists that inspired him, and who he intended to be his audience — average folk.
If artist statements are the norm today, they were a novel concept for Jo, who “had experienced a kind of epiphany: Van Gogh’s letters were part and parcel of the art. They were keys to the paintings. The letters brought the art and the tragic, intensely lived life together into a single package.”
To get started, Jo approached Jan Veth (1864 - 1925), an outspoken art critic who rejected academic art, which was then synonymous with realism. But he dismissed the work and belittled Jo’s efforts, as he was “repelled by the raw violence of some van Goghs.” This, however, did not deter Jo, who wrote, "I won’t rest until he likes them,” in her diary.
Instead, she gave him an envelope full of Vincent’s letters and encouraged the critic to use them as context and supplementary material for the paintings. It worked. “Veth was among those trying to process a shift from Impressionism to something new, an art that applied individualism to social and even spiritual questions.” This encouraged Jo to keep moving.
She also managed to live her life, raising a son; falling in love and then breaking off with Isaac Israëls; and getting remarried to yet another Dutch painter, Johan Cohen Gosschalk (1873 - 1912) . She also became a member of the Dutch Social Democratic Workers’ Party and a co-founder of an organization devoted to labour and women’s rights. But she never wavered from her mission.
In 1905, 15 years after her husband's passing, she successfully arranged a major exhibition at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. The effort proved to be monumental in both its legacy and its draw. It was at the time, and remains to this day, the largest-ever van Gogh exhibition, with 484 works on display. The event cemented Vincent’s reputation as a great artist.
The show included The Starry Night, which — even then — was singled out for criticism. One reviewer likened “the stars in the painting to oliebollen, the fried dough balls that Dutch people eat on New Year’s Eve.” But, in the world of art, most press is good press, and it only further validated the work as something truly special.
Jo died 10 years later, in 1925, but not before moving to New York and ensuring that the work of Vincent van Gogh would also be known in the United States. From a group show at the Metropolitan Museum to a solo show at the Montross gallery on Fifth Avenue, she worked hard to attract art enthusiasts wherever she could find them.
She continued to believe that Vincent’s letters to Theo would open up his soul to the US and beyond, and was sure to have them translated and published for the public. In the words of her favorite writer George Eliot (1819 - 1880): “‘In their death they were not divided.’ This is how she wanted Theo and Vincent to be remembered.”
As such, “late in her life, she arranged to have Theo’s remains disinterred from the Dutch cemetery where he had been laid to rest and reburied in Auvers-sur-Oise, next to Vincent. She undertook the operation like a general, overseeing every detail, down to commissioning matching gravestones.”
By the end of her life, Jo was suffering from Parkinson’s. She returned to Europe and lived her last years in an apartment in Amsterdam and in a country house in Laren until she passed at the age of 63. “It was always Theo alone who understood him and supported him,” she wrote in an introduction to the first English-language edition of the letters published in 1927, two years after her death.
But, based on her remarkable achievement at getting a little known artist to become one of the biggest names in the history of art, perhaps she understood and supported him, too.
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