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A Vincent van Gogh exhibition in Poland.
A Vincent van Gogh exhibition in Poland. Courtesy photo
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Commentary: The women behind Vincent van Gogh’s art, legacy

By Sheila Cameron

Recently, I surrounded myself with the Post-Impressionist artwork of Vincent van Gogh in “Beyond van Gogh,” a truly wonderful immersive experience depicting his art, color and light at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

I found myself asking, “How did Vincent van Gogh’s art survive and occupy his niche so beloved in the history of art today?” More research revealed the determination and devotion of Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, often referred to as “the other van Gogh.”

Johanna was the wife of Theo van Gogh, a successful art dealer and Vincent’s younger brother. Johanna soon came to realize, understand and respect a deep bond between the two brothers — a bond that came to be shared by the three of them.

Prior to their marriage, Johanna, also from the Netherlands, studied English and attained the equivalent of a college degree before teaching at a pair of girls-only schools. At some point, Johanna’s brother Andries introduced her to Theo van Gogh and they were married in April 1889. The newlyweds moved to Paris where she was surrounded by an exciting new world of art and artists.

The couple’s son, Vincent Willem, was born the following year. Johanna was to describe these 21 months as the happiest and most enlivening period of her life.

Theo supported the family, which allowed Vincent to devote all his time to painting. Johanna shared in this generous spirit and commitment to the artist’s work. Sadly, Vincent passed away at the age of 37 and his brother, Theo, died six months later in January 1891. He was just 33 years old.

Johanna would describe the 21 months of marriage to Theo as the happiest and most enlivening period of her life. The widow was left with an infant son, 400 paintings by Vincent van Gogh, 200 drawings, approximately 2,100 letters from Vincent to his brother Theo and another few hundred of Theo’s letters to Vincent.

The translation of these letters began the lifelong work by Johanna to illuminate Vincent’s words and spread his art to the world.

Johanna relocated to Bussum, a village in the Netherlands, opening a boarding house to support herself and her young son. She reestablished her artistic contacts and worked hard to translate the Van Gogh brothers’ letters from Dutch to French and later, English.

Johanna also organized exhibitions of Vincent’s canvases and loaned his art to exhibitions around the world. She published the first three volumes of the brothers’ letters in 1914. These published letters revealed Vincent’s expression and interpretations of his paintings, which gives us deep insight into his passion while creating his art.

In 1915, Johanna moved to New York City, translating Vincent’s letters into English and attempting to develop the American interest in his art. She left disappointed in 1919, but soon Vincent’s work was acquired by American museums.

Today, “Starry, Starry Night” – at first one of his most ridiculed, and now most beloved canvases — hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Johanna kept almost all of Vincent’s paintings, hanging some of the works in her home and keeping others in a walk-in closet. In 1959, her son, Vincent Willem, negotiated with the Dutch government to take over the collection and protect it in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Today, van Gogh’s descendants own none of the artist’s works, stating the art is for the world to see.

Helene Kröller-Müller, a German art collector and philanthropist, is another woman whose life and passion for Vincent’s art helped create his legacy. Although these two women were contemporaries, there is no indication they ever met.

The nexus between them was through the well-known art dealers Cassirer and Bremmer who Johanna van Gogh-Bonger entrusted with much of Vincent’s art, and who also sold a large number of van Gogh’s works to Kröller-Müller.

In fact, Kröller-Müller was one of the first collectors to recognize the genius of van Gogh, amassing more than 90 van Gogh paintings and 185 drawings — second only to the collection of the aforementioned Van Gogh Museum.

Kröller-Müller also amassed works by modern artists such as Picasso, Braque, Diego Rivera, and Seurat, Paul Gabriel, among many others.

In 1935, Kröller-Müller and her husband, Anton Kröller, donated their entire collection, over 12,000 “objets d’art,” to the Dutch people and opened their property to the public in 1938. The couple’s 75-acre estate, home to the Kröller-Müller Museum in Hoge Veluwe National Park, is Netherlands’ largest national park.

Without the grace and existence of these two women — one who saved, documented, translated and shared van Gogh’s art and the other whose buying power, art appreciation and generosity amassed a national collection — we might be saying:

Vincent who?

Sheila S. Cameron is a former Encinitas mayor and council member.

NOTE: Beyond van Gogh has been extended to May 6 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. 

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