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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger: The woman who gave the fame to Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh, Pollard willows at sunset, March 1888, Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo

For many years, the name of Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger was neglected in a shadow corner.

She was a strong, brave woman devoted to one special mission in her life: obtain an international recognition for the work by his brother-in-law, Vincent Van Gogh.

Johanna Bonger, at about 21. F. W. Deutmann, Zwolle. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Johanna born Gezina Bonger on the 4th October 1862 in Amsterdam, was the fifth of seven siblings.

Her father was an economic editor for a shipping newspaper reporting the value of import goods as coffee and spices.

Johanna instead of her sisters, who were more devoted to domestic works, enriched her education learning English. This helped her to take a degree in languages and to move to London for few months where she was working in the library of the British Museum.

At the age of 22, Johanna was an English teacher and in the same year she was introduced by her brother to the art merchant Theo Van Gogh, who was then making a name for himself as an art dealer in Paris.

Theo was at the forefront, specializing in the breed of young artists as the Impressionists Monet, Renoir or artists as Manet, Gauguin Cézanne, Pissarro, Seurat, Henri Rousseau and Toulouse-Lautrec, painters not considered by most dealers.

Theo Van Gogh after few meetings asked Johanna to marry him. At the beginning she was not really appealed by his proposal, but gradually she developed a deep feeling for him that soon transformed in love and she married him the year later.

Their lives were happy in the Belle Époque in Paris among intellectuals, artists and art dealers.

Theo always admired his elderly brother Vincent, and it is known that for all his entire life he was supporting emotionally and financially the artistic career of his brother.

Vincent van Gogh, in the only known photo of him, at 19. .Jacobus Marinus Wilhelmus de Louw. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
Theo van Gogh, Vincent’s brother, at age 32. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Theo was the one who inviting him to Paris to know in person the Impressionists and Pointillists and introduced him to Paul Gauguin.

Vincent’s mental state had already deteriorated by the time Johanna came on in the life of Theo and just before Christmas in 1888, while Theo and Jo were announcing their engagement, Vincent was in Arles cutting off his ear following a series of rows with his housemate Paul Gauguin.

On March 1889, Theo married Johanna and Vincent was admitted to the hospital of Saint-Rémy and later he moved in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise to the north of Paris, in the care of Dr. Paul Gachet.

In Saint-Rémy, Vincent painted one of his more famous works Almond Blossom. The painting was a gift for his brother and sister-in-law, who had just had a baby son, Vincent Willem.

Vincent Van Gogh, Almond Blossom, Van Gogh Museum, February 1890, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

The flowers, that look almost exploding in the branches, are a real symbol of life as almond trees flower are blossoming early in the spring making them a symbol of new life.

Unsurprisingly, it was this work that remained closest to the hearts of the Van Gogh family.

In the letter announcing the new arrival, Theo wrote: “As we told you, we’ll name him after you, and I’m making the wish that he may be as determined and as courageous as you”.

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-portrait, March-June 1887,Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

In the spring of 1890, Vincent left the hospital to visit his brother and the newborn.

Jo expected an enfeebled mental patient. Instead, she was confronted by the physical embodiment of the spirit that animated the canvases that covered their walls. She wrote in her journal: “Before me was a sturdy, broad-shouldered man with a healthy colour, a cheerful look in his eyes and something very resolute in his appearance, He looks much stronger than Theo, was my first thought”.

Unfortunately, destiny was not fair for the Van Gogh’s brothers.

Vincent died in unclear circumstances in Auvers-sur-Oise on the July 1890 at the age of 37 years old as Raffaello, after a career of painter that lasted just 10 years and with his most famous works painted in the last three years of his life in the middle of mental health crisis.

Three months after Vincent’s death, Theo suffered a complete physical collapse, the latter stages of syphilis he had contracted from earlier visits to brothels. He began hallucinating. His agony was tremendous and ghoulish. He died in January 1891 at the age of 33 years old.

Twenty-one months after her marriage, Johanna was alone with a baby and approximately 400 paintings and several hundred drawings by Vincent.

The brothers’ dying so young, and having Theo in his life managing to sell only a few of his brother paintings would seem to have ensured that Vincent van Gogh’s work would subsist eternally in a netherworld of obscurity.

Since she was alone, Johanna decided to dedicate her life to just to one goal that the works and the life of Vincent Van Gogh were largely known and love.

She saw the opportunity to do some exhibitions and some strategic sells of Vincent’s work to individual or art dealers who would increase the value of the artist. In her project a part of the favourite paintings had to be remove from the sales to be kept in the family.

For this reason, she decided to move to Netherland in the village of Bussum where she opened a boardinghouse to provide to the family but also to have time to dedicate to an important project: reorganise all the correspondences between Theo and Vincent.

A postcard from around 1900. Johanna’s boardinghouse can be seen on the right, Historische Kring Bussum Archives

These letters, from a humble and self-taught painter unaware of the fame he will get, are some of the most touching and exciting of all the literature.

In these letters we can understand the real mission of the artist, his difficulties and victories, his desperate loneliness, the desperate research for company and his immense effort and stress that he used in his work with a delirious energy.

The majority of the letters are the one sending from Vincent to Theo, instead the one from Theo were not preserve by Vincent.

Theo in his letter was always supporting and encouraging his brother, Vincent was sending sketching and ideas for paintings, or telling episode of his life to catch the attention of Theo.

Johanna had experienced a kind of epiphany, while she was organising the letters: the letters of Vincent were the key indicators for his paintings.

A letter from Vincent to Theo, November 1882, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

The letters brought the art and the tragic, intensely lived life together into a single entity.

Johanna decided to translate the letters in Dutch and they were published in three volumes in 1914, later she translated them in French and English.

Another important step was for her to study as a self-taught person the principles of the art criticism.

She corresponded with some artists as Émile Bernard, Vincent’s friend, to try to promote the works of his brother-in-law.

Johanna worked closely with a German editor and art dealer Paul Cassirer and his cousin Bruno to organise exhibitions of Van Gogh in Berlin.

In Netherlands she approached an art critic named Jan Veth, who in addition to being the husband of a friend was at the forefront of the New Guide circle. Veth was outspoken in his rejection of academic art and in promoting individual expression. At first, though, Veth dismissed Vincent’s works as “nearly vulgar”, he changed his mind and helped Johanna to promote the modernity of Vincent’s works.

In 1892 with the support of the painter Richard Roland Holst, she exhibited the first monographic exhibition of Van Gogh.

The catalog cover for Vincent’s first Amsterdam art exhibition, 1892, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Johanna organised more than 100 exhibitions in all Europe where she sold wisely some works of Van Gogh exhibiting them close to some masterpieces, as Starring Night, that were kept in the family collection.

This approach gradually introduced the work of Van Gogh to the public.

Between the 1891 and 1925, She sold almost 200 works by Van Gogh as one of Sunflowers to the National Gallery in London in 1924, underlining the importance that the works of Van Gogh should be in the collections of the most important museums.

In 1905, she arranged a major exhibition of Van Gogh in Amsterdam at the Stedelijk Museum.

It was remembered as well as the largest-ever Van Gogh exhibition, with 484 works.

In the following decade, everyone in the art world seemed to know Vincent not just as an artist but thanks to the translations of his letters almost personally with his tragic lifelong struggle to find and convey beauty and meaning.

The event cemented the artist’s reputation as a major figure of the modern era and the prices for his paintings rose incredibly.

Johanna died in 1925. She was still engaged in translating Vincent’s letters into English.

Following his mother’s death, Vincent Willem Van Gogh assumed full responsibility for the collection of his uncle.

It was important to him that the collection would remain intact and accessible after his death.

That is why he established the Vincent van Gogh foundation and concluded an agreement with the State of the Netherlands to create the Van Gogh Museum.

Vincent Willem Van Gogh in the Van Gogh Museum

In 1973 was opened the Van Gogh Museum, one of the most famous in Amsterdam, that exhibits the biggest collection of Van Gogh in the world including The Potato Eaters, The Sunflowers, The Yellow House and Almond Blossoms.

Vincent Van Gogh, Sunflowers, January 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Vincent Van Gogh, The Yellow house (The Street), September 1888,Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

The Van Gogh museum was the last contribution of the family to realise the ambition of Vincent to democratise his art and to reach into the hearts of common people. He wrote in one of his letters to Theo: “No result of my work would be more agreeable to me, than that ordinary working men should hang such prints in their room or workplace”.

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows, July 1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

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