Friday, May 23, 2008

Joanna Van Gogh and the power of One

Robert Genn is an artist who sends out a weekly blog/newsletter to which I subscribe. His recent post was about Joanna Van Gogh. Joanna was Theo's wife, who survived both of them. Now, most people in the arts are well familiar with Vincent's and Theo's story. Theo was not just Vincent's brother. He was also his link to the world, his confidant, his funding source, as well as his art dealer. It's impossible to put too much value on what Theo has done for the art world by preserving his genius brother's work. Not to mention the invaluable record of Vincent's inner thoughts, dreams and philosophy through the letters they exchanged over the years. However, a story that is almost unknown is the importance of Joanna's dogged determination to have Vincent's work recognized for the Genius that is was. We have Joanna to thank for single handedly championing Vincent's work after his death, and Theo's death a mere six months later. This story illuminates better than any I've heard about the importance of family, as well as the difference one determined person can make on the world. Enjoy...


Joanna Van Gogh

Robert Genn's Twice Weekly Letter
Insight and inspiration for your artistic career.

Dear Artist,

Vincent van Gogh died in 1890. Theo van Gogh, art dealer and brother of Vincent, died six months later, in 1891. Johanna, Theo's wife, inherited all the shop remainders including virtually all of Vincent's work. She soon moved with her small son from Paris to Bussum near Amsterdam. Johanna, age 29, went into distribution mode.

Reading the brothers' correspondence, she became convinced of her brother-in-law's genius and set about to do the right thing by him. "I am living wholly with Theo and Vincent," she wrote in her diary, "Oh, the infinitely delicate, tender and loving quality of that relationship." Placing work in various commercial galleries in the Netherlands, she also arranged for the gifting of works to strategic museums. It was hard going at first--people laughed at Vincent's work. The critics were skeptical at best, but in the end her writings and her persistent, visionary advocacy fanned the Vincent flames. She typed and revised the Theo-Vincent letters, finally publishing many of them in Dutch in 1914. When she died in 1925, she was still working on letter 526. Johanna also assisted in publishing a handbook for detecting Vincent forgeries.

In the "all's well that ends well" story of artists' lives and successes, there are worthwhile prerequisites. Some artists try some of them so the fruits of their labour can be enjoyed while their creators are still walking around. Vincent, who never saw a guilder from his art, had benefit of all five of the prerequisites:

Distinctive, recognizable style
Limited supply (200, plus drawings)
Controlled distribution (one caring person in charge)
Story (failure, poverty, passion, health issues, ear-off)
Tragic, preferably early, end (shot himself, age 37)

A dose of nepotism helps too. The van Goghs and the Bongers (Johanna's maiden name) were educated, professional, well connected and upwardly mobile. Vincent was the black sheep. It was Vincent's publisher-uncle C. M. van Gogh who was first in print with Vincent's story. Another uncle designed the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Johanna was herself a sensitive, literate yet practical type who spoke and wrote beautifully in three languages. After thirty years of hard work, she finally and graciously consented to allow England's National Gallery to buy Vincent's "Sunflowers."

Best regards,


PS: "Everything is but a dream!" (Johanna van Gogh, 1891)

Esoterica: It may take bereavement, another generation, or a canny dealer to see preciousness and perhaps value in a body of work. The combination of hoarding and distribution is part of the art. Work should not be too readily released or made commonly available to just anyone. Stratospheric prices come after the groundwork is laid. After that, as in the National Gallery, "Sunflowers" are now made available on mugs, calendars, shirts and brassieres. Theo and Vincent now lie side by side in the cemetery at Auvers-sur-Oise. If those two idealists hear about those mugs, they'll be rotisserating in their graves.


Incidentally, Bob Dylan's song "Visions of Joanna" found on the 1966 album Blonde on Blonde, was about Joanna Van Gogh and her single handed vision of what Vincent's work could mean to all of us.


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1 comment:

Eckhardt said...

Hi Steve,
yes, it is a amazing story. I only found it sad that they kicked in soo terrible late. If they would have believed in him a bit earlier he could have been still around when his painting became famous.

By the way here is a online link to all the letters of Vincent and Theo, amazing stuff: