The Making of a Legend
From almost lost in history to changing art forever.
Greatness is a curious thing. On one hand, someone predestined for a life of glory, fame, and riches could easily achieve all of that. But there’s another kind of great. Whether it’s a sheer willingness to work harder than others, constantly overcoming obstacles, or simply the pursuit of purpose in this life—we will always remember these people, even if we weren’t witnesses.
Vincent van Gogh falls into the latter category, but even his extraordinary work was in peril of being lost to time and obscurity. Today, his story bears repeating for all of time, and rightfully so, but we would know very little about one of history’s most talented and enigmatic minds if it wasn’t for a brave, determined, and often forgotten figure in the van Goghs’ history.
This is the legend of Jo van Gogh-Bonger, and how she created a legacy built to last until the end of time. Wife of Theo van Gogh and sister-in-law to Vincent, Jo’s story began in 1862, born in the Netherlands as Johanna Gezina Bonger. Raised in a middle-class Dutch family keen on avoiding the eccentric, Jo found herself safely on the path to becoming an English teacher in her hometown of Amsterdam. But in 1885, she met Theo van Gogh.
Drawn to his intellect, kind soul, and spontaneity, the two married quickly, in 1888. Teaching, albeit a noble career, was not what the universe had planned for Jo, and she knew it too. The newlyweds moved to Paris, and the mundane life that Jo knew was no more. What lay before her was what she always dreamed of for herself—a life surrounded by intellectuals, art, culture, and an acute admiration and curiosity of the world around her. Best of all, it was with Theo, a kind and supportive husband—and brother.
As early as their first meeting, Jo knew of Vincent, his work, and the lengths Theo would go to make sure he was supported. An art dealer by trade, a steady plethora of paintings flowed in from Vincent, but sales rarely followed. The market was thin, and aside from the outside lack of interest in Vincent’s work, Theo also worried constantly about his brother’s physical and mental state of being. Their bond was undeniable, the kind we could only be so lucky to experience once in our lives. Theo loved his brother a thousand times over, as Jo and he even agreed to name their newborn son Vincent. Having received the infamous Starry Night and an imminent trip to Paris from Vincent, Theo, and Jo were hopeful of the times ahead. Though not misguided in their optimism, what followed was anything but.
By 1890, Vincent lay dead of gunshot wounds, his dying breath taken in his loving brother’s arms. By 1891, Theo himself succumbed to his own health problems. Some say his grief was too much. With only her son, hundreds of Vincent’s paintings, and a bounty of letters exchanged by the brothers, Jo was alone—widowed and directionless.
Though not completely ignored, Jo van Gogh-Bonger’s influence on Vincent’s posthumous legend was originally deemed to be minimal at best. We can blame this on art history’s tendency to overlook women as well as Jo’s seemingly minuscule knowledge of selling art. But that’s the beauty of history—a simple look through the crevices can reveal something so unquantifiable and impactful that it can forever change how we look at life’s events.
Theo’s unwavering support of Vincent and his work was undeniable, but even his vast connections and experience with selling art were unable to break through and sell Vincent’s paintings. The work was ahead of its time, and as with many great works, it was greatly misunderstood, therefore only a few were sold prior to the brothers’ deaths. It was Theo’s life mission to not only enlighten the world about his brother’s genius but for the world to recognize Vincent’s work for what it truly was: sublime.
Jo was reeling. She moved to the Dutch village of Bussum, and also made the decision to keep all of van Gogh’s paintings, despite suggestions to leave them in Paris to sell—a small decision in nature, but as we know now a critical first step. Also in her possession were countless letters exchanged by the brothers, and though it wasn’t initially, Jo’s task became abundantly clear.
She dove into the letters, fascinated by the story that lay before her. It was a story of struggle, self-doubt, rebirth, love—and the mind of a genius at work. Through countless hours of study, Jo became proficient in critique, and her time in society was spent around poets, writers, artists, and intellectuals. A year after becoming widowed and with little cultural knowledge to speak of, Jo van Gogh-Bonger would become the catalyst for sharing the story of history’s most renowned and revered artists, and the key was in the letters.
The artwork was, as mentioned, misunderstood and even referred to as “vulgar” by some. But through Vincent’s agonizing and sincere words, the story became clear. This man was a genius, with a mind unlike any other. Jo tirelessly began to impose the will of Theo, Vincent, and herself onto the world. Though reluctant, people began to see, and even Jo herself began to see herself not as the directionless and timid widow from before—but as a champion of Vincent’s vision, a tactical figure in society and in history.
By 1905, with the help of her now 15-year-old son Vincent, the Stedelijk Museum in her hometown of Amsterdam became the venue for a massive showcase, with 484 pieces on display. Organized by Jo, the exhibition was the largest such showcase for van Gogh’s work and remains so to this very day.
There will always be critics. Not everyone will agree with that of van Gogh’s genius, but at least we can now understand. Jo’s legacy was more than that of just an advocate—she was pivotal in helping us see that art isn’t just something to be critiqued, it’s a deep look into a person’s soul. In a way, one can say that Jo’s legend was that she deeply humanized art, and shifted the way that we consume it forever.
History will be kind to Theo and Vincent van Gogh, but it need not forget the force that was Jo van Gogh-Bonger.