JOHANNA: THE OTHER VAN GOGH
AN UNCOMMON ADVOCATE
“…In thought I am living wholly with Theo and Vincent, oh, the infinitely delicate,
tender and lovely [quality] of that relation. How they felt for each other, how they
understood each other, and oh, how touching Vincent’s dependence at times – Theo
never let him feel it, but now and then he feels it himself, and then his letters are very
sad – often I wept over them. My darling – my dear – dear Theo – at every word, between
every two lines, I am thinking of you – how you made me part of yourself in the short
time we were together – I am still living with you, by you. May your spirit go on
inspiring me, then everything will be all right with our little fellow.
Who will write that book about Vincent?…”
—Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, 1892
On the evening of July 27, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh walked into a field near Auvers-sur Oise, in France, and shot himself with a revolver. He lingered until the morning of July 29, his beloved brother Theo at his side. He was only 37 years old. His last words to Theo were, “La tristesse durera toujours” (the sadness will last forever). Six months, later, Theo too died at just 33 years of age.
Left behind, and with the awesome task of preserving a legacy virtually unmatched in the history of art, was one of the least celebrated souls in the extraordinary and tragically brief life of Vincent Van Gogh — his sister-in-law, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger. Had it not been for this remarkable woman, virtually nothing of the illustrious Vincent we know of today would remain, for she became custodian (on behalf of her infant son) of his immense collection of over two thousand paintings, sketches, and illustrations. Moreover, she was to preserve and chronicle at least 900 hand-written letters without which we would never have come to understand the devoted relationship and inter-dependency Vincent had with his brother Theo, nor the remarkable beneficence that lay at the very core of the Van Gogh family as a whole. Most importantly, we would never have come to know the uncommon genius that was Vincent van Gogh. The letters, publicly exhibited for the first time at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in November, 2009, were also to prove crucial in dispelling many of the apocryphal stories that were later to surround the artist’s life—stories that crassly portrayed him as some madman whose art betrayed his fractured and frenzied soul rather than the highly intelligent man he in fact was.
Johanna had realized that Vincent’s letters to Theo were crucial to our understanding of Vincent yet she did not want their powerful message to eclipse his art, withholding them from public scrutiny for nearly twenty-four years until Vincent’s reputation as an artist was safely established. Johanna’s astute concern, care, and dedication to preserving the very essence of Vincent Van Gogh were manifested in a way of which he would have approved: through action.
In 1914, while living in Amsterdam, she wrote of how she had first discovered the letters:
“When as Theo’s young wife I entered in April, 1889, our flat in the Cité Pigalle in Paris, I found in the bottom of a small desk a drawer full of letters from Vincent, and week after week I saw the soon familiar yellow envelopes with the characteristic handwriting increase in number. After Vincent’s death Theo discussed with me the project of publishing these letters, but death took him away ere he could begin to execute this plan. Nearly twenty-four years passed after Theo’s death before I was able to complete their publication. Much time was necessary to decipher the letters and to arrange them; this was the more difficult because often the dates failed, and much careful thought was needed before these letters were fitted into their place. There was another reason, however, which kept me from making them known earlier. It would have been an injustice to Vincent to create interest in his personality ere the work to which he gave his life was recognized and appreciated as it deserved. Many years passed before Vincent was recognized as a great painter. Now it is time his personality was known and understood. May the letters be read with consideration.”
Johanna’s prudence in her handling of Vincent’s letters and art was born from her understanding of the complex motives which drove her passionate and gifted brother-in-law, and the close, committed relationship between Vincent and Theo. But she was also astutely aware of the importance of Vincent’s work in that he had bequeathed to posterity not just a phenomenal body of paintings and drawings but also a message—almost an appeal—of kindness and compassion for one’s fellow man. This concept was not Johanna’s alone; it is self-evident when one reads Vincent’s erudite exchanges between Theo, Johanna, members of the Van Gogh family, and all those who were touched by his soul. Writing to a friend, Johanna once said:
“The letters have taken a large place in my life already, since the beginning of Theo’s illness. The first lonely evening which I spent in our home after my return I took the package of letters. I knew that in them I should find him again. Evening after evening that was my consolation after the miserable days. It was not Vincent whom I was seeking but Theo. I drank in every word, I absorbed every detail. I not only read the letters with my heart, but with my whole soul. And so it has remained all the time. I have read them, and reread them, until
I saw the figure of Vincent clearly before me. Imagine for one moment my experience, when I came back to Holland—realizing the greatness and the nobility of that lonely artist’s life. Imagine my disappointment at the indifference which people showed, when it concerned Vincent and his work…Sometimes it made me very sad. I remember how last year, on the day of Vincent’s death, I went out late in the evening. The wind blew, it rained, and it was pitch-dark. Every- where in the houses I saw light and people gathered around the table. And I felt so forlorn that for the first time I understood what Vincent must have felt in those times, when everybody turned away from him, when he felt ‘as if there were no place for him on earth…’ I wished that I could make you feel the influence Vincent had on my life. It was he who helped me to accommodate my life in such a way that I can be at peace with myself. Serenity—this was the favorite word of both of them, the something they considered the highest. Serenity—I have found it. Since that winter, when I was alone, I have not been unhappy— ’sorrowful yet always rejoicing,’ that was one of his expressions, which I have come to understand now.”
