Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Johanna van Gogh-Bonger and the Creation of Vincent van Gogh

Johanna Gesina van Gogh-Bonger (died 2 September 1925)

I had never heard of Johanna Gesina van Gogh-Bonger until recently, when I was watching an episode of the series Raiders of the Lost Art, broadcast on Ovation. The episode was nominally on the work of Vincent van Gogh, but a significant amount of it wasn't really about him at all--rather, it focused on the woman who was his sister-in-law, married to his brother Theo. 

Johanna Gesinga van Gogh-Bonger
And the documentary made it pretty clear that, without Johanna Gesina van Gogh-Bonger, today there would be no Vincent van Gogh.* As the episode promo put it, "When Van Gogh died he was a complete unknown, his paintings fetching under 10 dollars. So how did his works become some of the most revered and expensive in the world?"

Well educated, experienced (she worked for a time at the British Museum, in London), and an accomplished musician, Johanna Gesina Bonger was born in Amsterdan on 4 October 1862, the fifth of seventh children. She was also a teacher and a careful diarist.

While living with her brother in Paris, she was introduced to his friend, the art dealer Theo van Gogh. She married him in Amsterdam on 17 April 1889. The couple lived in Paris, where Johanna gave birth to their son, Vincent William, on 31 January 1890. (The most complete account of the life of Johanna van Gogh-Bonger comes from a memoir, written by her son, which you can read in full by clicking here.)

In June of 1890, Johanna and her family visited Vincent van Gogh in the outlying Auvers-sur-Oise. He died of a gun shot, possibly self-inflicted, on 29 July 1890. Theo died six months later, 25 January 1891. At twenty-nine years old, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger was a widow with a small child--and the entire stock of her husband's art business, including virtually all the work of Vincent van Gogh, "a great number of pictures, which at the time were looked upon as having no value at all."

But, though there was no market for van Gogh's work, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger did not think it was worthless. By November, she had relocated to Bussum, a "small village" near Amsterdam, because, as she said, it offered "healthy" and "fresh" air for her son. And rather than disposing of Vincent's unsold work, as she had been advised, she had kept it. 

Her first duty, as she wrote, was to care for her child--and, to that end, she opened a boarding house, determined that she would not be "degraded" by becoming a "household drudge." Rather, she would remember her husband and Vincent's art: "Theo taught me much about art, no let me rather say--he has taught me much about life. Besides the care for the child he left me with yet another task, Vincent’s work--to show it and to let it be appreciated as much as possible. All the treasures that Theo and Vincent collected--to preserve them inviolate for the child--that also is my task."

In addition to opening her home to boarders, she supported herself and her son by translating short fiction from English and French into Dutch. She re-established contacts with friends and artists with whom her husband had worked in his days as an art dealer, she organized and catalogued the extraordinary correspondence between Theo and Vincent (much of it undated), she opened her home in Bussum to artists and intellectuals who could then see Vincent's art, and she began writing again in her diary.

By February 1892 she had arranged for an exhibit of van Gogh's work in Amsterdam, and she had also placed a number of his paintings with dealers. In March a picture was sold, and she was planning an exhibition at The Hague (it opened in May). By the end of the month, there was an exhibition in Rotterdam. Her diary was filled with such entries, chronicling her efforts to gain an audience for van Gogh's work. 

Johanna Gesinga van Gogh-Bonger,
painted in 1905 by her second husband,
Johan Cohen Gosschalk
In January 1901 she married again, her husband the Dutch painter Johan Cohen Gosschalk, and with him, in 1903, she returned to Amsterdam. (She would be widowed for a second time in 1912.) Still her extraordinary work to promote the work of Vincent van Gogh continued--often without success. 

By 1905 she was able to present an exhibit of 474 of Vincent van Gogh’s works in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. She rented and paid for the gallery herself, and in his memoir of his mother, her son recalls that during the two-month exhibition "there were two thousand visitors."

Even so, as her son notes, "At the time the Rijksmuseum at Amsterdam declined a loan of any picture by Vincent; it only would expose two drawings if they were offered as a gift." And, while in 1910 "Vincent's paintings were shown for the first time in London at the Post-Impressionist Exhibition," the reaction wasn't always positive: "many people still laughed at them." 

In addition to arranging for shows in galleries and making gifts strategically to museums, Johanna was also at work translating the correspondence between Theo and Vincent from French into Dutch. The first Dutch edition of part of the correspondence was published in 1914.

In 1915 she moved to New York where, her son remembers, she began the process of translating the correspondence into English. She stayed in New York for four years, returning to Holland in 1919. She died on 2 September, 1925, still at work: "At her death, September 2, 1925, she had reached letter 526."

Johanna Gesinga van Gogh-Bonger,
painted in 1925 by the Dutch painter
Isaac Israƫls
The van Gogh episode of Raiders of the Lost Art (called "Van Gogh's Guardian"), previously broadcast on Ovation, is now (as of September 2015) on Netflix. (Viewing this series has proven to be a bit of a problem--as of September 2021, it is no longer on Netflix, but at least some of the episodes are available free through Kanopy. Sheesh!)

And, while Johanna spent so many years organizing, transcribing, editing, translating, and publishing the letters that her husband and her brother-in-law exchanged, there is now a volume of the letters that she exchanged with Theo van Gogh before they were married: Brief Happiness: The Correspondence of Theo Van Gogh and Jo Bonger. While it is prohibitively expensive, it might be something you would want to request via Interlibrary Loan.

You might enjoy Van Gogh’s Enduring Legacy and the Remarkable Woman Who Changed the History of Art, by William Havlicek and David A. Glen, to be published later this year in a limited edition.**

*Although her family name was Bonger, and her name at birth was Johanna Gesina Bonger, her son uses "Johanna Gesina van Gogh-Bonger," so that's the form I've used here.

**This book, published in 2016, seems particularly difficult to find.

Update, 14 April 2021: An excellent new piece was published in the New York Times today, Russell Shorto's "The Woman Who Made Vincent Van Gogh": "Neglected by art history for decades, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, the painter’s sister-in-law, is finally being recognized as the force who opened the world’s eyes to his genius." To read it, click here.