By Sarah Bochicchio
Van Gogh Museum
Jo van Gogh-Bonger, Amsterdam, April 1889, Photo by Woodbury and Page, via Wikimedia Commons
How do you know if a museum holds a Van Gogh? Easy: The museum will emblazon the work on plates, scarves, and even iPhone cases. There will be postcards, posters, and Post-its featuring sunflowers and starry nights. Today, the work of Vincent van Gogh is instantly recognizable—and, by extension, highly marketable. Beyond the gift shop, his paintings routinely fetch millions of dollars at auction.
Van Gogh did not reach such renown through the brilliance of his artistry alone, however. Much of the current international fascination with him can be traced back to the work of one woman: Jo van Gogh-Bonger, his sister-in-law. At the time of the Dutch artist’s death in 1890, his genius had little market value, so Jo devised a careful, thoughtful marketing strategy to garner the interest of collectors, museums, critics, and the public. Her work provided a foundation upon which Van Gogh’s fame would continue to grow, eventually reaching unprecedented heights.
Johanna Gezina Bonger, who went by Jo, was born in October 1862 to a middle-class family in Amsterdam. Known to her family as “Net,” Jo lived a relatively quiet life with her parents and nine siblings. She attended primary school, learned to play the piano, and earned a teaching diploma. In 1887, she was teaching English at a girl’s school when Theo van Gogh, the artist’s sibling and her brother’s friend, passionately proposed to her after a short, infrequent acquaintance. In a letter written the same year, Theo confessed to a love-at-first-sight scenario—that “the first time [he] laid eyes” on Jo, he saw something that he “had sought out in vain in others.”
But to Jo, the proposal came as a surprise—and not a welcome one. “I could not say ‘yes’ to something like that,” Jo wrote in her diary, following the impassioned incident. She was attracted to the idea of the varied, intellectual life offered by Theo, but not to the man himself. “Why does my heart feel numb when I think of him!” she wrote.
However awkward the rejection must have been, Jo agreed to let Theo write to her. The pair exchanged more than 70 letters over almost two years, and their connection deepened until Jo, too, fell in love. In 1889, the couple married, moved to Paris, and, one year later, welcomed a little boy, Vincent Willem, named for Theo’s dear brother.
But the couple’s happiness did not last. In July 1890, Vincent van Gogh was shot in the abdomen (most believe he shot himself) and died at age 37. Ill and heartbroken, Theo died six months later. By January 1891, the 28-year-old Jo van Gogh was widowed and left to care for both a one-year-old child and stacks of her brother-in-law’s artwork. Hans Luijten, Jo’s biographer, paints an image of her sitting “there in Paris on the third floor with hundreds of paintings and hundreds of drawings and thousands of letters.”
When Theo died, Jo and her son inherited all of Vincent’s work—and the work it would take to honor him. While “artists around him knew him, admired him, [and] appreciated him, they just didn’t have the money,” says Kimberly A. Jones, curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Jo recognized the value of his work, but, in the market, he hadn’t yet received the recognition he deserved.
To achieve that rightful recognition for Vincent, Jo would have to publicize and protect his oeuvre. “A lot of people were encouraging her to sell the art, to be done with it,” adds Jones. But Theo had been Vincent’s patron, in addition to his brother and confidante. Rather than dump the works and move on, Jo decided to complete what her late husband had started. Vincent became her cause. In 1891, Jo wrote in her journal that she was “not without things to do,” for she was obligated to “Vincent’s work: to make sure that it is seen and appreciated as much as possible.”
Jo took a multi-pronged approach to widen appreciation for Vincent van Gogh. First, she left France and moved to Holland, where she started a boarding house in Bussum, a village outside of Amsterdam. The business provided the financial support she needed to care for her child. But why did she pick Bussum as the place to embark upon the journey of bringing Van Gogh’s art to the world?
Simple: It was an artistic and intellectual hub. “There were all kinds of art critics living there,” Luijten says. Among the village’s residents was Jan Veth, a painter, poet, critic, professor, and friend to Jo. He was prominent among Dutch art circles, and his Bussum home was a salon of sorts. Jo once referred to his home as “the center of civilization.”……………..