Vincent had always longed for a close family. This became a tangible reality twice in his life: once when he had taken in, along with her two illegitimate children, the poor and abandoned Sien Hoornik, a Dutch woman from a criminally-minded family encouraged by her own mother to practice prostitution; then, at end of his life, with his brother Theo, Johanna and his little nephew and namesake. His role in these familial relationships, and the strong bonds that emerged from them, were significant. They have also been the source of much speculation by historians and biographers. What made the latter of these relationships especially complicated was that the adults were enmeshed in a precarious web of financial interdependency just as Theo and Johanna’s child arrived. Vincent relied almost entirely on Theo’s monetary support, and sought to earn it with the prolificacy of his art.
Despite this, and on the eve of an intense and risky childbirth (which by some estimates lasted 14 hours), Johanna wrote a deeply touching, rarely quoted letter to Vincent. She had been told that the birth would come at a real risk to her life. She was at the time just twenty- eight years old, and was a petite, delicately framed woman, and the infant was situated awkwardly in her womb. Her doctor may have even suggested that she put her final affairs in order in case she didn’t survive the ordeal. This was no doubt very disturbing for poor Johanna considering that this was not only her first child…it might well be her last. Johanna had only been married to Theo a little over a year at this point. Nevertheless, her letter demonstrated that she was an integral part of their symbiosis, and she was clearly a person of great sensibility.
Wednesday Night, January 30, 1890
Ever since Christmas it has been my intention, day after day, to write you— there is even a half-finished letter to you in my writing case—and even now, if I should not make haste to write you this letter, you would get the news sooner that your little namesake had arrived. Before this moment, however, I want to say good night to you. It is precisely midnight—the doctor has gone to sleep for a while, for tonight he prefers to stay in the house—Theo, Mother and Wil are sitting around the table with me—awaiting future events—it is such a strange feeling—over and over again that question, will the baby be here by to- morrow morning? I cannot write much, but I so dearly wanted to have a chat with you…Tonight—and all through these days for that matter—I have been wondering so much whether I have really been able to do something to make Theo happy in his marriage—he certainly has me. He has been so good to me, so good—if things should not turn out well—if I should have to leave him— then you must tell him—for there is nobody on earth he loves so much—that he must never regret that he married me, for he has made me, oh, so happy. It is true that such a message sounds sentimental—but I cannot tell him now— for half of my company has fallen asleep, he too, for he is so very tired. Oh, if I could give him a healthy sweet little boy, wouldn’t that make him happy! I think I shall stop now, for I have attacks of pain every now and then which prevent me from thinking or writing in an orderly way. When you receive this all will be over. Believe me,
Yours affectionately, Jo.
The dire circumstances under which this letter was written and the poignant message it conveyed must have been the source of great anxiety for Vincent. Prior to his own birth, an older brother—also named Vincent Willem Van Gogh—had been stillborn and now, upon receiving Johanna’s letter, it must have seemed to him that birth and death had ominously convened again.
Still, it is a measure of Johanna’s respect for the devotion between the two brothers, as well as her own solicitude for Vincent, that she wrote this letter four months before she had actually met him, and just six months before his death. In fact, Johanna was to only meet Vincent face-to-face twice, once on May 17, 1890, and again on June 10. She later described that first encounter, and the impressions she had of Vincent.
“I had expected to see a sick man, but here was a sturdy, broad-shouldered man, with a healthy color, a smile on his face, and a very resolute appearance; of all the self-portraits, the one before the easel is most like him at that period…Then Theo drew him into the room where our little boy’s cradle was; he had been named after Vincent. Silently the two brothers looked at the quietly sleeping baby—both had tears in their eyes. Then Vincent turned smilingly to me and said, pointing to the simple crocheted cover on the cradle, “Do not cover him too much with lace, little sister.” He stayed three days, and was cheerful and lively all the time. St. Remy was not mentioned…The first morning he was up very early and was standing in his shirtsleeves looking at his pictures, of which our apartment was full. The walls were covered with them…”
Vincent’s letters and the testimony of Johanna portray a very different story than the popular tale of the mad artist who cuts off his ear. What emerges instead is a story of selfless loyalty, the epitome of the Gospel’s sacred counsel—”love one another”.
This was the core not only of Vincent’s ethics; it was also the foundation of his aesthetic stance. Tangible expression of such transcen- dental themes appeared in his first masterpiece The Potato Eaters com- pleted at the very beginning of his career. We find these themes with even greater validity in his late paintings, such as The Starry Night, of 1889, and The Resurrection of Lazarus, of 1890. One senses a soaring spirituality rounded with human and divine love.
This understanding of Vincent does not overtly appear in many accounts of his life, nor is its traditional sensibility something that seems familiar in our own times. In the early 1900s, when the previous century was being documented, there was a significant erosion of a belief in morality. Bear in mind that Johanna first published Vincent’s letters in 1914 at the outset of the First World War, and when the world was facing great despair. It is easy to understand why in the ensuing years many historians, in telling Vincent’s story, would neglect elements of his life that spoke of faith and commitment. Such values were enshrouded by the horrific carnage and devastation on a scale never before seen in human history. People’s minds were just elsewhere.
However, the strong moral outlook of Vincent’s letters, found too in Johanna’s memoirs written decades after the artist’s death, spoke strongly to the very human spirit that was in dire jeopardy in those dark times. Perhaps our own private fore- bodings—fueled by the crises and moral dilemmas of our times today—can find sustenance in the innate and profound compassion of Vincent van Gogh.